In the Autumn of 2014, staff at the Castello Ursino museum discovered a typescript containing a detailed description of the fifteen illuminated playing cards making up the so-called Alessandro Sforza Tarot from the Biscari Collection. The author of this document is Ludwig Pollak, the Czech archaeologist and art connoisseur who advised the best-known European and American collectors between the 19th and the 20th century. Written in 1925, just a few years before the Biscari Collection was moved to its present location at Castello Ursino, the description was intended to form part of a catalogue which Pollak worked on together with Guido Libertini. Unlike Libertini's section on the archaeological pieces, Pollak's work on the lesser-known post-antique items (including the Alessandro Sforza Tarot) was never published. His description of the Ursino deck is entitled « Appunti e studi di Ludovico Pollak sulle carte da giuoco quattrocentesche del Museo Biscari » (Notes and studies by Ludwig Pollak on the 15th-century playing cards at Museo Biscari). So far the most thorough analysis of this early deck, the description is particularly interesting because the cards are observed prior to their restoration (1987), when an indelible paper mount was applied to each, obliterating the view of the backs. On one of these backs, in fact, Pollak had noticed an abrasion exposing traces of writing in ink that included the date 1428, an indication that the making of the set could be assigned to roughly the mid-15th century. As the same date appears on one of the inner paper layers of the Empress from the Abatellis collection, a card similar in style and size to those from the Ursino set, it has been possible to confirm its belonging to that deck, particularly as the Empress, as well as a companion card (the Two of Clubs), are among the missing ones from the Ursino series. This article includes an account of Ludwig Pollak’s life and legacy, and the circumstances of the production of his entries for the Ursino set. An English translation (from the original Italian) of this seminal document can be found on line by scanning the QR-Code.
General Remarks on the Catania playing cards
Each card in this rare series measures 18 cm in height and 9 cm in height [sic!], whilst it has a thickness of about 2 mm., made up of several layers of thin paper glued together. It is known that for the making of playing cards used paper was generally employed and in our case we can see, in fact, paper with traces of writing and even with a date which gives us a terminus post quem: in fact, on card no. , whose layers are partly detached, we can read Bernardin …. 1428. It is a curious coincidence, as it was St Bernardine of Siena who preached against the improper use of playing cards!
The illumination (as is the case here, since this decoration cannot be defined in any other way) was painted on the upper layer, on very thin paper subsequently glued onto rather heavy pasteboard, made as described above. The back of the playing card was then thickly painted in black.
The decorated side shows first of all a narrow black border, then a red frame with wavy punch-marked motifs. The details and backgrounds are often ornamented with golden arabesques made of engraved dots. These decorations, executed with small iron implements, must have been made by bookbinders used to such kind of work. The drawings are partly water-coloured, partly executed in tempera with opaque paints.
Sadly, these rare cards have much suffered through human carelessness, as well as the dampness of the showcases in which they have lain for many years; one would even say their margins have been nibbled by mice.
The cards in the Biscari collection are ten; five more, though, certainly coming from the same set, are in the Benedictines' Museum. This proves that the Prince of Biscari bought the whole lot in partnership with the monks and then shared it with them by keeping most of the cards.
* In the original document this title is handwritten and the author’s first name is given in the Italian form, i.e., Ludovico. Pollak, who had moved to Rome in 1893, wrote in that year: "Roma, che vuol dire Italia, la mia alfa ed omega" (i.e., Rome, which means Italy, my alpha and omega).
Cf. ROSSINI, Orietta, Ludwig Pollak. La vita e le opere. http://www.museobarracco.it/sites/default/files/f_file/Biografia%20Pollak%20-%20O.Rossini.pdf p.1.
GENERAL REMARKS ON THE CATANIA PLAYING CARDS
[this looks like a revised second version of the above page, with several handwritten amendments]
Each card measures 18 cm in height and 9 cm in length, and is about 2 mm thick. The card itself consists of several layers of thin paper glued together. Generally speaking, the paper employed had previously been used for writing letters; on card no.  in this set, in fact, where the [upper] layers have partly peeled off the back, it is possible to read: Bernardin..1428. A strange coincidence, since St Bernardine of Siena himself preaches against the improper use of playing cards!
The illumination – as is the case here, for this decoration can be truly called miniature painting – was painted with colours on very thin paper. This sheet was then glued onto a heavier one (this too, as said above, made up of several layers), so as to acquire a certain strength. The back was then thickly painted in black.
The main side shows first a simple, narrow black border, then a red frame with wavy punch-marked motifs. The details and backgrounds are often ornamented with golden arabesques made of engraved dots. These decorations, executed with small iron implements, must have been made by bookbinders used to such kind of work. The drawings are partly water-coloured, partly executed in tempera with opaque paints.
