The Michelino Deck, also called Besozzo-cards


This version is from 31st of May 2003 – it is intended to keep this article in this form, never updated, so useful for citations etc.. The updated version you can reach at


This article was written on the base of secondary sources without possibility to look at the original source. The original material was visited and material was researched later by Ross Gregory Caldwell. A translation of the original text is in preparation.

Main Source:
Franco Pratesi: The Earliest Tarot Pack Known in The Playing Card , Vol. XVIII, No. 1, August 1989. p. 28 - 32.
Franco Pratesi: The Earliest Tarot Pack Known in The Playing Card, Vol. XVIII, No.2, November 1989, p. 33 - 38.


Article written by Autorbis




Just to avoid misunderstandings: The object described here is refered to in Kaplan: Tarot Encyclodia I, p. 20,  under two different entries: Decembrio, 1440, translated by Polismagna in Italian language,  and  Isabella de Lorraine, 1449. Kaplan presented his data as refering to two different objects.

Kaplan published his book in 1978, but in 1989 the game researcher
Franco Pratesi discovered by revisiting the source, Codex 8745, in Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris, that both entries relate to the same object, a card deck of Filippo Visconti, painted by Michelino da Besozzo and described by Marziano da Tortona in an accompanying manuscript.
This card deck + manuscript + letter was sent in a parcel in 1449 to Isabella, Queen of Lorraine, wife of Rene d'Anjou, by Jacopo Antonio Marcello, a Venetian general. As transporting messenger served a Giovanni Cossa, probably identical to a better known Jean de Cossa, an Italian with some important functions in France, mostly in the service of Rene d'Anjou.


Codex 8745
in Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris contains three parts:

1. A letter, written in the "ides of november, 1449" by Jacopo Antonio Marcello, a Venezian general, adressed to Isabella, Queen of Lorraine, wife of Rene d’Anjou.

2. An introduction made by Marziano da Tortona (which calls himself in the text Martianus de Sankto Alosio, Sankto Alosio being a small village near Tortona) to a treatise about a card-game. The text is titled: "Tractatus De Deificatione Sexdecim Heroum".

3.A description of the cards with some notes about playing rules: The 16 special motives of the cards, Greek gods,  which were later by Marcello called "Trionfi cards", are described in a longer passage in detail. These part was also made by Martiano da Tortona.

Missing: The single object of the letter, the introduction and the treatise, a famous and precious card play, however, is missing. It was painted by Michelino da Besozzo.

Missing: A second, less famous card play, which was probably also part of the parcel sent to Isabella is - unlucky world of card research - missing, too.

Not the Original: The book (introduction and description mentioned above), probably with text compiled by Marziano (and in its original form possibly with figures and book-paintings) is not present in its original form, but just as a handwritten copy combined with the letter. So all we do really have, is probably produced in the year 1449.

Marcello did send the parcel some time after getting card deck and book from his home town Monselice, where he - in his private atmosphere - had enough time to arrange his present to Isabella in the form he wished. The reason for this could be, that the original book was in a deranged form, so Marcello wished to update it, or, another possibility, that it contained book-paintings (for instance pictures of all cards) and Marcello wished to keep the original book in his own possession. 
Surprizingly the deck seems to have only 4 kings without any further court cards - an information, which is given in unclear form by both, Marziano and Marcello. However, as Marcello had opportunity to forge the manuscript to that, what he was willing to send to Isabella, it is possible, that the original card play done for Filippo Visconti and described by Marziano, looked a little different from that, what we do know now about it. Perhaps there were only 4 kings in the original form from ca. 1417 - 1425, perhaps it  had more court cards then.    
The card-play became famous as the most precious card game ever, cause Decembrio, secretary of Filippo Visconti, noted in his biography of Filippo, that the duke paid 1500 gold pieces to Marziano da Tortona for a single pack of cards with images of gods, emblematic birds  and figures.

