Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Sorian Days

The invention of a noble holiday in chess, billiards and Tarot


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, February 2013

Ludovico Agostini (1536-1612), born of a noble and rich family of Pesaro, was influenced from a young age by a mother who instilled in him a strong religious feeling. In 1557 he graduated  “in utroque jure” [in both laws, canon and civil] at the University of Bologna, which led him to enroll in the order of jurists in his city. Because he could afford to live comfortably without working, he never practiced, taking care of his true interests: music and poetry.


Thus he became a good lutenist, while his love of poetry led him to compose verses of a certain worthiness. Throughout his life, carnal attractions and the desire for wealth and beauty: clashed with the deep religiosity inculcated by his mother, causing him constant guilt. Feeling the need to redeem himself, he performed many philanthropic deeds, appreciating also the need to engage in a mission of a moral character (1).


This dichotomy had begun to appear in Padua when he killed a fellow student in a duel, managing to escape by flight, and after that when his family lost their money because of tax increases that Duke Guidobaldo instituted, going even as far as confiscating all their goods. And to think that some time before Lodovico had addressed a sonnet to the Duke celebrating the marriage of Virginia della Rovere, his eldest daughter, with Federico Borromeo. From the comforts of youth, Ludovico passed to experiencing,  at this time, poverty.


He was a man unheard although his ideas about good governance were worthy of being taken into consideration. Among the many personages to whom he addressed letters to this effect we find Pope Gregory XIII, who suggested fighting the Turks and even launching a new crusade, the same Duke Guidobaldo, his son Francesco Maria II della Rovere, Popes Clement VIII and Sixtus V, Cardinals Cinzio and Pietro Aldobrandini, and many others.


He suffered all his life heartbreak for a famous singer of the time, Virginia Vagnoli, arrived in Urbino at the invitation of Count Guidobaldo, a great lover of music. After becoming engaged to her, he sang his love in verse. But the attitude of the woman's father, against their union from the beginning, and the subsequent transfer of the singer to Germany, invited by Maximilian II because she sang at his court, with the promise that if she moved she would marry well, put Ludovico into a deep depression increased even more by his refusing to at least get a portrait of his beloved. So after five years of residence at the court of Urbino, he left forever the love of his life. He would never see her again.


Desperation led him to be consoled in the arms of a lady of Pesaro from whom he had two children, but never married, as a sort of perfect fidelity to Virginia. His feeling of helpless to free himself from this memory, and sinfulness for not marrying the mother of his children (to whom, to tell the truth, he felt an extraordinary attraction), pushed him even more to compose verses. Thus was born the Canzoniere, where the love lost to him made him realize the certainty of living a life cold and empty, without meaning, harbinger of that spiritual attitude that will take him a little later and that will support him for the rest of his life. Faith erupted so powerfully in his soul, a comfort for the loss of his beloved. Like a young Hercules at the crossroads between reason and instinct, Ludovico felt then that humanity's suffering sprang from its sinful condition, and he attributed the evils that afflicted Italy - both natural ones, such as the earthquake in Ferrara in 1570 that razed the city, and those determined by the political actions of men - to this shameful condition.


In three letters to Francesco Maria della Rovere, he suggests moralizing reforms that he would implement, including severe punishments for idle young people, those who exceeded in luxury, and those who practiced usury, which he considered, together with the commercialization of public office, an intolerable scandal. Regarding the lending of money, he suggested that the maximum interest should not exceed six per cent. In addition, his condemnation extended also to gambling, cards and dice, in the end hoping for "a model of humanity frank and forthright, enduring fatigue and discomfort, educated in disinterestedness and frugality, renewed in body and spirit, guardian of high ethical and religious values" (2). Later, in other letters, he will suggest a limit on gambling losses, of refusing the game itself, blasphemy, gluttony and lust.


Well away from the vision and political-military motivations of the dialogue Italy and Mantua ofVigilio (3) is his Letter to Italy, in which, although revealing a strong and sincere love for his homeland, attributes every calamity to the wrath of God, from which he exorts penance, mortification, almsgiving and fasting (4).


Between 1583 and 1584, Agostini wrote his most important work, the dialogue The Infinite, derived from a meditation on the Bible. Here the Infinite, or revealed knowledge, interacts with the Finite, human reason, his arguments and reflections mainly taken from the books of Genesis and Exodus. In the fourth part of the work, entitled the Imaginary Republic, he outlines the profile of a utopian state marked by the rigorous moral and political ideals of the Counter-reformation.


