Isabella d'Este's motto and the V&A Visconti-Sforza cards...


The words on the Ace of Cups read: Nec spe nec metu.

From: Isabella d'Este: Marchioness of Mantua 1474-1539 a Study of the Renaissance Vol. 1
On the Marchesa's return home, the alarming increase of the plague compelled her to leave Mantua and take her children to the villa of Sacchetta, where they spent the summer months. Here, on her birthday, the 16th of May, she received a present of exceptional interest in the shape of a treatise, composed by Mario Equicola, on her favourite motto, Nec spe nec metu.

The Marchesa, as we have already seen, in common with most Italian lords and ladies of the age, was in the habit of adopting special devices and mottoes. The musical notes which gave expression to her love of music, the candelabra bearing the motto Sufficit unum in tenebris which Paolo Giovio suggested, and which were embroidered in gold on her festal robes, may still be seen among the decorations of her camerini at Mantua. There too, inscribed in quaint characters, we may read the words of her favourite motto, Nec spe nec metu, by which she expressed that serene equanimity and philosophic frame of mind to which she aspired, neither elated by hope nor cast down by fear. She chose this motto for her own as early as 1504, when, at the request of her friend Margherita Cantelma, she gave one of the Imperial ambassadors who visited Mantua and Ferrara gracious permission to use the words in writing and in his armorial bearings and on the liveries of his servants, "we ourselves," she wrote at the time, "being the inventor of this motto, and having adopted it as our peculiar device." In the following autumn Mario Equicola, the Calabrian secretary of Margherita Cantelma, who had followed her and Sigismondo to Ferrara, and was often employed by the Este princes, wrote from Blois to inform Isabella that he had written a book on this device, and only awaited her permission to publish the work.

"Most illustrious Lady, -- It was the custom of ancient authors to seek for noble and excellent subjects in order to render their works immortal. Signora mia, although I am only a poor man of letters, I thank God, who has allowed me to serve Your Excellency, from whose rare talents and lively wit I hope some of my writings may acquire fame and authority. In this firm hope, I have composed a book of some forty sheets, in interpretation of Nec spe nec metu, making mention of the words on every page. In the said book I introduce discussions on the meaning of this motto, which will show Your Signory the methods of ancient poetry, philosophy, and theology, connecting Nec Nec nec metu with each in turn, and praising this motto above all others ever composed. I beg you to give me leave to publish and print this little work, and if you wish, will send it to you before it is published. I await your pleasure, certifying that the twenty-seven chapters on this inscription are nearly finished, after which I will illustrate the musical signs."

Mario had apparently divided his book into twenty-seven paragraphs, in allusion to the mystic number XXVIL., vinte sette, another device adopted by Isabella, which, we learn from Paolo Giovio, signified that all the sects (sette) of her enemies were conquered (vinte). Isabella readily gave the desired permission, and the book, printed and bound in elegant covers, was presented to her by Margherita Cantelma on her next birthday. "Your letter and the book which Madonna Margherita sent us," wrote Isabella in reply, "are a more delightful birthday present than any gift of gold or other precious things,since you have thereby exalted our little device to sublime heights."
He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy...

Re: Isabella d'Este's motto and the V&A Visconti-Sforza cards...

hi Pen,

I earlier searched a longer time for somebody else, who might have used the relevant motto "Nec spe nec metu". I didn't found somebody ... which somehow led to the conclusion, that these cards might be later than the time, when Isabelle adapted the motto (which is generally said to have happened 1504/05).

With this we're very near to the period, when Alfonso in 1505 ordered the Taroch cards in June 1505, also near to the death of Ercole d'Este (father of Isabelle and Alfonso) in January 1505, and the whole d'Este brother crisis, which shocked Italy in 1505/06 (two brothers went to prison for nearly all their later life) - a general phase of new orientation in the family.
Isabella had then the custom to play with cards in the evenings. In her studiolo she had a sort of writing desk, in which she collected - between other worthwhile small objects - nice playing cards. So Isabella was one of the earliest known playing card collectors, another, who is known for a playing card collection is Hartmann Schedel, who made 1493 Nurremberg world chronic.
Times were dangerous ... soon another Italian war started and Isabella's husband was strongly involved in it, for some time he went into captivity.
In the later time, the descend of Isabella became important for the spread of Tarocchi to France, a Gonzaga-Nevers princess ordered to write the first known Tarot rules 1637, before she became Polish queen, and another became Empress in Austria .. and Austria became a Tarock imperium, which still endures till nowadays.

Boiardo, active at Ferrara, where Isabella grew up, wrote a poem (assumed to have been written 1487, two years before Isabella married), in which he realized the stoic passions love - hope (spes) - jealousy - fear (Boiardo uses "timor", but "metu" has a similar meaning) as a suit system for cards. Possibly Isabella referred to this stoic system, when she made the choice for the motto "nec spe nec metu".

For the cards it likely means, that they were not produced before 1505.

