Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Castle of Malpaga

Game of Triumphs or Cartomancy with Triumphs?


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, June 2013


To Bartolomeo Colleoni (1395-1475), who had served the Republic of Venice as Captain General, the city government in 1455 offered the option to choose for his dwelling a castle that was located on the border between the same Republic and the Duchy of Milan, so as to be able intervene in case of attacks by the Sforza.


Colleoni chose instead to purchase from the City of Bergamo the Castle Malpaga for 100 gold ducats. Since with the invention of gunpowder, the castle could certainly not be regarded as a defensive bulwark, Colleoni raised its walls, armed it with a second moat and fortified the gates. For his troops he built houses, and stables for the horses. In a short time it assumed the appearance of a real citadel dominated in the center by the residence of the owner, called a "beautiful palazo" by Marin Sanudo, “Malpaga castello habitato olim dil Cap. generalle bergamasco, nunc di Alessandro de Martinengo, conductor de 100 cavalli ne l'exercito, è quadro, à do man di fosse; la prima con mure di là et di qua, et dentro atorno é tutto stalle; poi per un altro ponte levador, con fosse di acqua, é il castello, bello palazo con camere e salle adornato; ivi è il Capitaneo retracto; à una torre dove si fa la guarda: à zardin magnifico” (Malpaga castle, inhabited for some time by the Cap. general of Bergamo, now by Alessandro de Martinengo, conductor of 100 horses in Exercises, is square, with two moats, the first with walls here and beyond, and nearby inside are all the stables, and then [after] another drawbridge, which is over water, is the castle, beautiful palazo with decorated rooms and halls, the Capitan’s Retreat is there; where from a tower the guard is kept: it has a magnificent garden) (1).


                            Castello di Malpaga


The castle, which become almost a palace thanks to the intervention of famous artists of probable Burgundian origin, who frescoed rooms and halls, became a kind of 'delight' where hunts, tournaments, banquets and many other pleasant activities were the order of  the day. It was famous for, among others, the visit in 1474 of Christian I, King of Denmark, traveling from a 'pilgrimage' to Rome accompanied by the Duke of Saxony, which he made to Colleoni to pay homage to him, who came to meet him with 500 riders. Other famous personalities hosted by Colleoni were Borso d'Este, Francesco Sforza and Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.


After the death of Colleoni, his grandson Alessandro Martinengo commissioned Romanino and Fagiolino, famous artists of the time, to paint the court and the banquet hall. In this period (1520) was the famous visit of King Christian, and what happened in days of hospitality was immortalized in the Hall of Honor. A true masterpiece. Romanino also frescoed a wall of the courtyard with the Battle of Riccardina, which had seen Colleoni pursue his personal dream of a 'glorious enterprise' in command of troops from the Este, Pesaro, Forli and part of Florence, against the Medici family of Florence, allied with the Sforza, the Aragonese and Giovanni II Bentivoglio of Bologna. The battle, known to history as one of the major battles of the XVth century in Italy, was won by Colleoni.


Although not showing exquisite workmanship, of some interest are some seventeenth-century frescoes on the top floor of the 'palazo', representing various  virtues, including Temperance, and Time, the latter with wings and crutches, an iconographic version we find in the figure of the Hermit in the Minchiate and Tarocchini of Bologna.


                                                                          Temperance (Fresco, XVIIth cent.)

                                               il Tempo

                                                                              Time (Fresco, XVIIth centuy)

Also on the upper floor several frescoes are interesting for their iconography that refer, only in some details, to such elements present in the images of the Triumphs, such as a shoemaker's shop, which is reminiscent of the goldsmith in the so-called "Mantegna Tarot", the allegory of a hypothetical Venice Triumphant, seated on a throne in back framed by a cloth in part similar to that which beautifies the Popess card, and the figure of a farmer whose hat is reminiscent of the inverted Eight, the Symbol of infinity, which characterizes the Magician's hat in many esoteric tarots.                                                                      

                                                                        Shoemaker's shop (Fresco, XVth cent.)

                                              Venezia Trionfate

                                                                     Venice Triumphant? (Fresco, XVth cent.)


                                                                                 Peasant (Fresco, XVth cent.)

Among other figures painted on the wood ceiling present in the upper loggia, the almost certain allegory of Aristotle and Phyllis (2) deserves attention, and the image of a Prudence, with a noblewoman looking in a mirror.


                                                                Aristotle and Phyllis
(Painting on wood, XVth cent.)


                                                                      Prudence (Painting on wood, XVth cent.)

But our attention was especially drawn to a fresco, still visible in one of the rooms upstairs, unfortunately in poor condition, which represents noblewomen to at the 'game' of the cards.

                                                        Donne con carte

                                                         Ladies at the 'game' of Triumphs (Fresco, XVth cent.)

Given the size of the cards, drawn in outline, it is reasonable to assume that they are Triumphs. What has aroused our interest lies not in the fact that ladies were playing Triumphs, a practice more than obvious given the time, but seeing that only one of them, that is, the lady placed centrally, was shown with cards in her hand. It would seem possibly also true of the last woman depicted on the viewer’s left, but you cannot be sure.


                          Donna centrale

                                                                             Central lady holding the cards

If these ladies are painted while playing at Triumphs, it is obvious that the other women, placed on the side and slightly behind the central one, act as spectators. But if they are not playing a game of cards [giocare a carte], what other pastime [gioco] could be intended? Diana Romagnoli, who accompanied us on this visit, noted that the position of the other cards not used and painted lower, i.e., in the form of a cross, reflects the way in which cards were 'left to rest' when they were used for a cartomantic reading. A typical position in the Italian popular tradition at times still used.

                                                          Carte in croce

                                                                              Position of the cards in a cross

Since, after Ross Caldwell's in-depth essay on the history of cartomancy (3) in which he attests that to date no certain documents have been found that this prophetic art was practiced in the fifteenth century either with decks of Triumphs or with composite decks consisting only of the numeral and court cards (3), we turned to him, as the greatest expert in the history of cartomancy and our scientific consultant. He has informed us that even in the fifteenth century the card players placed them in this way, as he has demonstrated by taking as a reference the fresco of the cycle of Griselda, once present at the Rocca dei Rossi in Roccabianca in Parma, made by a Parmese painter between 1470 and 1475, and now transferred to the Pinacoteca of the Sforzesco Castle.



Ciclo di Griselda



Ross believes that the cards were placed crosswise that way to facilitate the counting of tricks won. Each player in Griselda's fresco has won two tricks while the lady is playing to the man's lead now. Since there are two players, the two cards for each trick, clearly visible, attest to this practice. 





Regarding the Malpaga fresco, since three cards have been depicted for each trick, Ross assumes that they were three players.



1 - Marin Sanudo, Itinerario per la Terraferma Veneziana nell'anno MCCCCLXXXIII [Itinerary for the Venetian mainland in the year MCCCCLXXXIII], Padua, Tipografia del Seminario, 1847, p. 82.
2 - For the allegorical meaning of these together, read the essay Temperance.
3 - This important study is in the book edited by Andrea Vitali The Castle of Tarot.