Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Playing Tarot in Delight - 1554

Laura Dianti in the game of tarot at the Delight of the Verginese


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

After Lucrezia Borgia, the second wife of Alfonso I d'Este, passed away in 1519, the Duke of Ferrara laid his eyes on a young and attractive girl named Laura Dianti "low-born of a poor artisan [his father was a "Berrettaro", Capmaker], but with rare qualities of the heart indeed, as well as of the body, and was taken as the partner of his bed". So wrote Muratoni in his Delle Antichità Estensi [of the Estensi of Old] (1), which we will use to understand the relationship between Alfonso and his great love. Alfonso’s physical needs were known to all, and of these Muratori replies, to justify his choice: "After the death of Lucretia, Alfonso, for whom on account of his robust body continence could be very troublesome, and who at the same time at heart did not want to stain, with adultery and rapes [stupri, i.e. of carnal love not blessed by marriage], families honored by its citizens, nor did it seem useful or seemly to marry again a princess of his equal, mostly because he contemplated a noble Marriage for Don Ercole, his Son: he cast his eyes on a girl..." (2).

                                                           Laura Dianti

                                                             Titian: Portrait of Laura Dianti - approx. 1523

                                                                        (Private Collection - Switzerland)


Muratori said that Alfonso, to legitimize their union, joined with her in lawful marriage, but supporting documents appear somewhat blurred. Many historians claim that in fact Alfonso and Laura spent their entire lives as lovers, denying Muratori’s report, namely that: ".. after having had her for some time as his Friend, and more and more having known her merit, and after also having had two sons, to one of whom he gave the name of Alfonso, and the other Alfonsino: finally at the end, to better legitimize these two Children, legitimized with privilege even before the Emperor and the Pope by Cardinal Cibo, he married her and kept her for his lawful wife" (3).


Among the various texts in support of the reported marriage is that written by the lawyer Filippo Rodi, author of four manuscript volumes on the history of Ferrara, from its foundation to the year 1600. Thus he wrote for the year 1527: "This Laura, who happened to be of abject parentage was, however, of truly exquisite beauty, of heart & manners so noble & virtuous, that he would have good reason to love her, if the Duke was no less drawn by reason.... But finally, after having long kept her, and knowing her well as a woman of modest heart, and with other good qualities, he turned to marrying her and raising from her the stain of rape” (4). So instead, wrote the priest and canon of the city Mac’ Antonio Guarini in De gli avvenimenti degni di memoria in essa Città di Ferrara accaduti a Mio Tempo [Of the events worthy of memory in the City of Ferrara that happened in my time], starting in 1570, in reference to June 27, 1573: "Died Laura Eustochia Dianti, called La Bertara, having been the daughter of a master of this profession. She was the Lady for a time of Duke Alfonso I after the death of Lucrezia, his Wife. And after giving him the birth of two sons, one named Alphonsino & other Alphonso, he married her in the presence of the two Dossi, the most excellent & most favored Painters of this Duke. She was a woman of singular beauty, grace, & of great kindness & humility" (5).


Despite this and other evidence, it remains at the very least strange that a marriage of this kind did not find mention in the ducal documents, as it should have, so that in the face of uncertainty, the logic of vital missing documentation prevails. And if there was a marriage, it certainly did not happen coram populo, but in some small secret chapel, in the sole presence of those closest to the Duke, including, as Guarini writes, the two Dossi.

                                              Alfonso e Laura

                                                                                   Titian:  Alfonso and Laura
                                                                       (National Gallery of Art, Washington)


Alfonso had changed her surname to Eustochia to "indicate the merits that she had earned, which he knew to confirm his affection." By means of the variant Eustachia derived from Greek meaning "capable of producing many ears [of grain]", and puting it in relation to Saint Eustochia Smeralda, a nun of Messina declared virtuous, it is possible to understand this attribution.


The Cameral documents show that the Duke did not keep Dianti with him at the palace, but that she lived in a house that he had ordered to be built in the enclosure of the Gardens, now gone, of the Palazzo Ducale (6). According to tradition, Alfonso went to her through an underground passage, which, however, has never been found.


Alfonso’s will does not speak of Dianti; instead, she is mentioned in the codicils written a few weeks after: the Duke mandated the sons Alfonso and Alfonsino to go with their mother, and a pension of 300 gold crowns a year to each for their natural life, as long as "vivrà senza marito" ["she will live without a husband"]. In addition, they had to "pay to Laura Madonna Eustochia noblewoman of Ferrara ... that reverence, honor, and obedience that every good and obedient son ought to bear and exhibit to his mother" (7). On October 26, 1534, five days before his death, the duke, " Increasing more every day his words of praise for Madonna Laura Eustochia for the devotion that she demonstrated toward him, left her (and her two children after her) the palace with adjacent buildings and the two possessions of the Verginese, which a year before he had intended for his first-born Ercole instead” (8).