After a trip to the Holy Land and the post of governor of the fortress of Gradara offered by Duke Filippo Maria - which allowed him momentarily to get his meager finances back together – on July 29, 1612, Ludovico died (5). Death did not take him unprepared: in his letters that he continued to send to friends and the powerful he wished it as the event that would free him from all the evils, both physical and moral, that still gripped his hard existence.


The life of this personage is very important for understanding the motivations of the work called The Sorian Days, which he wrote between 1572 and 1574, where he cites the game of Tarot (6).


Agostini imagines spending, with several friends, eleven hot days of August at the beautiful villas located in the hills around Pesaro, in particular that of Soria, hence the name of the composition, and of Imperiale, built in 1464 by Alessandro Sforza, rich in frescoes, loggias and gardens. The result is a story of a courtly society, happy and carefree, devoted to pleasures and entertainment, away from the heat of the city and the nagging problems of social life.


The nicknames of friends, the fruit of his invention, follow those typical of members of the Italian academies of the time, in which we find the Confused, the Oppositional, the Foiled, the Fickle, the Vain, the Startled. In whatever villa they choose to spend their time, they meet ladies and knights prepared to welcome them and to engage with them in learned philosophical and moral disquisitions; and of course they take time for pleasure, entertainment and experiences (such as a dinner at a monastery of friars, frugal and silent, which gives there the opportunity to discourse about the serenity of monastic life).


These are some of the many amusement described:


Listening to songs and music, especially the madrigals of Paul Animucccia, master of Francesco Maria della Rovere, and motets by Adrian Willaert

Hunting sparrows and quail with nets and mistletoe

Seeing the beautiful scenery surrounding Pesaro

The spectacle of a small naval battle of a schooner and a fusta of Turkish pirates against a Venetian galley

Sea fishing for turtles, crabs and fish

Lunches and dinners

Recitation of verses

Peasant dances

Gallant conversations

Etc. Etc.


The dialogues of gallant inspiration and the philosophical and moral disquisitions, put into the mouths of various friends, usually follow the times of pleasure. Among the dialogues are:


The contrast between the storms of love and the sea

Women's fashion and men's responsibility in the use of cosmetics by women

The parallel between carnal love and heavenly love

Discussions about beauty and jealousy

Mock trials during which, in turn, everyone is invited to defend from presumed accusations the virtue of those present.


Among the philosophical and moral disquisitions we find the political-religious ideals closest to the thought of Agostini:


The serenity of the cloistered life as opposed to the corruption of secular life

The hope of ecumenical unification

“On the life of a prudent man”

“On the forgiving of insults”

“Discourse on the will of God”

“Reasoning on Christian prudence in refutation of the false prudence that today the world calls it”

“Discourse on the vanity of the world in its professions”


At the beginning of the first day, spent in Imperiale’s garden, Agostini proclaims the subject of his poem:


“[1] Amidst the prettiest and most fruitful hills of Italy lies the noble promontory of Azio (7) imperiale,  the most powerful part of the beauty of the Adriatic bosom and principal gift of the city of Pesaro, where, not with a little wonder from those that yonder compete for fame, are such adorned and rich palaces in so great a number, which, corresponding to the beauty and pleasure of their wonderful sites and precious fruits, telling with truth that one cannot be able in another part of the world neither to see nor imagine better, as far as the human state can more agree.

[2] And therefore, I intend to discourse familiarly about some of these places a mile away from the city, In as much as I found myself in all of them in the summertime, enjoying the salutary air that yonder abounds in company with some of' my dearest friends - who were the Startled, the Proud, the Contrary, the Fickle, the Confused and the Altered, among whom I sense an increasing number are counted. Leaving to higher intelligences the more elevated discourses, I will begin to describe some days spent at home amongst us, and concurrently describe the sites, the palaces and the beauty of the women who presently found themselves there, without whom I know that sooner humor (8) than pleasure would be reputed  to our days".