Re: Isabella d'Este's motto and the V&A Visconti-Sforza cards...

Apparently John Shephard once argued that the card was actually the World!

He also apparently found connections between the Este and Colleoni families (the shield is Bartolomeo Colleoni - 1400-1475).

"Shephard maintains that the pack from which these four cards come was a baptismal gift. The father of Isabella, Ercole d'Este, duke of Ferrara, was the uncle of Niccolò da Correggio, whose wife was Cassandra, daughter of the famous condottiero Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400-1476). In 1492, at the baptism of Isotta, daughter of Niccolò and Cassandra, the marquis Francesco II Gonzaga, husband of Isabella, held the baby in his arms at the baptismal font. Shephard believes that this occasion is the reason for which these cards were made."
(Dummett, Il Mondo e l'Angelo (1993), p. 60. (my translation))

He notes two articles of Shephard's where he developed these arguments, in 1988.

"The Guildhall Sun", The Playing Card, XVI, 1988, pp. 84-86.
"The Lance and the Fountain: Some Variant Forms of the World", The Playing Card, XVII, 1988, pp. 54-57.

The following discussion of Isabella's use of the motto is from Stephen John Campbell, The Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting in the Studiolo of Isabella d'Este, (Yale UP, 2004), pp. 77-78.


He also notes Seneca's use of a similar sentiment in note 71 (p. 324): "In De Constantia Sapientis, the Roman writer [Seneca] advocated an emotional neutrality, a rigorous detachment from the opposed perturbations of Hope and Fear: the wise man is he "qui nescit nec in spem nec in metum vivere."

The phrase "nec spe nec metu" occurs in a Latin translation of Lucian (of Samosata), "Life of Demonax" (Demonactis Vita), of which the earliest I can find was made by Lapo da Castiglioncho (he only lived 1405-1438).

Interrogatus a quodam Demonax, quis nam suo iudicio faelicitatis Terminus haberetur, Dixit solum liberum esse faelicem. Illo dicente multos esse liberos, "At illum, inquit, puto qui nec timet aliquid nec sperat". "Qui istud, inquit, ille fieri potest? ut plurimum enim omnes istis servimus" . "At vero, respondit Demonax, Si animadvertas hominum res invenies Vtique eas nec spe nec metu dignas.

(Avendogli domandato un tale quale fosse per lui la definizione della felicità: "Felice - rispose - è soltanto l'uomo libero"; e replicando quello che ci sono molti uomini liberi, “Ma io penso a quello che non spera né teme alcunche”; e l’altro, “Come potrebbe ciò un uomo - chiese -, quando tutti per lo più siamo schiavi della speranza e del timore?" "Eppure - concluse lui-, se tu considerassi i casi degli uomini, troveresti che non meritano né speranza né timore.")

Roberto Gianolio, Monete e medaglie di Mantova e dei Gonzaga dal XII al XIX secolo: la collezione della Banca Agricola mantovana (Electa, 1996) p. 160.

Lucian, Life of Demonax,
“Asked for a definition of Happiness, he said that only the free was happy. 'Well,' said the questioner, 'there is no lack of free men.'--'I count no man free who is subject to hopes and fears.'--'You ask impossibilities; of these two we are all very much the slaves.' 'Once grasp the nature of human affairs,' said Demonax, 'and you will find that they justify neither hope nor fear, since both pain and pleasure are to have an end.'”
(trans. Fowler, 1905)

Who first translated Lucian into Latin? This might suggest where both Bartolomeo Colleoni and Isabella d’Este got it.
(it might be in Gianolo’s footnote, but I can’t see that)

“Demonactis vita”

Christine Lauvergnat-Gagnière notes “Paris, B.N., Ms. lat. 1616, f. 20 et sq.”, containing Demonax, translated by Lapo da Castiglioncho the Younger (1405-1438)
(Lucien de Samosate et le Lucianisme en France au XVIe siècle (Droz, 1988) p. 349)

Another one by him at Rimini, Kristeller Iter Italicum 2, p. 88; “A II 25” (Lapus Castelliunculus)

Re: Isabella d'Este's motto and the V&A Visconti-Sforza cards...

Interesting points, Ross .... I didn't know about them.

Guarino was rather fond of Lucian and influenced Alberti, who wrote at least 3 works in Lucianic style, between them the Momus. In this the Cynic ideal is expressed ("the beggar is the best role in life") similar to the Demonax, from which it seems to be assumed (at least occasionally), that he was a figure invented by Lucian.

Guarino was rather fundamental for Ferrara, so no problem for Isabella to know about him

Demonax is a rather short text, likely one cannot exclude, that Guarino knew about it ... even if it wouldn't have been translated.

But what is meant with "shield of Colleoni"?

Re: Isabella d'Este's motto and the V&A Visconti-Sforza cards...

Huck wrote: But what is meant with "shield of Colleoni"?
The shield beneath the fountain/cup. This is why many people date the deck to 1460-1470, to sit comfortably within Colleoni's lifetime, but after the Visconti-Sforza was made.