So the beautiful Laura, who already had large estates at Cona, Codrea, and Quartesana as well as numerous shops in the city and some palaces, also got the  Delight of the Verginese, a castle-like mansion located at Gambulaga near Portomaggiore. Initially built as a country house, it owes its name to the presence of the canal or ditch "Verzenese" that bordered several parts the farm.

                                   Delizia del Verginese

                                                                                        Delight of the Verginese

The first documentary evidence regarding its construction refers to the last three decades of the fifteenth century, when the entire possession was granted by the administration of the Camera Ducale [Ducal Chamber] to Sigismondo Cantelmo di Sora, one of the most respected nobles of the Este court: we know, in fact, that between 1485 and 1493 the architect Biagio Rossetti appeared there engaged in the duties of superintendent, while the painter Giovanni Bianchini received compensation to paint fireplaces with heraldic devices and a frieze around the entire perimeter of the dwelling. After the death of Francesco Cantelmo the villa passed in usufruct to then Prince Ercole d'Este (1533), but it is in a deed of donation drawn up October 26, 1534 where there is the first explicit reference to a "palace with these two possessions" granted by Alfonso I d'Este to his presumed wife Laura Dianti, then to be transmitted to the sons Alfonso and Alfonsino (9).


Dianti frequented this Delight, a place of refreshment and recreation when the heat in Ferrara became unbearable, and obviously she tried to make changes and all the improvements possible to her residence. A list of expenses she incurred for all kinds of acquisitions is found in the "Zornali de li denari i contanti” [Ledgers of cash money] referred to her, now in the State Archive in Modena. Of our interest is in particular an indication of an expenditure for the purchase of a deck of cards and tarot, listed under the year 1554: “13 luglio: Alla detta Signora soldi 10 marchesani per Sua Signoria ad uno che fa carte per il preti de uno paro de carte et uno paro de tarochi mandati al Vergenese a Sua Signoria per Alberto Basso suo lavoratore, £. 0.10.0”. ("July 13: To the aforenamed Signora, 10 soldi Marchesani for Her Ladyship to one that makes cards for the cost of one pack of cards and one pack of tarot sent to the Vergenese to Her Ladyship by her worker Alberto Basso, £. 0.10.0". (10)


When the Duke died, Dianti lived in her palace in Via degli Angeli, devoting himself to the education of her children, for whom she had chosen as preceptors Cinzio Giraldi and Pellegrino Moreto, as well as taking care of the administration of its vast property and the government of her children’s fiefdoms, Montecchio and Castelnuovo.


The Palace was frequented by artists such as Thomas da Carpi and his son Girolamo, Camillo Filippi and his son Sebastian, called Bastianino, and Battista Dossi, from whom Laura commissioned a portrait of the Duke, by intellectuals such as Luigi Grotto, Alberto Lollius, Vincenzo Brusantini, Battista Guarini and Giovanbattista Giraldi, and by musicians, actors and beautiful women, becoming a truly a small court, where Dianti mounted shows, festivals and dances, to which flocked the princes of the house of Este themselves. If Renée of France appears to have been in a cordial and friendly relationship with her, the same cannot be said of her husband, Duke Ercole II; it seems that on the contrary he showed hostility towards her and towards the young Alfonso and Alfonsino, enough to attract the suspicion of having concealed the documents of the marriage between Dianti and the Duke Alfonso (11). Dianti’s love of theater, dance and festivals is also mentioned by several letters that Francesco Susena sent to Alfonso when he was still living and was in France: "The Lady Laura is fine ... however, and passes the time in the evening line dancing to the pipes in the French or Neapolitan style" (letter of 25 November 1553) (12).


The fact is that "after the death of Alfonso I, until her own, [Dianti] was publicly, above all in Ferrara, in the face [faccia] of the Ducal Court, and without impediment treated with Princely Titles higher than those of a private gentlewoman, and given the last name of the House of Este” (13).


In the last years of her life Dianti frequented the Convent of St. Augustine, calling on Battista Dossi to paint the chapter house, and there she was buried when death overtook her at the age of seventy, June 27, 1573. In her will, in addition to bequests in favor of the children of her deceased siblings Bartolomeo, Virginia and Alfonso, and her favorite nephew Renea, she arranged that a considerable sum was donated to monasteries and churches of the city. The entire court, including Duke Alfonso II, Cardinal Luigi, the clergy, and the tribunals and artists of the city, attended her funeral. In the Compendium Historico of the Churches of Ferrara, Marc’ Antonio Guarini, speaking of the Church of St. Augustine, writes (14): "In the same tomb (of D. Giulia della Rovere) also lies Laura Eustochia Dianti, third wife of the Duke surnamed Alfonso I, who was accompanied to the grave with solemn pomp, to the sepulcher where also the great Cardinal Luigi d’Este, Duke Alfonso II, and Don Alfonso, his son, took part" (15).