Florence paid in the year 1380 for a "Copa de Lancia", a "sword" and a page 21 ducatos, for a cross-bow shooter with page 13 ducatos in a month, which means, one could hire with 1500 ducatos around 225 well-trained mercenaries for one month (it is unclear - at least to me - if the Florentine ducatos were comparable to those paid in Milano) Cause of this enormous sum it is considered, that the payment to Marziano included also a reward for other services done by him to the duke, also one might suspect, that the accompanying manuscript was  produced in a very worthful manner. The highest sum, which became known in Ferrara as the price of a playing card, are 40 ducatos in 1423 - and the account books of Ferrara mostly present their entries ). 

P. Durrieu had noted the letter of Marcello 1911 in "Michelino de Besozzo et les relations entre l'art francais", but already mentioned it in a conference held on in March 1895 in Paris. It was not realised in card research, that Marcellos letter and Decembrio's remark do refer to the same deck, until 1989, although it was occasionally suspected.

Isabella, the receiver of the parcel, was the wife of the famous Rene d’Anjou, who was friend to Francesco Sforza, Cosimo de Medici and Marcello during his time in Italy 1437 – 1442 and 1453.
Isabella died 1453.



Marcellos Letter


The letter, written by Marcello 1449, informs us, that in the year before Marcello was in the camp of Francesco Sforza as leader of the Venetian troops, fighting together with Sforza against the Milanese Ambrosian republic.
Scipio Caraffa arrived from France, bringing with him news from Isabella and Rene d’Anjou (from other sources it is known, that Marcello became acquainted to Rene d'Anjou through Francesco Sforza in 1442 - or little earlier - during Rene's stay in Italy; in his later life Marcello called Rene and Francesco "close friends"). It happened, that during Caraffa's visit Marcello got a present, a pack of Trionfi-cards (ex eo ludo quem triumphum apellant cartae). Immediately Caraffa was rather engaged to induce Marcello to send this card deck as present  to the Queen of Lorraine.

Marcello was enjoyed about the idea, but considered the deck being one of a lower quality, not worth to be in use by a queen (not well enough pictured and engraved; neque enim pro regio fastigeo ornatae et excultae esse videbantur;  "engraved" may indicate a printing process, used in manufacturing playing cards, - examples of this are known from contemporary German decks not from Italian decks, but from the
studies of Gherardo Ortalli  we do know, that the technic had arrived in Italy). Marcello starts to look for some artists, who are expert in these productions (solertissimus harum rerum artifex).

From other sources it is known, that Marcello's worth as a militaric general is not as highly evaluated as he likes to give the impression; actually it seems, that he had more the role of a "spy and an ambassadore". His present to Isabella might have not been spend by his own money, but invested by the state of Venice for good diplomatic connections; in Marcellos  later life other worthful presents by him to Rene d'Anjou play a greater role. His"friendship" to Francesco Sforza might have had a similar background.

On his research Marcello became aware, that Filippo Visconti, who died shortly before, had invented a certain new and very fine kind of triumphs (novum quoddam et exquisitum triumphorum genus). Filippo is famous to Marcello for inventing objects in various fields (the text indicates invention of "maximarum rerum", greatest things, most important matters).

In a short description Marcello relates to the game: 16 celestial princes and barons, 4 kings leading the orders of 4 different birds. Filippo gave the scheme to a scholar and expert in astrology to describe the game (the name Marziano is not noted by Marcello)  and ordered Michelino da Besozzo to picture the game in a most original and decorative way.

Marcello realizes, that this is the deck, that he shall look for. We don't know, if Marcello's exaggerates the difficulties he had to make the present look greater than it was, but he "thinks day and night" how to get book and deck out of  the great disorder of all the earlier possessions of the duke (from other sources we know, that after Filippo's death the Milanese citizens in their aim to build up the Ambrosian republic had  stormed the Visconti-castle and destroyed it more or less completely; Francesco Sforza did build the Castello Sforzesco at the same place, when he became duke). Information could only be received by enemies, but at last and with some good fortune, Marcello has reason for highest and undescribable satisfaction, he gets both, book and deck. "Nothing is impossible wishing  to honour his lord and prince."