The nicknames of imaginary friends, although typical of members of the Academy, reflect the character of the author, constantly torn between exacerbating conflicts of thought, between instinct and reason. In fact, while the inspiration of the Counter-reformation, in a world oppressed by the weight of guilt, meanders through the author's writing - and is demonstrated by the disquisitions of a moralizing character – there are other "Days .... born from the extreme attempt of Agostini’s imagination to recreate the lost world of refined aristocratic idleness, poverty to be envied, and to perpetuate a fleeting season of love vanished forever (9)": Ludovico longs for "An Arcadia not peasant but aristocratic, not shabby but refined, not wisely busy at pious readings but cheered by ladies, musicians, poets, and especially by the presence of his beloved Virginia [Third Day], idealized by nostalgia for an image of perennial freshness and grace. And next to her in fact he will see again the multiplicity of images of themselves, between sea and woods, now tender lover, now male protagonist of hunts and open-air activities, thriving with youth and with hopes"(10).


His description, in the First Day, of games and entertainment after dinner, including that of the tarot, cannot fail to bring to mind Imperiali’s Response to the Invective of Lollio (11), when he writes:


“But if Tarot [tarocchi] is indeed a very old game,

it is not thereby becoming old, so beautiful it is,

the game to make, and not unmake, a friend.


But the game of tarot is that of Gentlemen,

Princes, Kings, Barons, Knights etc.,

for this is called of the game of honors.”


Agostini writes, after discussions on intelligence, on nobility, on fortune, on the value of judgment in love [26] “The meal was finished and already they raised the boards, some for chess, some for tarot and some for biardi [billiards] (12); we all stayed for a great space of time" .


Ludovico, as we have seen previously, cannot tolerate a game of cards when it is gambling, suggesting serious measures against offenders and even writing to the Duke Francesco Maria della Rovere to impose a limit on gambling losses. Like all men of his time, Ludovico likes to play Tarot, a game for nobles, which he was in spirit and mind, though fickle, like the name of one of his imaginary friends, dissolved into a thousand contradictions. “[19] Your Excellency [Francesco Maria della Rovere] ought to know that I really in short now have been Fickle, neither are they deceived who have named me, because the malignancy of my fate has so distempered (13) the taste [for life], that one should not be surprised if unstably I have continued to turn on the wheel of my misfortune, giving me in consequence the name “Unstable”, but God wills that fortune, so silent about the rest, now has granted to my fate this excellent fruit, that if then now I am called Fickle, I shall content myself willingly with the deception of my name, because neither by my defect or effect, but by the mistake of others, I'll thus be wrongly named" (14).



1 - "So I already ready found myself among men, that I more than any other reasoned, I was more than any other, it was not a danger that frightened me, to all I was a friend, the enemy of none, consoled the afflicted, the happy and the proud humiliated by the world, walked like old wise men, insolent youth yelled, preached to every man, and where I could interpose myself for the peace and quiet of others, did not leave things back to be done”. Lodovico Agostini, Esclamazioni a Dio (Exclamation to God), in “Discorso della qualità d’amor”  (Discourse on the quality of love), ms. Cod. Ital. IX.. 301, ff.. 27v-33v. Biblioteca Marciana, Venice.
2 - These letters, along with others, were reported by Luigi Firpo in his long monograph on the author: Lo Stato ideale della Controriforma. Ludovico Agostini  (The ideal state of the Counter-Reformation. Ludovico Agostini), Laterza, 1957, p. 122.
3 - About this read the essay Taroch: nulla latina ratione.
4 - Luigi Firpo, op. cit., p. 132.
5 - Il Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani (The Biographical Dictionary of Italians) by Treccani (Volume I) places his death in 1609, but 1612 is the certain date. See Franco Barcia, Introduzione, (Introduction), in Laura Salvetti Firpo (ed.) "Ludovico Agostini. Le Giornate Soriane", Salerno Editrice, 2004, p. XL.
6 - The original title is Giornate dette Le Soriane dell'Imperial di Pesaro di Augustini (Sorian Days at Imperial of Pesaro by Augustini). The manuscript is in cod. 191 of the Biblioteca Oliveriana in Pesaro.
7 - Azio: “Colle San Bartolo, called Accio by the ancients, the pleasant hill that protects Pesaro from the north". In Luigi Firpo, op.cit., p. 71.
8 - Humor in the sense of "bad-humored, melancholy, bored”. See: Laura Salvetti Firpo, in Ludovico Agostini, op. cit., notes to the text, p. 6.
9 - Franco Barcia in Ludovico Agostini, op. cit., "Introduzione” (Introduction), pp. XX - XXI.
10 - Luigi Firpo, op. cit., pp. 68-69.
11 - Read in this regard “Primiera against Tarocchi” in Tarot in Literature I.
12 - Biardi = billiards
13 - Distemprato =distempered (put into an ill humor)
14 - First Day