Sunday, November 6, 2016

May 13, 2016: Ca. 1450: Triumphs & birthtrays

Translator's Introduction.
(by Michael S. Howard)

This essay is dated 13 May 2016, with the original, "1450ca: Firenze – Trionfi e deschi da parto",
online at

Words in brackets are mine, mostly to give the original Italian for certain words and phrases that he either uses along with other words for the same thing (e.g. naibi vs. carte, meaning cards) or, in the case of long phrases, that I wasn't sure I translated right.

The essay is the first in a series on the minor arts, the others, at least so far, are on Marriage Chests and illuminated manuscripts. I posted it originally at  There is some discussion, of which I include my own reflections here, after the translation. 

Ca. 1450: Florence - Triumphs and birth trays

(by Franco Pratesi)


This study returns to the field of research on card games in Florence, and the part discussed here corresponds to the appearance among naibi [playing cards] of the variant of triumphs [trionfi]. As often happens with games, the information so far collected on the introduction into Florence of both naibi and triumphs is incomplete. The dates now known, of 1377 for naibi, 1440 for triumphs, are of extreme interest because much of the evidence for the oldest dates found so far typically appears quite uncertain and unreliable. For naibi, all historians in this area agree that they arrived in Florence from the Islamic world (without being able to pinpoint the exact path); for triumphs, it is uncertain if the birth could be right in Florence (needing also to take into account in some way the unusual Milan pack of Marziano (1), but no one doubts that the origin was Italian.

If there are discussions among experts with conflicting views, these relate to the composition of the triumph pack. The game of triumphs could even be done, at least in principle, with the naibi themselves, attributing the "triumphal character" which means in practice trumping, to some of the deck or an entire suit; particularly old and recorded in the chronicles is the Hispanic triumph, just that kind, and it seems that even some of the first reports from France were references to a game of the same genre. But as regards the case of the triumphs reported in Florence, experts agree that it was a pack of naibi containing a special series of added "triumphal" cards. On the number and depiction of those special cards at the time of their first introduction into the deck of naibi, we have no information from Florence and other cities. There are clues, from Ferrara and Bologna, which could be of a kind of added fifth suit, with the cards having the function of trumps; the composition of a pack of this kind would most plausibly total 70 cards, but also 60 or 80 appears possible. Other historians instead see in this added series already something very similar, if not identical, to what we know later

as the 22 triumphal cards of the "standard" tarot of 78 cards, that is, a sequence independent of the four suits, and also formed of a larger number of cards.

What draws the attention of all concerned is the triumphal nature of these additional cards, which, especially in Florence, are found in the midst of so many other contemporary uses of triumphal motifs in art and literature. It happened to me to search frantically for traces of the tarot sequence in Florentine artistic and literary products, but without success (2). It is much easier to look for a connection with various triumphal motifs present in different ways in shorter series, in other events and popular items, from processions to poems to paintings. In this study the focus is only on birth trays, which were objects whose production and trade in Florence extended widely in the middle of the 15th century, even using richly decorated triumphal motifs.

Giovanni di ser Giovanni

I have chanced several times in the past onto 15th century birth trays, round or polygonal wooden trays of 50-70 cm in diameter, and in particular those produced by Scheggia, Giovanni di Ser Giovanni, brother of Masaccio. His output was varied, ranging from frescoes to paintings, to inlays, to marriage chests, and in all kinds of his products triumphal motifs abounded (3). I did not find documents on his production of triumph-like playing cards, but common playing cards of his production are found for the first time recorded in the account books of a sewing shop (4). If you think of a Florentine artist definitely qualified for a production of triumph cards "naibi a trionfi” at a high quantitative and qualitative level it is easy to arrive at him. But now I want to focus on the birth tray, starting with the section on birth trays in Ref. 3, copied here below from an Italian version (5).
It is known that the production of birth trays had a significant diffusion from the mid-fourteenth century, just after the Black Death, when the population 
2. F. Pratesi, The Playing-Card, Vol. 41, No. 2 (2012) 95-114 [online starting For succeeding pages click the "next" button].
5. F. Pratesi, Giochi di carte nella repubblica fiorentina [Card games in the Florentine Republic]. Ariccia 2016

of Florence was disastrously reduced by more than half. More than ever, the birth of a new child became a welcome event and more care was paid to both the mother and the infant, to save their lives.

