Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Bolognese Industry and Tarots

The birth of Triumphs and Bolognese industry


by Girolamo Zorli

The famous Ferrarese payment dated February 10 -1442 is the first known document about “trionfi”. The Este court paid four fine and very expensive hand-painted decks. These four packs were probably meant to celebrate the new Marquis, Lionello d’Este. We know that the Ferrarese court loved to play a card game called Imperatori. We are comfortably sure that the Este did not produce nor buy trionfi before that date. Possibly, they did not like the game. Bianca Maria Visconti, Milan duke Filippo Maria’s daughter, had just stayed in Ferrara for an eight-month visit. It is therefore natural to presume that the Ferrarese court received the triumphal deck idea from Milan.

Few months later, on July 28 – 1442, the Este paid Marchionne Burdochi, a Bolognese merchant. They bought from him a relatively inexpensive trionfi deck for the lord’s adolescent brothers to play the game.  

An articulated high-class court item was therefore shortly ready for the game at a much lesser price. That deck could have been custom made by the Bolognese. It is curious that a brilliant and gambling court had only one cheap deck made for the game. It is more probable that the Bolognese already knew and currently produced triumph decks. The boys wanted it and got it in the market.

In XV century, Bolognese University knew her last momentum. Since the end of the XII century, Bologna hosted the children of the European upper class to teach them laws. The wealthy young crowd was a steady source of business. To reproduce texts and codes, the Bolognese were forced to pioneer duplicative techniques. The organization of sheets called book seems a mid-XIII century Bolognese invention. A paper-mill facility was available as early as 1289.  Since the first half of the XIV century wood cut techniques were employed.

Playing cards arrived to Europe about 1370. New trends arrive quickly to a brilliant and cosmopolitan centre. At that date, Bolognese manufacturers were ready to manufacture cards for wealthy and gambling students.

Production and sales had to be quickly significant, so that as early as 1405 Baldassarre Cardinal Costa issued the first known regular taxation of playing cards.

Saint Bernardino da Siena, a celebrated Franciscan travelling preacher, went to Bologna in 1423. With a memorable sermon, he attacked the local main corruption : gambling and cards. His contemporary biographer reports about a card manufacturer complaining to the Saint of the loss of his business. The peculiarity of the sermon and the presence of the manufacturer confirm that Bologna was widely gambling and producing cards.

After 1423, many other card-manufacturing documents are spread throughout the century in Bologna. No wonder that in 1442 the Bolognese had cheap triumph decks available.

It is widely held that the Bolognese started producing popular triumph decks as early as 1430. At that time, the state-of-the-art printing industry was in Germany. German card manufacturers are documented twice in Bologna in the mid-XV century. The first known document about playing-cards massive production and export is reported in Bologna as early as 1477. No wonder that the Bolognese tarot iconography and hierarchy scale spread all over central and southern Italy. Bolognese card manufacturing fame lasted many centuries.

It is obscure how the triumph deck and idea arrived to gambling Bologna.

The Italian documents we have makes scholars to assume that trionfi are a Milanese invention, datable around 1420-25. The bulk of the new game was the ruff – and the trumps organized in a fifth suit. The natural communication vehicle to Bologna may have been the Milanese court students. Moreover Milan occasionally took Bologna and held it for a few years.

We know nothing about early Milanese packs. The 1447-1450 Milanese political unrest and civil war destroyed the Milanese archives. Only splendid remains of celebrative court decks are left, dated about 1445. Lombard popular trionfi packs are hinted to by a Francesco Sforza’s letter dated 1450.

Manufacturing needs may explain the great iconographical differences we find between the Bolognese popular game packs and the celebrative Milanese triumphs we know of. Bolognese invented a reproduceable popular deck of their own: it was unthinkable to sell fine articulated hand painted cards to the university inns. When the trump idea arrived, printers laid down something low cost and easy to reproduce.

Success and popularity made players to want the same deck – to the manufacturers happiness. I therefore guess that the Bolognese deck was quickly standardized. Standardization and popularity imply a necessary accepted deck structure. I believe that the 1460-1470 splendid Ferrarese court decks are brilliants interpretations of the Bolognese model, not the other way round.  

A second less documented conjecture moves from the assumption that the idea of ruff arrived immediately to intellectual and gambling Bologna – say 1410 or so. Local printers pioneered a local deck with a fifth order of trumps. Trump icons were taken from the iconographic and moral Bolognese trend of that time. Popularization pushed to standardization. Milanese students and conquerors took to Milan the idea of a deck structured for the ruff wit an added fifth order of trumps. Marziano da Tortona, the Milanese duke’s learned preceptor, made his court decks, often dedicated to celebrations and spiritual edification more than to the game. In other words, Marziano da Tortona might have worked on a popular accepted pack.  

Bolognese still play the game with the same pack. In XVIII century, the powerful Bolognese Fibbia family maintained that the game of triumphs – more accurately, the Bolognese tarocchino game - was invented by an ancestor of theirs around 1410. This unproved claim fits in the second conjecture. The XV century Bolognese manufacturing power and gambling habits - together with their incredible iconographical stability, popularity and longevity - make me to think that most is yet to be discovered in that town. Was the tarot magical pack first invented or developed in Bologna?

For the biography of the author, member of the Association Le Tarot, click here