Andrea Vitali's Essays

The Prince

The creator of the Ludus Triumphorum


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, Feb. 2012

This essay written by Andrea Vitali is a part of the “Triumphs, Tarot and Tarocchini in Bologna from the fifteenth to the twentieth century” included in The Tarocchino of Bologna. History, Iconography, Divination from the fifteenth to the twentieth century  by Andrea Vitali and Terry Zanetti. (Martina Editions, Bologna, 2005)


A famous painting, until a few years ago in  Palazzo Felicini in Bologna and now mysteriously disappeared, portrays in 17th century clothes Prince Francesco Antelminelli Castracani Fibbia, descendant of the famous  condottiero [leader of mercenary troops] Castruccio Castracani. The work was painted by an unknown  artist during the 17th century. The painting shows the Prince standing near a table holding some whole-length Bolognese Tarocchino cards (the first, visible, is the Emperor). Other cards are on the ground (the Queen of Staves and the Queen of Coins, while a third card is unrecognizable); another  is shown falling from the table (the Eight of Coins).


Under this painting there are the following words:


(Francesco Antelminelli Castracani Fibbia, Prince of Pisa, Montegiori, and Pietra Santa,  Lord of Fusecchio, son of Giovanni, born of Castruccio Duke of  Lucca, Pistoia, Pisa & fled to Bologna in service to Bentivoglio, was made commander in chief of the Bolognese army and the first of this family, which was called Fibbia in Bologna; married Francesca, daughter of Giovanni Bentivoglio.
He was the inventor of the game Tarocchino of Bologna. By the XVI City Reforms he had the privilege of putting the Fibbia coat of arms on the Queen of Staves [card]  and that of his wife’s on the  Queen of Coins. Born in the year 1360, he died in the year 1419) (figure 1).

This information certainly has various inconsistencies and errors, but, as we can see in the wording, there are basic signs which could lead us to hypothesize that it was really the Prince who invented the game of tarot, or rather, the Ludus Triumphorum. First of all, the story is backed up by lots of documents which suggest that  Francesco Antelminelli Castracani existed and wasn’t born of the imagination of the one who commissioned the painting. As we have said, the wording on the painting has some errors. Giovanni wasn’t Francesco’s father, son of Castruccio Castracani. Giovanni Castracani Antelminelli was in fact the son of the condottiero, as we are informed by various chronicles that treated of that noble Tuscan family. Direct information comes from a will of Castracani made a year before his death, which was fully reported by Aldo Manucci  in Le attioni di Castruccio Castracane degli Antelminelli Signori di Lucca con la genealogia della famiglia (The action of Castruccio Castracane of  Antelminelli Lord of Lucca with his family tree) (1), where otherwise we can find interesting news about the condottiero's last living moments and about his children.

Here are some revelations: “…avendo fatto il suo testamento l’anno adietro del MCCCXXVII alli 20. di Dicembre, in Lucca…ma sentendosi mancare, & essere sopra fatto della gravezza del male; & avendo discorso con li suoi Segretarij, & dati molti ordini; fece chiamare à se la Duchessa sua moglie, M. Nicolo Castracani Antelminelli, Principal Vegli, Duccio Sandei, & F. Lazaro, Priore di Altopascio; & lasciolli nel testamento tutori, con Enrico, Valevano, Giovanni & Verde, suoi figliuoli; a’ quali con volto intrepido diede la benedizione paterna e l’ultimo bacio” ( …having made his testament the year before, MCCCXXVII on December 20th in Lucca,…but feeling lacking & being above the fact of the gravity of his illness, he spoke with his secretaries, giving them lots of orders; he desired to see his wife, the Duchess,  M. Nicolo Castracani Antelminelli, Principal Vegli, Duke Sandei, & F. Lazaro, Prior of Altopascio & executor of the will, and Enrico, Valevano, Giovanni & Verde, his sons, to whom he gave with intrepid face the paternal benediction and a last kiss) (p. 95). Castruccio expired on 23th September 1328 at the age of  XLVII, five months, & five days” (p. 97). Giovanni died still young in 1343 and he was buried in Pisa, near his mother in St. Francis Church (figure 2 -  Giovanni Castracani's tombstone / figure 3 - Coat of Arms of the Castracani Family on the tombstone): “In the same temple Giovanni, son of  Castruccio, is buried, a knight and important man in many battles. His upper body is sculpted, armed, and dressed in Chivalric clothes, with the emblem of his family: & the inscription said: “Virtutis exemplum. momentaneo iuventutis flore clarescens, praematurae mortis in cursu praeventus, tegor hac in petra Ioannes, natus olim Illustris Domini Castruccij, Lucani Ducis, altissimae mentis, indelendae memoriae, libertatis patriae defensoris, hostibus semper invicti. Anno MCCCXLIII. Die XIJ.Maj”. (Exemplar of virtue. While I got fame in the flower of youth, anticipating the path of premature death, I lie covered by this stone, me, Giovanni, son of the famous lord Castruccio, Duke of Lucca, of the highest intelligence, of indestructible memory, defender of the homeland, never defeated by the enemy. 14th May 1343) (p. 107). It is clear, based on the inscription under the painting, that Francesco wasn’t Giovanni’s son, because he was born 17 years after his death.