See e.g. -

"The Colleoni coat of arms is fascinating because, punning on his own name which sounds similar to coglioni (testicles), Bartolomeo included three sets of them :D Judging from his biography, he certainly had "balls"... ... italy.html

Re: Isabella d'Este's motto and the V&A Visconti-Sforza cards...

Ross G. R. Caldwell wrote:In her 1987 article on the cards, Giuliana Algeri speculated that the cards were originally made for Colleoni, but that Isabella d'Este later owned the cards and added her own motto (Giordano Berti, Andrea Vitali, eds., Le carte di corte: I tarocchi: Gioco e magia alla corte degli estensi (Nuova Alfa, 1987), p. 42).
We have another "nec spe nec metu" with the Rosenthal Tarocchi (Kaplan p. 99) ...


... and again we have the Colleoni shield on this card, which is the same, the ace of cups, in other words the fountain of love ... an association, which fits quite well with the 6 balls of Colleoni.





But we have also the typical Visconti viper as a card and also the typical "a bon droit" and everybody naturally also concludes, that it is a Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi. And then ... somewhere we have a French Lille with a Catherine wheel connected to Fortezza (which in its style was used by various minor houses) and a sun very near to that of sun cards in the strange Goldschmidt and Guildhall cards and also to this one, which is also a not solved riddle ...


... so that's a nice potpourri.

Algeri has right, that Isabella d'Este might have generated the "motto on cards" later. But if this was so, then she made it with two decks - at least. But if one accepts two decks to be "changed", why not consider, that Isabella was responsible for a series of decks?
Right ... there is a lot of Milan in the Rosenthal deck. But in 1512 Isabella took a very big role in the installment of Maximilian Sforza as new duke of Milan. And perhaps Isabella thought it appropriate, that a new Sforza at the throne of Milan would need a new Trionfi deck. As Maximilian surely hadn't the taste and the time to generate one, perhaps she followed her own ideas. Under such a condition the product would have a little bit from Isabella herself, and other parts from earlier Milanese decks.

Colleoni ... in c. 1475 the artist Giovanni Antoio Amadeo worked for Colleoni AND Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who both had been foes a short time before. For Colleoni he worked at the Colleoni chapel in Bergamo, and he made reliefs of the Adam+Eve story and Hercules scenes. Between them is also this work, a sort of love fountain (as far it is recognizable) with putti:

Putti and love fountain are also at the Trionfi cards with the heraldic device of Colleoni. If I assume, that Isabella made the deck for Massimiliano, I would interpret, that Isabella gave the advice to have peace with Venice - as Galeazzo Maria and Colleoni made peace after their fight. And for the French Lille and the Fortezza castle at the sun card I would assume, that Isabella gave the advice, to build castles against a possible new French invasion in later times.

Then we've phenomenons like the Alessandro Sforza deck and its partly more or less identity to the Charles VI deck, but with definite "creative elements" in form of different trumps like the strange Temperantia and the varied Chariot. As we know for sure now Florence exported ... likely also expensive decks like the Charles VI. So Alessando Sforza adopted the Charles VI according his own taste, not wondering, if later Tarocchi researchers would have problems with it.

Well, I would doubt, that, if the motto "nec spe, nec metu" had appeared earlier at foreign (Milanese Sforza) playing cards, that Isabella would have taken the motto personally - especially not in 1504, when the case of the Sforza seemed to have been totally lost.

Re: Isabella d'Este's motto and the V&A Visconti-Sforza cards...

The Rosenthal set seems interesting, but I don't know how useful it is since all we know of it is contained in that photograph and Kaplan's brief information.

Dummett, in 1993, could only shed a little more light on it.

"Kaplan does not provide the dimensions of the original cards, nor the provenance of the photograph. He says that the last owner of the set, from just before the Second World War, was an English antiquarian named Rosenthal, and claims that in 1939 the set was offered to an important American collector who refused because of doubts about its authenticity. Mister Albi Rosenthal of Oxford, who is probably the English antiquarian Kaplan refers to, informed me that in the 1920s his father sold some hand-painted Italian tarocchi to the Swiss collector Hardt, but that he had no idea of what happened to the Hardt collection. He also told me that, at some point afterwards, there were shown, in his London office on Curzon Street, some hand-painted 15th century tarocchi, but they were undoubtedly false. It is not clear which of these two groups, presuming it was either, is that called "Rosenthal cards" by Kaplan and reproduced by him."
(Il Mondo e l'Angelo, p. 67)

I'm hesitant to build a theory around them without more information.

If they are authentic, they are one of the best preserved decks from the 15th century, and their physical condition seems to be nearly perfect, judging by the photograph. If I were the owner and I really believed they were authentic, I would have had them analyzed by experts by now.

Albi (Albrecht) Rosenthal died in 2004. See, e.g. - ... nthal.html ... Rosenthal/

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