Playing cards came to Europe in the Middle Ages, through Mediterranean trade and the Crusades. The system still in use in Italy is based on four series of 10 or 13 cards each, identified by as many suits or pips (Coins, Swords, Cups, Clubs), each made up of 7 or 10 numeral cards (with numbers indicated by the corresponding quantity of pips) and 3 "court" cards, with the pip associated to a military or aristocratic (namely, "court") figure: King, Knight, Jack/Lady. The Topkapi Museum, Istanbul, holds a series of 14th-century Mameluke cards, hand painted and decorated in gold, similar in suits and design to the Italian ones, which confirms the eastern origin of the prototype.
To this type of deck, in 15th-century Italy a series of trump cards were added, to be used in games that become increasingly complex over time: these extra-cards were called "triumphs" and, later, "tarot cards". They illustrate the Medieval and Renaissance collective imagination: social classes, ethical ideals, cosmographic and religious concepts. The oldest examples, hand-decorated with gold and precious pigments like those of Topkapi, were produced for the Renaissance courts of northern Italy, before spreading, between the 16th and 17th centuries, and in cheaper printed versions, to all social classes and other parts of Italy.
The focus of the first section of the exhibition is, in fact, the so-called "Alessandro Sforza Tarot", an incomplete Italian-suited deck (4 Triumphs, 1 King and 10 pip cards) whose origin is uncertain. It has been associated to the Sforza of Pesaro because of the emblem of the diamond ring with flower on the shield of the King of Swords. To this set, in the permanent collection of Castello Ursino, also belong an Empress and a Two of Clubs from a Palermo collection, as confirmed by the date 1428 on a recycled sheet inside one of these cards, matched by the same date on another recycled sheet inside one of the "Alessandro Sforza" cards.
Very similar to the illuminated cards of Catania and Palermo is the so-called "Tarot de Charles vi" of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France: by combining the two incomplete decks and the two Palermo cards the same prototype can be assumed for both series, which are similar in iconography, style and dimensions but by different hands. It is indeed possible that several sets of this type were produced as gifts to remember a special occasion; certainly some details point to recognizable historical figures and particular events, although these elements are not yet sufficient in number to shed light on the patronage and/or destination of such objects.
Another early deck, little known due to the damage affecting it but interesting as a comparison, is kept in Turin's Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria, and is the subject of a recent study by Thierry Depaulis , who has documented the original look of some of the cards. Historically accredited as a tarot deck despite its lack of Trionfi, and generally attributed to the Venetian school, it confirms the spread of a common creative model in Renaissance Italy.
Finally, this first section contains two in-depth articles. Cristina Dorsini offers a pleasant journey among the oldest decks from Milan and Ferrara; Emilia Maggio reveals the interesting contents of the notes to the Castello Ursino Tarot by the important Czech archaeologist and art dealer Ludwig Pollak, found in the Archives of the same Museum, by providing an English translation of the whole document.