Like his brothers, Giovanni was a Prince of many Tuscan cities, and in particular Prince of Pietra Santa and Monteggiori, thanks to a charter given by the Emperor Lodovico the Bavarian, who “Volendo poi finger alcuna dimostratione di benevolenza e, meschiarla alla grande ingratitudine, confermò alli 10. di Aprile alla Duchessa, moglie di Castruccio, le entrate, che gli aveva lasciate il marito; e diedegli libera podestà, & dominio sopra il castello di Monteggiori, & suo distretto come Patrimonio, con tutte le ville nel Contado, & terre sopra Pietrasanta; assegnando quattromila Fiorini d’oro l’anno sopra esse Vicaria, a lei & à figliuoli, & e loro discendenti. & alli 17. di dicembre fece due Privilegi à quella Signora, à Valerano, e Giovanni predetti, confermandoli Signori di Monteggiori, & loro successori, con la istessa entrata” (Wanting to demonstrate benevolence, mingled with great ingratitude, on 10th April granted, to the Duchess, wife of Castruccio, all the real estate left by her husband; gave her free power &  dominion over Monteggiori Castle and all the towns in Contado and the lands above Pietrasanta; assigning four thousand gold florins per year on this Vicarage, to her, her sons and their descendants; making on 17th December, two charters to the Duchess, and to the aforesaid Valerano and Giovanni, confirming them and their successors as Lords of Monteggiori, with the same income) (p. 105). Manucci has the whole text of this charter in his work, as well as the Castruccio will.

So, who was this Francesco in the painting?  Manucci, and also other documents and family trees referring to this family  (figure 4), said that he was born of Orlando, son of  Enrico, first-born of Castruccio Castracani. From Manucci we discover that Enrico,  Giovanni’s brother, had a son named Orlando, who had four other sons, Castruccio, Enrico, Francesco and Rolando.

A Fibbia descendant, Padre Flaminio Fibbia, who was a member of the Order of the Benedictines, sent a letter on 12th March 1594 to his cousin, informing him about a family tree in the house of "Lord Bernardino l’Antelminelli Principal Gentleman of the City of Lucca, which he himself had seen, of which a copy in copper had been bequeathed.  He writes that this Lord of Lucca thought that the family in question descended from a man named Francesco, son of Rolando, who was born of Enrico, son of  Prince Castruccio; and about the emblem he said: “Now, I have no doubt that our family came from Antelminelli, through Castruccio Castracane, and this is proved by the (coat of) arms, which is completely identical to ours, which, as your Excellency already knows, represents half a dog with a collar on a light blue field and Buckles [Fibbie] on a pure white field, which is the true ancient emblem of the Antelminelli used by Castruccio Castracane, who shows the same images but with Buckles because of the surname change; the Eagle was added recently. He disapproved of the Eagle put there, although, as I told you before, this was a present of Charles V to our family. He said that the Eagle was received from the Emperors, but the real emblem is composed of a white Dog with a collar in a light blue field, set in a white shield in which, as I told you before, we put the Buckles”. The Benedictine lists all the names in the family tree, beginning with Castruccio Castracane, Prince of Lucca,  who had a son Enrico, and from him born Orlando who begat Francesco, who lived in Bologna, and from him followed the Family now called Fibbia - or Fibbie, in the manner of the people of Bologna and its Annals - adding that texts about the Castracani say that Francesco had two sons, Perazzino and Antonello” (2).