These objects had a polygonal or circular shape and were used by pregnant women so they could eat lying in bed. After this specific utilization, the same objects were often used simply as trays or even as works of art that could be hung on the walls as decorations. Experts still debate whether these objects also were included among wedding presents, as an omen of an impending pregnancy; personally I have never found them in the numerous lists of Florentine trouseaus that I have read. Usually, birth tray manufacturers had several specimens almost ready for sale, and each time one was ordered, they could easily finish it, adding some specific feature of the recipient, typically their coat of arms painted on the back of the tray.

A different issue, but perhaps very relevant for our field of playing card history, is that of when triumphal images began to be used in the decoration of these objects. In this case, the Scheggia production, we find excellent examples of precisely such objects, decorated with triumphal motifs; simply draw your attention to the tray with the Triumph of Fame commissioned for nothing less than the birth of Lorenzo the Magnificent (Fig. 1). The panel shows a beautiful image of the Triumph of Fame, and it must be considered that other similar trays by Giovanni are known, of the Triumph of Love and so on. The fact that Giovanni got commissions from the Medici family, and others of a high social level, is clear proof that his reputation was well established in the Florentine environment.
I have allowed myself not only to reproduce here something already published, but also to mark one sentence in bold, which is precisely the one that motivated the present study. The development was different from expectations: it was not at all necessary to make further archival research, as I imagined; it was enough to study a bit better the existing literature on the subject. Much of the principal information, also useful for possible links with our field of playing cards, can already be gotten from a few monographs dedicated entirely to birth trays, recalled in what follows.

We are now examining the triumphal motifs in birth tray decorations, but we already knew that Florence, and to a lesser extent other cities at the time, were at the center of a kind of fashion present in many works of art, major and minor. Already by looking into Scheggia’s artistic production, it was easy to report the appearance of triumphal motifs in almost all the categories of products that came from his workshop. However, it was lacking an important part of the

historical reconstruction: figuring out when that trend began. The most important question, and at the same time most uncertain, is whether the spread of triumphal motifs began simultaneously in its various manifestations, or if between one sector and another several years, if not decades, could elapse. Of course, if the true dates of the beginning in the various sectors were known, it would become easy to follow the diffusion path up towards the source and figure out which artistic product served as the original example and which might be considered the copy transferred to a different area, including, for us especially interesting, that of playing cards.

Monographs and catalogs

The production of birth trays was very limited: as regards to its then current locations, only Siena paralleled, to a lesser degree and with some differences, the typical Florentine production; as regards to the time period, it came to little more than a century, because the wooden birth trays were soon replaced by particular services [? serviti] of decorated pottery. Despite the concentration of production in a few locations and for a limited time, the study of these objects is now hampered by the fact that the trays preserved are dispersed in many cities on more continents. For an art historian who is interested in the sector, it is not easy to document and complete the study by examining a fairly full set of works of art of this kind. Therefore extensive research dedicated just to birth trays and exclusively to those objects becomes essential; the preliminary selection of dozens of pieces from public and private collections around the world on which to conduct a comprehensive study obviously allows analysis and comparison which are otherwise difficult or impossible. The comments that I intend to move forward on the subject, with reference to playing cards, then not surprisingly are based on two major recent monographs; I will use the especially important contributions by Cecilia De Carli (6), and Claudia Däubler-Hauschke (7); they are two above-average sized books; the first is 254 pages and contains a catalog of 77 examples; the second has 388 pages, and describes 62 and
6. C. De Carli, I deschi da parto e la pittura del primo Rinascimento toscano [Birth trays and the painting of the early Tuscan Renaissance]. Torino 1997.
7. C. Däubler-Hauschke, Geburt und Memoria [Birth and Memoria]. München 2003.

then another 23 in the appendix. I clearly have profited from the opportunity that these two works offer us the ability to examine rich catalogs of these works, discussed individually and also inserting it comprehensively in the context of the period.