Sadly, these rare cards have much suffered through human carelessness, as well the dampness of the showcases in which they have lain for many years; it even seems that their margins have been nibbled by mice.
The cards are ten in number. Five more from the same set are in the Benedictines' Museum. The Prince of Biscari must have bought the whole lot in partnership with the monks and then shared it with them. In the plates we show these rare antiques properly reproduced and in colour for the first time.
Description of the Biscari cards (nos. 1-10)
No. 1 Ace of Cups
The stem of the cup is held by a large right hand issuing from a sleeve. The base of the cup has a distinctive shape. On the edge of the basin, richly and thoroughly decorated with dotted punch-marked designs, sits a young naked angel with a full head of hair, long wings and a tiny necklace. Its right hand was on the corresponding piece of damaged paper. The left hand is stretched towards a dog also perched on the edge and sitting up on its hind legs.
The dog's skin has several white spots. On either side of the stem of the chalice, two heraldic herons with open beaks. The background is thickly decorated with vine scrolls and leaves. On the back there are traces of ink writing from the sheets of paper that were glued together.
Herons on German 15th-century cards. (Société pl. 86, 90)
also see below no. 9
cf. the little cupids on the French card "Les Amoureux" (Société, pl. 6)
Gilded background (the gilding lies on a red _____ layer) full of arabesques made of punch-marked dots. On a large disk stands a young woman. Her body is in front view, the head (blonde hair) is slightly turned to her right. She wears a purple dress with a belt and holds in her right hand a stick ending with a knob (?) and in her left hand the terrestrial globe.
The border of the large disk shows two towers, a small church and, below, some rocks; at the centre of the disk a church is visible at the foot of some high mountains, and two towers on the mountains. The large disc rests on six big clouds.
The young woman may represent "Fortune" – cf. Fortune in the French cards at the Bibliothèque Nationale, pl. 7, very close to this one (the disk and the clouds are very similar); or does (Fortune) represent the World? Cf. Visconti Karten, Burlington Magazine, 3, pl. on page 238.
No. 3 The Chariot (or the Emperor)
The Emperor stands on a tall square chariot drawn by two white horses led by two valets. The Emperor wears a large red beret, under which his brown curls can be seen; a purple cloak with dark green lining; and a dark blue jacket below with a belt, below which a sumptuous chain can be seen. The trousers are red. On his right hand he holds the sceptre, on his raised left hand the globe.
The horses' harnessing is red.
The figures of the two valets have almost completely disappeared. The ground is scattered with tiny flowers. The background behind the Emperor is gilded, as usual. In the Visconti cards, a woman [sits] on the chariot, probably Duchess Beatrice, see Burlington Magazine. Cf. the Chariot in the French cards, Société, pl. 13, and Baldini's Mars (Marte Willishire [sic!], pl. 8).
No. 4 The Page with Chalice
A young Page (profile facing right) bears a gilded and artistically decorated chalice. His hair is blond; his blue jacket is bordered with fur; his belt is gilded. A white cloak covers his shoulder, arm and left hand. His right sleeve is red; his right trouser-leg is red, the other is dark. The ground is blue with red flowers. The background is as usual.
In Baldini's cards (Société, pl. 22), the page holds a vase with the inscription FAMEIO with both hands. A similar vessel is carried by the page in the Venetian card game of 1491 (Société, pl. 81A).
Cf. the page in the cards at Museo Carrara in Bergamo, Burlington Magazine, III, [colour?] plate for page 247.
On the back of a large stag facing right (a large band on its neck) sits a completely naked (blond haired) woman facing left who pours from a large cup, identical to those in the numerical cards, a liquid onto her own belly. The liquid spills onto the stag's body.
The green ground is scattered with tiny red flowers.
Allegory of Temperance (?). Cf. Burlington Magazine, p. 238.
I know no other examples of this iconography. On the back of the card there are traces of writing in ink, so among other [?] St Bernardine (of Siena) is mentioned, and the date 1428.
A very strange coincidence, as on the very sheet of paper used for making a playing card that very saint should be named who in 1423, in Bologna, preached with great success against card games (Willishire, ibid., p. 26).
The stag (alone) [is] only [found] on German15th-century playing cards (Société, pl. 86).
Cf. also a "Temperantia" [which] is completely different from [the one in] Baldini's cards (Société, pl. 54) and the French one sitting on a throne (Société, pl. 8).
"Temperanza" on the bell tower of Florence Cathedral (in the manner of Orcagna) and the winged one (Venturi, Storia, ill. 552, p. 669) in the Loggia dei Lanzi (Venturi: ibidem, fig. 592) are seated.