Book and cards and letter go to the hand of Giovanni Cossa with the order to bring them to the queen, also included are (diplomatic important) regards to the husband and also those superior cards (adiunxi et  eis cartes ilias superiores). (In this Latin sentence "et"  is not a problem, it can be translated as "also" or "too", the unusual position in the text is often observed. "Superiores" is a problem: One interpretation might lead to the conclusion, that there are higher cards, absent in the original version, now required to complete the deck. In this case Marcello did send one updated pack, formed by new and old cards. More probable looks the interpretation, that "superiores" could be understood as "mentioned above" and refered to the pack of Trionfi that arrived in the camp and was not good enough for the use of a queen. In this case Marcello send two packs.)

Ironically the date of sending gives "Monselice, in the ides of November." In Monselice is the home of the Marcello-family, which became in the later century rather important in Venice  - and Monselice lies near Padua far in the east of Milano, quite the opposite direction of the adress of Isabella, which was in the west (with thanks to Ross Gregory Caldwell: “Isabelle of Lorraine lived in the Chateau of Launay, near Saumur (in the Loire region) from August of 1449 until her death on 28 February, 1453”).
So Marcello  at least didn't really haste to send his parcel, perhaps it's a simple truth, that he hadn't much difficulties to get the deck, but took the opportunity to elaborate a nice story to make the deck look very romantic - such things were favoured especially at the court of Rene d'Anjou (who in his youth escorted Jeanne d'Arc – perhaps a forgery) and Marcello did know that (and from other sources we do know, that he  is suspected to write in a little exaggerating manner, being also a poet in his soul - similar to Rene). However, as mentioned above, Marcello didn't send the original book but a copy, perhaps cause the reason that the original text was in bad condition. This repairing action he could have hardly done in a camp of soldiers, so eventually this is the reason for the "letter from Monselice".

There should be much material to the person of Jacopo Antonio Marcello in the book of

Margaret L. King. The Death of the Child Valerio Marcello. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Pp. xviii + 484 + 20 halftones. ISBN 0-226-43620-9

which I do know only from a
review in the Internet. There it turns out, that Marcello is a well respected man in the 50ies and 60ies of 15th century, especially honoured by artists and humanists, cause it seems, he had a lot of money to spend for their productions. For instance, the famous Mantegna worked for him, before he was engaged in Mantua in 1459 by Ludovico Gonzaga, where he stayed for his life.

The above mentioned Giovanni Cossa, who became responsible for the transport of the parcel and who at first impression might look as an unimportant servant, turned out to be (99 % security) the nephew of
Baldassare Cossa alias Pope John XXIII. (1410 – 1415), one of 3 Popes at the same time before the Concil of Konstanz, where all 3 Popes lost their job and John, now Baldassare Cossa again, was accused and held in prison for four years in Heidelberg. Formerly, when still Pope John, Baldassare took charge in the interests of the Anjou against the residing king of Naples, Ladislaus (died 1414). During that time the condottieri Muzio Attendola (father of Francesco Sforza) changed sides from Pope to Ladislaus (the Pope didn’t pay), which the furious John alias Baldassare countered with puppets hanging head down  from trees, with  a signboard around their neck: “I’m Muzio Attendola, farmer of Cotignola …” (a common sign for treachery – it developed to be a Tarot card).   

According to the foes of Pope John he of a family of pirates in Naples and was used to enormous sexual excesses. Gaspare, John’s brother and Giovanni’s father, also engaged for the Anjou and had to leave Naples. When in 1435 Queen Jeanne II. of Naples died, the old question of Anjou or Aragon araised again. Giovanni was on the side of the Anjou as his father and uncle and became a leading figure for the Anjou party in the city, defending the Anjou’s interest in Naples till the end in 1442, but had to capitulate finally, when Alfonso d'Aragon took Naples. Giovanni Cossa followed Rene to France, but seems to have been often in secret diplomatic mission in Renes interests in Italy, probably working on the project to fight for Naples again. Major attempts were done later, in 1453 (together with Francesco Sforza) and 1459, when Alfonso had died. Both actions failed.