I have leafed through several other studies on birth trays, usually articles published in art history journals, and I found some useful information, limited, however, to the involvement of Petrarch's Triumphs, in studies by Alexandra Ortner presented in an article (8) and in a book related to his thesis (9).

Decorations of chivalry cycles

The first attestations of birth trays date back to the years around 1383, known today both by the first secure documents and the most ancient trays preserved; However, a previous existence, yet undocumented, seems possible. It cannot be easy to find the real startinh date for the production of birth trays, also because of similar wooden tables that may have been produced and used for different purposes. Without wanting to go back to the real origins, the Black Death is often mentioned in this regard; not directly, but the subsequent need to increase the city's population, decimated by the plague, hence after the middle of the fourteenth century. At that time the attention given to babies and mothers became understandably more. Probably the first phase of production of trays and extraordinary decorative care did not correspond; It is limited to the functionality of the object, especially appreciated for the convenience it offered. The appearance and subsequent increasingly wide diffusion of decorated birth trays that occurred at the beginning of the fifteenth century allows quite easily a correlation with the socio-political situation that was developing in the city of Florence and is part of a large new flowering and spread of luxury items. The famous revolt of the Ciompi in Florence in 1378 had left deep traces, even if the revolutionary changes were quickly reabsorbed by the restoration of governments permanently controlled by the main urban families. At first glance you might think the previous situation had been restored,
8. A. Ortner, Rivista di storia della miniatura [Journal of the history of miniatures], 4 (1999) 81-96.
9. A. Ortner, Petrarcas "Trionfi" in Malerei, Dichtung und Festkultur [Petrarch’s “Trionfi” in Painting, Poetry and Celebrations], Weimar 1998.

but only then appeared a deeply felt need by the ruling classes to present themselves worthy of the privileged position they occupied. In some manner there became indispensable something that was less common, the exhibition of a superiority over ordinary citizens in the same culture in all aspects of social life, in clothing, in feasts, in gastronomy.

That sort of race to show themselves superior and worthy to command, or otherwise directly influence policy decisions of government bodies, took place not only on a reduced scale by those belonging to the upper class, but on the contrary ignited an extensive phenomenon of imitation, such that even the intermediate social classes began to follow trends adopted by the major urban families. As a secondary aspect of these phenomena we can also mention what interests us here: birth trays began to be embellished with the most varied decorations, and many artists devoted themselves also to this area in their workshops; Also these particular products then became more popular and were purchased, possibly in versions of a lesser quality, by wider layers of the citizenry.

The motifs for these decorations, imposed with increasing frequency, were not, however, the triumphal motifs that interest us. The most typical character was that of love, the pleasure of love, and could express itself in a more or less prominent manner in various subjects. Even if the favored subjects separated into sacred and profane, as is feasible especially later on, one should still take into account what was seen before: even in the early biblical scenes the choice of episodes went to cases where amorous aspects were present. For example, a recurring theme was that of Susanna in the bath, but here the main intention was to show to the eyes of buyers, as well as to those of the Elders, the graces of the chaste Susanna.

The literary sources for these episodes date back to previous centuries and at times also have in addition a Provencal or Burgundian source: the most frequent motifs were in fact love gardens and amorous hunts. The immediate reference was often Boccaccio in his works echoing classical literature, presented, however, with the eyes of his time without going back to the original Latin works but based on recent versions, reduced and modified. There was especially the presence of references to refined courtly civilization and chivalry; However, besides expressing the beauty and valor of the participants at the scene there was always the lure to the recipients, an invitation to reap the fruits of love and the praise

of marital happiness in their most serene and joyful aspects, beginning with frequent references to the nativity and the figures of putti, often present even in the rear faces of the trays.