In a rocky landscape stands an old Hermit, who holds a sand clock (its wooden frame is red) in his raised left hand. He is seen in profile and sports a very long white beard. On his head he wears a green hood with black spots. His red cloak is fastened on the right shoulder; his long robe is blue and its wide border is gilded; the narrow belt is also gilded; the feet are shod in red boots. The dark blue ground is scattered with red flowers. The back of the card carries traces of writing that can no longer be deciphered.
Cf. the hermit with the [missing word] in the Visconti (?) cards, Burlington Magazine.
On the upper left corner is written in brown ink by a later hand ______.
The Hermit is perhaps Fr Paphuntius of Alexandria, much venerated in Ferrara, or St Anthony Abbot.
Cf. the hermit in the French cards (black with a lantern), Société, pl. ___.
Seven of (sabre) Swords
The swords cross each other. The hilts and ends are red. The gilded decorations are punch-marked, as usual. In the background, red clovers. On the back of the card, traces of writing.
Nine of Straight Swords [i.e., Clubs]
The ________ and ends are painted in red and gold, the swords are dark red. Clovers on a plain background. The margins are very worn [literally: "gnawed"].
Two of Coins
In the middle of the coins, two beardless human heads can be seen in frontal view. The eyes look towards their right. The disks are red with gilded ornamentation made of punch-marked dots. Between the two coins stands a heron. Its long neck is bent downwards. Its beak is open. In the background, clovers and scrolls.
Herons and storks on 15th-century German cards. Société, pl. 86, 90. See no. 1.
Eight of Coins
Each coin shows a gilded flower formed by punch-marked dots, whose centre is indicated by a black circle (?). The plain background is decorated with clovers and scrolls, as usual.
Description of the Benedictines' cards
King of Swords
Sits on a richly painted throne (the drawing imitates marquetry). On his head, a crown with six long spikes. Thick blond hair. Jacket _____, the sleeves have two frills.
Belt _____, the lower border of the jacket is trimmed with fur. In his right hand he holds a long sword (gilded hilt and pommel) turned upwards while his right hand rests on a shield. The shield is decorated with a ring like that of the Medici, in whose centre there is a ______ and four green leaves (the emblem of a matrimonial alliance?).
The trousers show the colour ____. The legs are crossed.
The background is gilded with arabesques formed by punch-marked dots. The gold ring has a pale brown faceted stone.
Cf. the very similar page in the French card at the Bibliothèque Nationale, pl. 3, and also the King of Swords in the Visconti set, Burlington Magazine, ill. on p. 238.
Eight of Sabre Swords.
Six of Straight Swords [i.e., Clubs].
Ten of Chalices.
Seven of Coins. (photo missing)
Quattrocento playing cards, worth being counted among the most beautiful antiques from the golden century of Italian art, were never studied enough; given their enormous importance, we would like to provide a complete list of them.
A LIST OF 15TH-CENTURY ITALIAN ILLUMINATED PLAYING CARDS AS KNOWN SO FAR
1) Visconti cards. 67 pieces. Size 19 x 9. Painted by Marziano di Tortona for Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan (1412-1447). They have always been with the [Visconti] family. Published by Count Parravicino in The Burlington Magazine (III, 1903, p.237 ff.). This set was originally paid 1500 gold ducats (about 80,000 lire today). Among the Italian cards, these are the earliest. Cf. D'Allemagne I, p.183 ff.
2) Giuseppe Brambilla cards.  48 pieces. Size 17 x 7. Bought in Venice in the early 19th century. The background to the figures shows a lozenge pattern, that of the pips has floral motifs. The cards show Filippo Maria Visconti's colours and coat of arms; one coin card features a gold coin of the same prince. There is a quantity of remarkable Gothic motifs. These cards are from the same period as those at no. 1).
3) Colleoni cards. 61 pieces. Painted by Antonio di Cicognara in 1484 for Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, son of Francesco Sforza. Size 18 x 9 [cm]. Now they are divided as a) 35 cards belonged to Count Colleoni until 1903, when he sold them to J. P. Morgan; b) 26 cards kept at Bergamo's Accademia Carrara as a bequest of Count Baglioni.
The famous illuminator Cicognara also painted another set of cards for two sisters of Cardinal Ascanio who were nuns at Cremona's Augustinian convent. These cards were lost when the convent was suppressed under Joseph II.
What the above decks (1, 2, 3) have in common is the gilded background of the figures and the silver background of the numeral cards.