In his biography it is noted, that he returned to France from Italy in May 1448 and was back in Italy in May 1450, his residence in the meantime is unknown. As we do know from Marcellos letter he was in Monselice, Italia, November 1449, probably with the intention to have a highly conspirative talk with the Venetian general, ambassodore and spy Jacopo Antonio Marcello. A central theme was surely, that Francesco was on his turn to become duke of Milan in spring 1450 (compare
storia di Milano). In Milan, one of the greatest cities in Europe (have an impression here, a map from 16th century, a little later), some 1000 people were at this moment near to die for hunger (they died really, a little  later). Venetia, which wished to see only a small Milanese influence in North Italia for the future, not a strong Milan under the capable general Sforza, had tried  – to the later regret of Marcello - to cheat Sforza, whom Marcello, although himself a Venetian general, saw as a friend. The chances for Sforza to achieve his goal were considered to be small at this moment. 
There were also other things to talk, when the parcel was send to Isabella, the world had greater themes than playing cards. Italy was at a great change of its history and nobody did know, how it would turn out. 

For playing card history it is especially interesting, that Marcello knows artists (not only one), who are already specialised to produce trionfi decks. Together  with the documents in great number in Ferrara (since 1450), Florence (1450) and Milano (1450 and 1452) it testifies, that there is some greater distrubution of the decks at this time. 
But:  Very interesting it is, that Marcello is willing to use the term  "New kind of Trionfi" for the deck of Filippo, which is quite far off that, what is generally (and especially in our modern eyes) be considered to be a Tarocchi-game, differing in the number of the cards and differing in the motives- which rather definitely  means, that the relation between playing card decks and the term "Trionfi" is more or less undefined in the time of Marcello.
This means: When in 1442 in Ferrara and around 1450  "Trionfi" are manufactured and bought, we don't know,  how the relevant objects looked like and we don't know, how many trump cards were in these decks.

This conclusion is of some importance for the theory about the 5x14-deck.




Introduction with Rules by Martiano


Marziano calls himself in the text Martianus de Sankto Alosio, Sankto Alosio being a small village near Tortona.

The work is devoted to Filippo Maria, Duke of Milano. Filippo was duke since 1412 (his reigning brother
Giovanni Maria Visconti was murdered at May 16, 1412) and Marziano was active in service for the duke until 1423 and definitely dead at February I, 1425. In this range of time 1414 - 1418 was considered earlier as the probable production time of the text,  but an information of  "storia di Milano" says, that the painter Michelino returned in 1417 back to Milano after staying more than a decade outside of town, so the dating-question should be considered again. 

The title "Tractatus De Deificatione Sexdecim Heroum" and the later text ("celestial princes and barons") give the impression, that the Greek gods are considered  as deified heroes, it seems, that Marzianus or his time is confused by common additional names to the gods in classical texts and so he speaks of 3 Jupiters (two Arcadians, one of Creta), 4 Apollos etc., believing, that there once had been three different mortal heroes with the name Jupiter (these additional names normally relate to different cults or temples or appearances of the gods, not to persons).

There are four order of gods, related to birds and qualities (suits), each of the suits has its own king (una quaeque proprio parens regi - beside the king no other court card is mentioned; Marcello also spoke only of kings, when describing the deck):

VIRTUES        (eagle)              1. Jupiter          5. Apollo          9. Mercury       13. Hercules

RICHES          (phoenix)          2. Juno             6. Neptun         10.
Mars          14. Eolus

VIRGINITIES  (turtle)            3.
Pallas            7. Diana           11. Vesta         15. Daphnae

PLEASURES    (dove)              4.
Venus           8. Bacchus       12. Ceres         16. Cupido

Marziano turns in rudimentary to the rules of the play:

1. No bird has power above the others - the suits are equal in worth (Harum vero Avium ordo est quia nulla earum species in alteram vis habet).

2. The power is direct for eagles and turtles, reverted for phoenices and doves - this rule is still known from still living Tarock-variantes, two suits range from ace to ten, the other both  from ten to ace (Aquilarum et turturarum multae paucis praesunt ... foenicum una et columbarum pluribus pauciores imperant).