As for the presence of the Eagle in the coat of arms, it came from Emperor Charles V, who decreed it, in a letter-patent, on 27th  February 1533, to the "Doctor and cavalryman of the Pope’s army", Alessando Fibbia, our descendant. And later, in another letter- patent dated 1st October 1533, he granted the honour of placing a black eagle with a buckle in  it’s mouth on his family’s coat of arms (3). There is evidence in many of the works by historians in Bologna, such as Dolfi (4) or Montefani (5), both inspired by Alidosi (Antiani Consoli di Bologna, lib. 5 - Ancient Consuls of Bologna, Book 5) that Francesco was the son of Orlando, born of Enrico, son of Castruccio. This progeny is in another family tree, found in the Bologna State Archive (6).

There is no doubt about the fact that the branch descending of Enrico moved to Bologna, as we can see from the will dated 5th November 1561, drawn up by Joannis Baptista Frassetti, where Francesco Fibbia, son of Vincenzo, states that his noble family came from Francesco “descendentis a stirpe Henrici primogeniti Castruccii de Castracanis, olim Lucae Principis, qui Henricus expulsus fuit Anno 1328, & in hac civitate Bononiae Domicilium elexit, et habitavit in Domo Magna, sub Capella Sancti Prosperi, quam Vincentius praedictus postea vendidit illis de Desideriis Anno 1475" (descendant of the family of Enrico, first-born of Castruccio Castracani, formerly Prince of Lucca. This Enrico was ousted in the year 1328 and came to Bologna, where he lived in a big house in the parish of San Prospero which the aforesaid Vincenzo then sold it to some of Desideri in the year 1475). This will was printed from the original manuscript by the typographers Longhi in Bologna in 1764 (7).

So we have been able to discover that the Francesco Fibbia in the picture was real and that he was Prince of Pietrasanta and Monteggiori, thanks to the charter of Lodovico the Bavarian, transmitted to the descendants of the children of Castruccio; we also understand that he lived in Bologna following the transfer to this city of his family. It is probable that he never married Francesca, daughter of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, because she married Galeotto Manfredi, Lord of Faenza in 1482 in Bologna. The marriage  didn’t last, because in 1488 her husband died, killed by assassins under her orders, and she was free to marry Count Guido Torelli, a Vatican Chancellor. There aren’t any sources to testify to the presence of another Francesca, whether daughter of Giovanni I or a descendant from a secondary branch of the Bentivoglio family, of which the matrimonial stories aren't known with certainty. But the Fibbias were closely tied to many Lords of Bologna, because many held office in the Bentivolgios' Army, as I have found in all the documents above quoted. It is recorded, on this point, that a Biagio, called the Bolognino, joined up in 1420 with Bentivoglio to conquer Castel Bolognese. The family tree Discendenza di Guarniero I. Progenitore della Nobilissima Famiglia Antelminelli (Descendants of Guarniero I, Father of the aristocratic Antelminelli family) bears the same inscription as the painting: ““Biagio detto Bolognino Principe di Monteggiori e Pietrasanta Fugito in Bologna datosi a Bentivogli fu Generale Capitano. dell’Armi in Bologna. E creato Cavagliere fu de’ Signori” (Biagio called Bolognino Prince of Monteggiori and Pietrasanta, fled to Bologna,  in service to Bentivoglo, was General Captain in the army of the Bentivoglios. Was made a Knight and Lord of the Signori). The same words are also in the inscription under our picture: “Francesco Antelminelli Castracani Signore di Fusechio Conte Palatino, fugito in Bologna, e fatto Nobile Cittadino fu detto dalle Fibbie” (Francesco Antelminelli Castracani, Lord of Fusechio, Count of Palatino, fled to Bologna, and made a noble citzen was called Fibbia). In this document the year of his death is recorded as 1399 (8).