4) Four cards in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (Star, Knave of Coins, Death, the Fountain). 17 x 8.5 [cm], 2 mm thick. Colonel Croft Lyons bought them in Milan shortly before 1915 and they entered the Museum as his bequest. They are very likely to have been illuminated for the Colleoni family, for one of them (the Fountain Cupid) carries a shield with the Colleoni arms and the motto "nec metu". In style they are very different from the Catania set. The colours too are less subtle and the workmanship is coarser. In general, they are more similar to the Sforza cards at no. 3).
5) Four cards belonging to the "Worshipful company of makers of playing cards", London. They are much smaller than the others and measure 13.5 x 7 [cm]. In 1926 they were displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The cards are: Knight, Ace of Swords, Fountain, Castle. Stylistically they are very close to the Colleoni cards (no. 3).
6) The Museo Correr, Venice, owns four cards which I am reproducing with the Director's kind permission. The Director has also provided me with photographs made by Cavalier Pietro Fiorentini. The cards were bequeathed to the Museum by its founder Teodoro Correr. They measure 17.6 x 9.3 [cm]. The backgrounds are decorated with blue scrolls and small gilded discs with great profusion of dots. The cards are the following: a) Ace of Swords (?). A large sword with gilded handle enfiling a large lilied crown, also gilded. A red heart is skewered on the tip of the sword. b) Two of Clubs. The handles and ends are gilded. One club is blue, the other is red. d) [sic!] Four of Coins. The discs are gilded with dots forming punch-marked rosettes arranged to form a circle, and a larger rose in the middle. The back is undecorated and of an ivory-yellow colour. Cf. Merlin, "Origine des cartes à jouer", 1869, pl. 8, 9. These cards are completely different from the Catania ones.
7) 16 cards originally in the Figdor Collection, Vienna. Sold at auction in Lucerne on June 15th 1932 (Katalog Gilhofer u. Ranschburg, p. 127, no. 612 Taf. 49). They come from the collection of Baron Gerôme [sic!] Pichon, who bought them from Victor Gay. Size: 13.9 x 7.8. See Allemagne I, p. 184 ff. and II, plate[s?] on p. 12 and p. 38. Four were published by d’Allemagne in "Rivista del Collegio Araldico", 1906, p. 270 ff. (a) Queen of Cups, Figdor Sale, plate 49; b) Knave of Swords, d) [sic!] Knight of Swords, Figdor Sale, plate 49).
The gilded punch-marked background is similar to the Catania cards, but these cards are smaller, very different in style and much later (end of the 15th century).
8) Count Cicognara owned 23. Each measured 19 x 9 [cm] and was four times larger than the usual cards. Later, they came to be owned by the Tress [?] frères, Paris. Their present whereabouts are unknown. (Cf. Cicognara, Memorie, etc. p. 160. Merlin, Origine des cartes à jouer, p. 90).
When talking about 15th-century Italian playing cards, these are associated with the so-called Mantegna Tarot. Yet, the name of this most important master is wrongly connected with them. These engravings are the work of Florentine goldsmith and engraver Baccio Baldini, who designed them in Florence around 1470. Then they were engraved in Venice, which explains the Venetian dialect in the inscriptions that are visible on them .
The playing cards that came from the Orient had been known in Europe from the year 1369; they were introduced into Viterbo in 1379. The oldest to have come down to us are the famous 17 hand-painted French cards from the Bibliothèque Nationale (no. 5634), called of Charles VI (1380-1422). They are assumed to have been painted between 1390 and 1393, but an accurate examination of the originals suggests to me the beginning of the Quattrocento, hence quite close to the Visconti cards. They have a strong French look and have nothing to do with the Italian ones. The first colour publication was made by the Société des Bibliophiles français, Paris, 1844, under the title "Jeux de cartes Taroc et des cartes numerales, etc.".
Among the Italian cards that have come down to us, the oldest are certainly the Visconti ones (no.1). They are like the Brambilla (no.2) and the Colleoni cards (no.3) and certainly from Lombardy.
If we wonder which Italian region should the Catania cards be assigned to, we should first of all exclude Sicily, despite the fact that we know (Cicognara, p. 129) that, as early as 1450, a large quantity of playing-cards were imported into Sicily from Germany in exchange for colonial goods (p.8). The Catania cards, however, are doubtlessly Italian and, if we look at their style, certainly from Northern Italy, though from neither Lombardy nor Venice. A stylistic comparison with the Lombard and Venetian cards (nos.1-3) would absolutely exclude this.