3. Each of the gods is higher than all orders of birds and also higher than the kings of the orders - probably meaning, that gods are considered to be trumps (Deorum vero quisque omnibus ordinibus avium et ordinum regibus praeerit).

4. The gods (trumps) have a row,  the first listed reigns above all following - in the later treatise to the gods Marzianus gives ordinal numbers (see the table above), which probably serves his aim to arrange the gods in a hierarchy.  (Sed inter se diihac lege tenebuntur, quod (?) qui prior inferius annotabitur sequentibus omnibus praesit).  

Probably the deck had 60 cards, 4x10 pip cards (although Marzianus doesn't lose any word, if all 10 numbers are included), 4 kings without any other court card, 16 gods. But security in this question doesn't exist, as all informations, that we do have, went through the hands of Marcello. We see that, that Marcello wanted, that Isabella should see.



Description of the Gods


The original part of the manuscript has 50 pages, however, written in rather great letters, so actually the text  is short with around 600 -.700 signs per page. The text length for the single gods varies from 2.5 - 4 pages.
The text given here is an abstract done by Franco Pratesi in Italian language in 1990, translated with personal comments by Ross Gregory Caldwell in English in 2003. To our knowledge it is the first presentation of the shortened content in English language - a good example, how quick the ways in Tarocchi research had been in the past. A translation of the complete Latin text is in preparation.



1.     Giove: Seduto in trono è provvisto di quattro insegne celesti: a destra in alto lo splendore della giusta ragione; a sinistra in alto la luce con cui fondò le leggi; in basso a destra la stella lucente simile a Marte che brilla nei salvatori dello stato; in basso a sinistro il fulmine.

I. Jupiter: Sitting on a throne, surrounded and provided with 4 heavenly signs in the corners. Above right is the splendour of wisdom and above left the light, with which laws are given, at the right bottom is a bright star like Mars, which shines in those who preserve the state; in the left bottom the thunderbolt.

Note: Pratesi has translated Marziano’s latin “rectae rationis” as “giusta ragione”, and has suggested the English translation be Wisdom. I believe it carries the sense of “Just measurement”, of God as the Great Architect. I do not know what a Splendor of it would look like – perhaps a banner with the words. It is interesting to note that the Italian phrase “a giusta ragione” (with good right) is translated by the French “à bon droit”, in a trilingual legal document at
“A BON DROYT” is of course the Visconti family motto recommended to Gian Galeazzo by Petrarch.

2. L'aspetto la indica sposa di Giove; col capo velato all'uso della matrone, l'ordini della corona indica il numero dei regni. E’ ornato riccamente; le sue belle vesti colorate sono però evanescenti. Il carro e le armi, a lei assegnati da Virgilio, sembrano qui da tralasciare.

II. Her aspect indicates the spouse of Jupiter; with head veiled in the manner of matrons, the order of the crown indicates the number of reigns. It is richly adorned; her beautiful dress somberly coloured, but evanescent. The chariot and arms, assigned to her by Virgil, seem abandoned.

Note: I am not sure what “ordini della corona indica il numero dei regni” refers to. The last clause is also obscure.

3. Pallade. Colla destra tiene un pacifico olivo; indossa un amitto multiplo e una vestae variegata (a indicare le modifiche col tempo dei pareri dei saggi) . Tiene un leggero scudo reso orribile della Gorgone.
III. Pallas (Athena). With the right hand holds an olive-branch of peace; wearing a multiple mantle and a multicoloured robe (to signify the modifications of the counsels of the wise over time).  Holds a light
shield made horrible by the Gorgon.

Note: Amitto -  the related English word “amice” is a liturgical garment which descends from a Roman garment, “amictus”, a cloak or mantle which covered the upper body and head, but could be pulled back. I assume that here it refers to the classical garment.

4 Venere: Con aspetto piuttosto lascivo, chioma sparsa, petto e braccia scoperti, ginocchi nudi, per indurre più facilmente all'amore; con un amitto sciolta di pelle di lince; con l'arco pronto e la faretra indossa per cacciare e ferire gli animi degli uomini che vagano nelle tenebre.