We know that the Fibbia and the Bentivoglio (coat of) arms, as the writing on the painting affirm, were printed on the 17th Century Queen of Staves and Queen of Coin tarots. As, for example, in “Alla Torre” Tarot,  dated to XVIIth century, where the Fibbia (coat of) arms appeared on the Queen of Staves (the Queen of Coins is  missing from the pack). These (coats of ) arms also appear in the same cards in many decks from the XVIII century, such as “Al Mondo” (figure 5 - figure 6) (9) and “Alla Colomba” (figure 7) (10). The ability to insert coats of arms of any nature, noble or not, in the oldest decks of cards was not subject to particular authorizations, so that any printer could do it. On this point one must wonder why these emblems inserted were those of the Fibbia and Bentivoglio, if not based on a tradition that saw in the Fibibia and their allied family the origin of these cards. Whoever commissioned the painting certainly wasn't well acquanted with the exact genealogy of the family and the different personal histories of its ancestors.  But today we can say that a good part of the inscription is well grounded in historical reality, and above all, the existence of Francesco Fibbia. That leads us to think that the Francesco of the painting really could be the inventor of Tarot, or rather, the game of Triumphs.


By a careful examination of what has been written on the picture, I believe that this hypothesis is well-founded. First of all, the person who commissioned it didn’t know the precise form of the game when the tarot was created, because it was unknown to those who wrote about it after the XVIth century. On the picture it is written that Francesco Fibbia was the inventor of Tarocchini, but we know that this represents a XVIth century variation of the game of tarot, previously existent in Bologna since the XVth century, when it had the name of Triumphs. All this means is that the author of the inscription, pointing to someone living between the XIVth and the XVth century as the inventor of Tarocchini, did not know the correct form of the game at the time of its creation, considering Tarocchini as the original form and not a later variant. The fact that the Bolognese had forgotten the word “Tarocchi” and its game of 78 cards is not surprising. On this point, Michael Dummett writes: "Although still in existence in 1588, the old form and complete pack had been completely forgotten by the mid-seventeenth century, although the name Tarocchino persisted" (11).  


The dates indicated on the picture are very near to those hypothesized for the time of the birth of the game of Triumphs, and this could not surprise us more. As the oldest known documents about the game of triumphs date back to 1440 (Florence) and 1442 (Estense Court), by historical assumption regarding the practice of use [practica d’uso], the game must date back to at least twenty/twenty-five years earlier, a period which matches with the Prince’s presence in Bologna.


This conjecture in reference to the practice of use is commonly supported by historians of the Middle Ages. A single example will suffice: from Chiara Frugoni we are informed that eyeglasses were invented around the year 1285, based on the fact that the Dominican Giordano da Pisa, in his sermon of 1305 delivered at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, cites them as dating back to about twenty years before:: "Not yet twenty years have passed since the art of making eyeglasses was invented, for seeing well; one of the best and most necessary arts that the world has, and it is from such a short time that it has been invented: a new art, which previously did not exist.” And he said to the reader: “I saw the one who first invented it and practiced it, and talked to him.” (Non è ancora venti anni che si trovò l’arte di fare gli occhiali, che fanno vedere bene; ch’è una de le migliori arti e de le più necessarie che ‘l mondo abbia, e è così poco che ssi trovò: arte novella, che mmai non fu. E disse il lettore: io vidi colui che prima la trovò e fece, e favellaigli) (12).


So not only did the good Dominican communicate during the sermon that eyeglasses, still unknown in Florence, had been invented about twenty years earlier, but also asserted that their invention had occurred very recently. A statement which suggests that for people then, twenty years must have been considered a short period of time, since he called it a recent invention. The Dominican did not say that he was the first to comment on this invention. So we have to establish that there is no credible record of their presence anywhere else in the 15-20 years before his report. In fact investigators have found two such reports, in 1300 and 1301 Venice. The 1301 regulation is the first to specify lenses made of glass. The 1300 regulation speaks of lenses made of crystal put next to the eyes and prohibits the production of counterfeits using clear glass; it also says that this regulation is a copy of a guild regulation of 1284. Since the 1284 date agrees closely with our Dominican's dating, the two references together constitute double evidence for this example of the 15-20 year lag  (13).


It is therefore obvious, given that the first documents on Triumphs belong to the early fifteenth century, we must look for their creation 20/25 years or more earlier.


This type of assumption, with reference to practice of use concerning a situation like this, is commonly supported by historians of the Middle Ages. Specifically, Professor Rolando Dondarini, professor of medieval history at the University of Bologna, Professor Paolo Aldo Rossi, historian of tarot and  professor of scientific thought at the University of Genoa, and Professor Franco Cardini, one of most prominent medievalists, are in agreement with the writer. 