Decorations with triumphs

Almost at once, in mid-century, the atmosphere and fashion change, and also the subjects depicted on birth trays; not only that, even if a given subject remains similar to the earlier ones, the manner in which it is viewed and depicted by the artist changes. De Carli describes this important change as follows.
Towards the middle of the fifteenth century, the trays showed a change in the cultural situation that departs radically from the romantic idyll of Virtus et voluptas present in the Gardens of Love, in loving hunts, stories of Nymphs of Fiesola or Teseida, whose main reference was Boccaccio. In its place we find Virgil, Homer, Petrarch, whose triumphs unfold the soul's progress from love to chastity, fame, plotting, in a sense, the new trays’ and chests’ iconography, whose authors are the professionals Scheggia, brother of Masaccio, and Apollonio di Giovanni, with their respective workshops.
So we arrive at the point of our specific interest, birth trays decorated on the main face with figures of triumphs; as in the earlier case, the rear face can have the family crest or other images requested by the purchaser, or even be left at a minimum with small decorations; we can neglect them and devote our attention exclusively to the decorative motifs of the main face and especially to the triumphal ones. It cannot be by chance if the same families who now were competing to see who purchased the trays with the most beautiful images of triumphs were the same that in mid-century were competing to obtain valuable codices of Petrarch's Trionfi, only then richly decorated with miniatures made by the best specialists.

The transformation of the subjects and, above all, that of the atmosphere, becoming more engaged and philologically correct, is not similarly reported by the different researchers; if the focus is simply on the grounds chosen for the decoration, without taking into account any differences in approach and vision, the transformation shown can easily

escape a first examination. In particular, the most recent book of the two taken here as the main references similarly describes an extensive catalog of birth trays, but the reconstruction of the context and the historical evolution of the motifs adopted by preference is less defined. Initially it even says that various themes were adopted in parallel, so that a temporal distinction would only be possible broadly. However, when in the following the most common themes are briefly presented, the various cases are described, albeit approximately, with limits in time and of different places (including some suitable lag for Siena, the only other city with a significant diffusion of birth trays) [my translation follows Franco's quotation of the German].
Eine zeitlich bedingte Präferenz für bestimmte Sujets läßt sich nur in äußerst groben Zügen festmachen, da viele Darstellungen parallel verwendet wurden. So kommen die wenigen alttestamentarischen Szenen zusammen mit den Gerechtigkeitsbildern im ganzen 15. Jahrhundert vor. Geburtsszenen finden sich sowohl in der ersten Hälfte des Quattrocento als auch hundert Jahre später. Im weiteren spiegelt sich exemplarisch die Entwicklung profaner italienischer Bildthemen wider: Höfische Liebesallegorien und Boccaccio-Illustrationen treten vom Ende des Trecento bis in die ersten Jahrzehnte des Quattrocento auf. Trionfi entsprechen vor allem einer Vorliebe von ca. 1450-1470, während mythologische Themen erstmals in Florenz gegen Ende des Trecento, aber hauptsächlich bei den Sieneser deschi da parto des frühen Cinquecento zu verzeichnen sind.

[A temporally determined preference for certain subjects can be permitted only in very broad terms, as many representations were used in parallel. So the few attested Old Testament scenes occur together with images of Justice throughout the 15th century. Birth scenes can be found in the first half of the Quattrocento and also hundred years later. In another is reflected exemplarily the development of secular Italian picture subjects again: Courtly Love-allegories and Boccaccio illustrations occur from the end of the fourteenth century to the first decades of the Quattrocento. Trionfi correspond especially to a preference of about 1450-1470, while mythological themes can be reported first in Florence toward the end of the Trecento, while for the Siennese birth trays are documented mainly in the early Cinquecento.]
What interests us especially is the theme of triumphs; and for that here too the 1450-1470 period is expressly stated, again later than what we wanted in order to associate it to the first introduction of of triumphal cards into the pack of naibi.


As stated at the beginning, this study is part of an extensive investigation on the initial diffusion in Florence first of cards [naibi] and then of triumph cards [naibi a trionfi], or simply triumphs [trionfi]; in this case it involves particularly how triumphal motifs present in the decorations of playing cards and birth trays could be connected. The two different products had a considerable circulation among the Florentine citizenry, also in the same years; However, it would be important to understand which of the two cases could give rise to the other, directly or, more likely,

indirectly, with the involvement of additional products or events. Well, to the best of our current knowledge about the two different types of products, it must be concluded that triumphal motifs appeared in playing cards before in birth trays. If the period of trays with triumphal motifs is the two decades 1450-1470, it certainly could not have significant influence on the introduction of triumphal motifs in playing cards, which already was occurring for years.