IV. Venus: With a somewhat lustful demeanour, hair loose, breast and arms bare, knees naked, the easier to induce love; with a supple lynx-skin cloak; with the bow ready and the wearing the quiver to hunt and wound the souls of men who wander in the shadows.

5. Apollo. Ha aspetto conforme alla vita militare; il capo chiomato è adorno di alloro per diritto guerriero e poetico; porta arco e frecce nel cui uso eccelse.

V. Apollo: Has a look conforming to the military life; his long head of hair is crowned with laurel, by right warrior and poet; he carries bow and arrows, in whose use he excels.

6. Nettuno. Con aspetto regale di vecchio stampo siede su un carro d'oro trainato da due delfine. Ha un tridente per scettro a indicare le tre proprietà dell'acqua.

VI. Neptune: with regal aspect of the old school, seated on a chariot drawn by two dolphins. Has a trident as scepter to show his rulership of the water.

7. Diana. Vestita di un amitto bianco, vaga con arco e frecce su una biga d’oro, trainata da bianchi cervi con corna dorate brillanti. Si raffigura con aspetto trino.

VII. Diana: Dressed in a white mantle, flying on a golden carriage with arrows and bow, drawn by two white deer with shining golden horns. Figured with threefold aspect.

Note: Diana is sometimes presented with three faces.

8. Bacco. Con voltre sempre giovanile e le tempie ornate con le sue viti Secondo il sue nome, porta un bastone per il sostegno degli ubriache. Tirano il carro due tigri.

VIII. Bacchus: With a face of everlasting youth and his temples decorated with his vines. As his name signifies, he carries a stick to support himself when drunken; the car is drawn by two tigers.

9. Mercurio: Come gli Arcadi ha il capo coperto da un galero; col caduceo separa serpenti in lotta; calza i talari.

IX. Mercurio: Like the Arcadians, has the head covered with a "galero" (broad-brimmed cardinal's hat); with caduceus, ringed with two snakes; winged shoes.

10. Marte: Col carro decorato da mille insegno tolte ai nemici. Cavalca con la spada sguainata cosparsa di sangue a indicara la via.

X. Mars: With chariot decorated by a thousand ensigns of victory over enemies. Rides with drawn bloodied sword to indicate the way.

XI. Vesta: Dall'aspetto castigato alla maniera delle monache sta presso l'altare davanti agli immortali e prega gli dei.

XI. Vesta: With chaste aspect like monks standing near an altar before its immortals praying to the gods.

12. Ceres: Procede con abito regale e mèssi ai lati; tiene in mano una fiaccola ardente

XII.Ceres: Advances in regal vestment, harvests at each side; holding in hand a burning torch.

13. Ercole. Con il terribile aspetto, la fronte incoronata di alloro, trascurando vesti leggiadre, con lu spoglie dell'enorme leone Nemeo, insegno monumento della forza. Ai suoi piedi giace copito dalle frecce il mostro antropomorfo delle Strofadi.

XIII. Hercules: in his terrible aspect, his forehead crowned with a laurel, carelessly clothed with the skin of the huge Nemean lion, monumental sign of force. At his feet, wounded by arrows, lies the anthropomorphic monster of the Strofadi.

Note: Strofadi is the island home to the harpies.

14. Eolo. Seduto in abito regale tra gli scogli delle sue isole ricavando fiamme con lo scettro.

XIV. Aiolus: Sitting in regal garment among the reefs of his island creating flames with his scepter.

15. Dafne. In abito virgineo abbracciata al suo Alloro.

XV. Daphne: In virginal dress clinging to her Laurel.

16. Cupido: In volo per marcare l'instabilita degli amanti e cinto di cuori umani. Vaga nudo per cielo e terra con l'arco pronto a scoccare.

XVI. Cupido: In flight to show the instability of the lovers and wearing a human heart. Wandering nude through heaven and earth with bow ready to shoot.