We should actually consider the time needed for this game to become so popular that it is the object of artistic illuminated production in the courts (that is, current practise). Also, their content must be related to the cultural contexts of the time, a subject that in specifics has been dated back to the end of the XIVth century or the beginning of the XVth by Professor Franco Cardini. In the same period when the first illuminated triumphs appeared, cards of popular manufacture were used in Bologna by the common people (1442), testifying to a long-existing practice (14). The fact that popular cards failed to survive is due to the  conditions of their manufacture, as the paper and cardstock they were made of would easily deteriorate. 


Agreeing with the writer on the date of invention of the game are three leading experts: R. Decker, T. Depaulis and M. Dummett. In the book A wicked pack of cards: The origin of the Occult Tarot they write: "A lower bound for the date of the invention is harder to determine. It probably occurred around 1425; the earliest date with any claim to be plausible would be 1410" (15).


If the inscription’s author had mentioned a date later or earlier by a several decades in comparison to the one we nowadays know as the realistic time of origin of the Triumphs - the period between 1410 and 1440 - we would have immediately understood that this was a type of operation conceived to strongly highlight the role of this Family, since the tarot   was really loved and used in Bologna at every social level. 


Is it by pure chance that the author of the inscription indicated dates so close to reality, an unconscious ”hit”, wanting to promote the image of his own family, or is it perhaps more plausible that he has come into possession of an old document that has reported this, knowing that this also would bring prestige to his family?

Personally I hold that this second possibility is the more realistic one, also why talk about a coincidence would be really impractical. Francesco Fibbia lived in an historical period that saw the beginning of the construction of the Basilica of St Petronio (1390), and the construction of the Bolognini Chapel (1400-1420), in which there is the image of the Hanged Man, adopted in the Triumphs of those years to represent the figure of the Traitor. In addition the Chapel in question was also entitled The Magi, who have always e been represented in the Star card of the Bolognese tarot, together with the gastrocephalic devil [devil with a head on its belly] towering at the center of Hell, again found in the iconography of the old Bolognese tarot.

For further discussion on Prince Fibbia and our hypothesis on the early triumphs conceived by him, read the Addenda to the essay The Order of Triumphs.


1 -
The work was printed in Rome in 1590. 
2 - Adolfo Cavazza, Notizie intorno alle Famiglie Fibbia, Fabri, D’Arco, Fava e Pallavicini (News about the Fibbia Families, Fabri, D’Arco, Fava and Pallavicini), Bologna, 1901, pp. 7 - 8. 
3 -  Adolfo Cavazza, op. cit., p. 11. 
4 - Scipione Pompeo Dolfi, Cronologia delle Famiglie Nobili di Bologna (History of a Bologna Noble Families), 1670, p. 320.
5 - Lodovico Montefani, Famiglie Bolognesi (Bolognese Families), Bologna, University Library, ms. n. 34, c. Pallavicini, Bologna, 1901, pp. 7 - 8.  
6 - Bologna, State Archives, Archive Fund Fibbia- Fabbri, Family trees, Envelop 1. 
7 - Bologna, Archiginnasio Library, 17 Historical Biographies - Wills, Cap. I, n. 12.
8 - Bologna, Archiginnasio Library, coll.32.E.10.  
9 - Collection Giuliano Crippa, Milan. 
10 - Bologna, Archiginnasio Library, Playing-cards, 16.Q.V.23.
11 - Michael Dummett, Il Mondo e l’Angelo. I Tarocchi e la loro storia (The World and the Angel. Tarot cards and their history), Naples, Bibliopolis, 1993, p. 224.

12Chiara Frugoni, Medioevo sul naso. Occhiali, bottoni e altre invenzioni medievali [Middle Ages on the Nose. Eyeglasses, Buttons and other medieval inventions], Rome, Laterza, 2001, Chap. I p. 3. See: Giordano of Pisa, Florence Lenten Sermons 1305-1306, critical edition edited by C. Delcorno, Sansoni, Florence, 1974; Sermon XV (23 February 1305), p. 75.

13 - Vincent Ilardi, Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes, Philadelphia 2007, pp. 8-9, accessible at

14 - In this regard see the essay Bologna and the invention of the Triumphs. 

15 - London, Duckworh, 1966, p. 27.

 Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  - © All rights reserved 2003