1 - Lodovico Antonio Muratori, Delle Antichità Estensi, Parte Seconda, Cap. XI [Of the Estensi Antiquities, Part II, Chap. XI],  Modena, Stamperia Ducale, p. 363.

2 - Ibid. Original text: “Dopo la morte d’essa Lucrezia, Alfonso, a cui per cagione della sua robustezza di corpo riusciva molto molesta la continenza, e nello stesso tempo stava a cuore di non macchiare con adulterj e stupri, le famiglie onorate de’ suoi Cittadini, né pareva utile o convenevole l’ammogliarsi di nuovo con principessa eguale, massimamente dappoichè meditava un nobilissimo Matrimonio per Donno Ercole, suo Figliuolo: mise gli occhi sopra una giovinetta…”.

3 - Ibid. Original text: “..dopo averla per alcuno tempo tenuto come Amica sua, e sempre più conosciuto il merito d’essa, e dopo averne anche avuto due figliuoli, all’uno de’ quali impose il nome di Alfonso, e all’altro di Alfonsino: finalmente a fine di legittimar meglio questi due Fanciulli, legittimati anche innanzi con privilegio dell‘Imperatore e del Papa dal Cardinale Cibò, la sposò, e tenne per sua Legittima Moglie”.

4 - Ibid., p. 446. Original text: “Questa Laura, avvenga che fosse di parenti abietti, fu però di bellezza mirabile, & d’animo, & di maniere così nobili & virtuose, che bene hebbe ragione il Duca se ad amarla fu non meno tratto dalla ragione….Ma Finalmente, dopo averla lungamente tenuta, e conosciuta per donna d’animo pudico, e di altre ottime qualità volse con il sposarla levarla la macchia del stupro”.

- Ibid. Original text: “Morì la Laura Eustochia Dianti, detta la Bertara, per esser stata figliuola d’un Maestro di tal professione. Fu Donna per un tempo del Duca Alfonso I dopo la morte di Lucrezia, sua Moglie. Et dopo l’avergli partorito due figliuoli, l’un detto Alphonsino, & l’altro Alphonso, la sposò presente gli due Dossi Pittori eccellentissimi, & favoritissimi di questo Duca. Fu donna di singolar bellezza, gratiosa, & d’una bontà & umiltà grandissima”.

6 - Ibid., p. 433.

7 - Riccardo Rimondi, Estensi: storia e leggende, personaggi e luoghi di una dinastia millenaria  [Estensi: history and legends, personages and places of a thousand-year dynasty], Cirelli & Zanirato, 2004, p. 106. Original text: "prestare a Madona Laura Eustochia nobile ferrarese ... quella reverenza honore et obedienza che ciascheduno bono et obediente figliolo debbe portare et exhibire ad sua madre".

8 - Ibid. Original text: “moltiplicando ogni giorno più i meriti di Madonna Laura Eustochia ... verso lui".

9 - See: Le Delizie Estensi: Delizia del Verginese (The Estensi Delights: Delight of the Verginese],

online at the link

10 - Archivio di Stato, Modena, AdP, reg. 1063 “Zornali de li denari contanti [di Laura Dianti]” [Ledgers of cash money [of Laura Dianti]], c. CXXI.

11 - See: Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani Treccani [Treccani Biographical Dictionary of Italians], Vol. 39, 1991.

Online al link

12 - Giulio Bertoni, Poeti e Poesie del Medio Evo e del Rinascimento [Poets and Poetry of the Middle Ages and Renaissance], Modena, Umberto Orlandini, 1922, p. 262.  Original text: "La Signora Laura... sta benissimo et tuttavia passa il tempo la sera in far danzare alla colonna col piffaro alla francese o alla napoletana”.

13 - Lodovico Antonio Muratori, op. cit., pag. 438. Original text: “dopo la morte di Alfonso I, fino alla propria, [la Dianti] fu pubblicamente, e sopra tutto in Ferrara, e in faccia alla Corte Ducale, e senza che alcuno gliel’impedisse, trattata con Titoli Principeschi, e superiori a quei di gentildonna privata, e congiunti con Cognome di Casa d’Este”.

14 - D. Marc' Antonio Guarini,  Compendio Historico dell'Origine, Accrescimento, e Prerogative delle Chiese e Luoghi Pij della Città, e Diocesi di Ferrara [Historical Compendium of the Origin, Growth, and Prerogatives of the Churches and Holy Places of the City and Diocese of Ferrara], Ferrara, Heredi di Vittorio Baldini, 1621, p. 323. Original text: “Nel medesimo sepolcro anche giace Laura Eustochia Dianti, terza moglie del sopranominato Duca Alfonso I, la quale venne accompagnata alla sepoltura con solennissima pompa, dove anche intervenne il gran Cardinale Luigi Estense, il Duca Alfonso II, e Don Alfonso, suo figliuolo".

15 - We thank Dr Sandro Bolognesi, head of the Cultural Office of the City of Portomaggiore, for assistance in this work.