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Under the Visconti and the Sforza, Milan was one of Italy’s political and cultural hubs. A wealthy, magnificent capital with an exceptionally dense population, Milan was probably Europe’s second largest and most populated city, at the crossroads of the routes connecting France with Venice and Northern Europe with Rome (then under papal rule).
Hence the two families’ eagerness to patronise the arts, which made Milan a key landmark in Italy’s artistic panorama. The handing over of power by the Visconti to the Sforza, in the mid-15th century, coincided with the transition from the International Gothic to the Humanistic world.
In the first half of the 15th century, in fact, the expression ouvrage de Lombardie had come to signify an object of refined workmanship, expressing an exquisite courtly taste: this was with particular reference to illumination and goldsmithy. The 14th and 15th centuries were among the most extraordinary in the history of Milan and Lombardy: they have been celebrated by historians and set into the collective memory as a sort of Golden Age, the first time a courtly civilisation had achieved a European scope.
The other important Italian court was that of the Este in Ferrara, one of the most lively in Central-Northern Italy even since the end of the 14th century: a unique, original milieu where the medieval chivalric traditions were kept alive by being mingled and reinterpreted in light of the new Humanistic and Renaissance tastes and trends. At a time when the Seignories expected artists to praise their territory and their good government, Ferrara’s rulers showed great attention to literature and the arts.
At both the Ferrara and the Milan courts it was customary to produce tarot cards. These reflected the different cultural interests of the two courts: while the Milanese cards display a classical, elegant, refined taste permeated with Christian allegories, the Ferrarese ones are inspired to the Greek world, rich in symbolism, astrology and alchemy. Formats differ too: Milanese decks tend come in the same size, and are sometimes based on recycled cards. There were workshops, such as the Zavattari's, where several sets were produced for the Sforza court, modelled on the Visconti Sforza tarot deck. Other playing-card artists were Michelino da Besozzo and Bonifacio Bembo. The cards had punched gold or silver backgrounds, where the images were drawn rather than engraved, and then painted in tempera applied with the tip of the brush. The characters depicted show the clothes and fashions of the Milanese late-Gothic society.
In Ferrara, the tarot painters were Jacomo Guerzo, Iacopo di Bartolomeo Sagramoro, Gherardo da Vicenza, beside some better-known names, such as Cosmè Tura or Andrea Mantegna, who created the more important sets. All known Ferrarese decks differ from one another in concept, contents and technique: different artists, different formats.