This finding is found to proceed in the opposite direction to that assumed by other historical reconstructions: the most common assumption is that the triumphal motifs that had been adopted in many Florentine handicraft products had finally been adopted also by playing card manufacturers. It would of course be even more difficult to believe in an influence on other artistic products, which precisely from the manufacture of playing cards would have taken its origin [che proprio dai fabbricanti delle carte da gioco prendesse la sua origine].

Our aim, always present, is the reconstruction of the inclusion of triumphal motifs in playing cards. Today the first known documentation on triumph cards [naibi a trionfi] is in Florence in 1440, but it is not excluded that we need to anticipate the discovery of new documents; we know that only in 1450 was the game of triumphs explicitly allowed by Florentine laws. The most plausible assumption is that the adoption of the deck with the additions triumphal cards would have occurred following a fashion diffused into a variety of popular products, including the birth trays under consideration here. In short, everything would suggest that the triumphal motifs should be in birth trays around 1430 or before. It is therefore surprising how much we learn from the above studies: a remarkable set of examples leads to the conclusion that triumphal motifs were adopted into birth trays only from the middle of the century. The famous birth tray of Scheggia commissioned for the birth of Lorenzo the Magnificent was not, as one might have thought, the fruit of particular work now mature, continuing a series of similar products prepared for several years. It can however be concluded that the tray was one of the first, and belonged to the first years of production of that kind.

At this point, the careful examination of many examples of birth trays, by which we were prepared to better understand the triumphs in playing cards, becomes less interesting; when these trays were produced, triumph packs [naibi a trionfi] were already in long circulation.


The triumphal motifs that appeared in playing cards before 1440 were already imposed or were then emerging in various other fields of artistic and literary production [I motivi trionfali che comparvero nelle carte da gioco prima del 1440 si erano già imposti o si stavano allora affermando in vari altri settori della produzione artistica e letteraria] and formed a kind of fashion at the city level, [in Florence] more than in any other city, to our knowledge. In this study we have followed the historical development that occurred in the decoration of birth trays, which also at one point in their distribution were characterized by the presence of triumphal motifs. It might be thought that this fashion would be presented earlier in birth trays and later in playing cards; however, from what has been reconstructed so far, which has been summarized in this note, it appears that the fashion of triumphal motifs was introduced into birth trays only in the middle of the century, while triumphal cards had been around for at least a decade.

 Franco Pratesi

A few questions about birth trays
(by Michael S. Howard, originally, somewhat longer (at

I want to raise a few questions.

(1) What triumphal motifs are we talking about, in common between birth trays and cards? Franco mentions “triumph of fame” and “triumph of love”. Are there others? They have to somehow be related to the theme of birth. So the triumphal motif of Death would hardly be appropriate, for example, or anything after death. But Chastity might work. So we have a so-called "triumph of Venus" in c. 1400 and a very triumphal looking David in c. 1440. The Old Testament is full of triumphant figures. Also, I see on Wikipedia ( that there was one of Diana and Acteon, and the lady with the scales and sword on the reverse, c. 1400. The recto then could be a Triumph of Chastity.

(2) Isn’t it somewhat misleading to say that the birth tray for Lorenzo in 1449 is one of the first of its kind? That is because while it may be one of the first times this theme is on a birth tray, it had already been, with very similar elements, in manuscript illuminations before that date, decades before in fact, and also at least one cassone, perhaps from the 1420s or 1430s, sometimes attributed to a suspected card maker, dal Ponte. I posted an image of the cassone at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1005#p14964. And while he did do "garden of love" type cassone, he also did "the seven virtues" and "the seven liberal arts", separated by Dante and Petrarch (shown at that link). The virtues, at least, are not foreign to the tarot.

(3) The sources say that birth trays were done for the upper class first and then imitated by those just below. is this evidence that can be generalized to cards? Illuminations of Petrarch's poem are by nature (in books) very expensive. The fashion for them (starting 1440) precedes birth trays by a decade. Triumphal imagery in pictorial art generally seems to be a fashion going from the top of society down. Is the same likely to be true in the case of cards?

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