One might perhaps think of Florence. Among the Benedictines’ cards (B1) on the shield held by the King an emblem is visible: a golden ring with a faceted diamond. Inside the ring stands a red feather with two green leaves at either side:  it is therefore the i[mpresa?]. Joined together with the impresa of the Gonzaga, Cosimo the Elder did, as the founder of the [Medici] dynasty, use the ring as a personal emblem. Should we therefore think of a Florentine origin for these cards? I don’t think so. As we have seen in the Visconti and Brambilla sets, Italian Quattrocento cards often display crests. The same happens, later, with the Este coat of arms (cf. Campori, ibidem). These « imprese » or crests refer to the people who ordered the cards and have nothing to do with their place of production.
We do know that a set of illuminated cards was an extremely precious gift and often made a wedding present (Cicognara, ibidem, p.148 ff.). The Catania cards might as well have been ordered as a present by Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464) for the wedding of a member of his house with a Gonzaga, not from a Florentine painter but from a Northern Italian master.
A stylistic comparison of card no. 5 (the Stag) takes us to Verona, as it shows an evident Pisanello influence, while a number of other reasons take us to Ferrara and others to Mantua. The same thing applies to our no. 6 (the Hermit): a drawing from the Albertina in the manner of Pisanello (van Marle, "The Italian schools of painting", VIII, p. 119, fig. 68) is very similar; even more similar is the St Anthony Abbot in Pisanello’s painting at London’s National Gallery (van Marle, ibidem, fig. 65), dated about 1440.
Certain Ferrarese influences are also evident. Thus, the landscape in our card no. 2 [the World] finds a very eloquent comparison in a miniature by Reginaldus Pisanus de Monopoli di Bari, whose artistic dependence on the Ferrarese school has been highlighted by Hermann.
It is within the Ferrara-Mantua-Verona triangle that we must place the anonymous master of the Catania cards, which would be dated around 1450.
Literature on playing cards in general is vast; not all books, however, deal with their artistic side, which is the most important thing.
The main works are:
Henri René d'Allemagne, Les cartes à jouer du XIV au XX siècle, II vol. Paris, 1906 (a masterpiece).
Merlin, R., Origine des cartes à jouer. Recherches nouvelles sur les Naibis les Tarots et sur les autres espèces des cartes. Paris, 1869.
Jeux de cartes Tarots et des cartes numerales du XIV au XVIII siècles [représentés en] cent planches d'apres del originaux publiés par la Société des Bibliophiles Français. Paris, Imprimerie des Crapelet 1844 (very rare!).
Hughes Willshire, A descriptive catalogue of playing and other cards in the British Museum 1876.
Samuel W. Singer, Researches into the history of playing cards, London, 1816.
As to Italian cards in particular: cf. Cicognara, Memorie spettanti alla storia della calcografia, Prato, 1834.
Venturi, Rivista storica di Torino.
Campori, Le carte da giuoco dipinte per gli Estensi nel sec. XV, Mantova, 1875.
Zdekauer, Il giuoco in Italia nell'Archivio stor. ital. XVII, 1886.
Zdekauer, Archivio veneto XXVII, p. 132 ff.
A. Lenzi, Bibliografia italiana dei [giuochi di] carte. Firenze, 1892.
There are two footnotes which I was unable to place:
Cf. J. Gelli, Divise motti e imprese p. 437 no. 1555.
In Graz Cathedral there are some interesting reliquaries coming from Mantua and evidently based on drawings executed by Mantegna between 1450 and 1460, the Gonzaga impresa appears more than once. Cf. Coudenohove-Erthal. Die Reliquienschreine des Grazer Domes, Taf. 18.
 For the Brambilla cards the antiquarian Baslini offered 3,000 francs in 1903. For the 26 Colleoni cards (our no. 3b), Count Roncalli of Bergamo was offered 5,000 lire. The cards were then given by Countess Colleoni to Count Baglioni in exchange for a painting by Fra' Galgario.
 The stylistic distinction is incorrect. All these cards are by one and the same hand.
 Also cf. Hermanin, "La vita nelle stampe", p. 27, ff.
 The oldest illustration of card players is found in a manuscript in the British Museum (no. 12228) "Le Roman du Roi Meliadus de Lennoys par Helie de Borron". The relative illumination on folio 313 is published by Singer, Researches, p. 68, and in the Art Journal 1859, p. 87. The date is around 1350. Cf. also H. Willshire, A descriptive catalogue of playing and other cards in the British Museum, 1876, p. 14.
 We also know that in 1427 some German masters in Bologna designed playing cards, cf. Burchhardt, Kultur der Renaissance, XI ed. II, Excurs. p. __ and there were so many cards imported into Venice from abroad that Venice saw its own production under threat.
 The Rucellai too had the diamond and feathers.
 Jahrbuch des Kaiserhauses XIX (1898) p. 147 ff., 201 f.