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The so-called 'Mantegna Tarocchi'

Set of fifty engravings, by the Masters of the Tarocchi. Northern Italy (possibly Ferrara), before 1467

€ 790.000
The exquisite taste of an Italian collector. Natalizio Benedetti's Tarot of Mantegna.
The so-called 'Mantegna Tarocchi'. . Set of fifty engravings, by the Masters of the Tarocchi. Northern Italy (possibly Ferrara), before 1467

Fifty plates (platemarks 178x101 mm, and similar; each leaf, with margins, measuring 199x127 mm). Forty-eight plates from the E-series (Hind 1a-18a, 20a-31a, 33a-50a; Bartsch 18A-35A, 37A-48A, 50A-67A); two from the S-series, Clio (pl. 19; Hind 19b; Bartsch 36) and Chronico or The Genius of Time (pl. 32; Hind 32b; Bartsch 49); one print, the Rhetorica (pl. 23; Hind 23a; Bartsch 40A), inserted recently from another E-series set.

This set is in its book form, in a single quire of twenty-five sheets, with forty-eight plates printed in twos, each pairing printed on a single sheet measuring 199x254 mm, in the original numbered sequence; the Rhetorica plate is trimmed within the platemark, and laid on a single leaf of antique paper which has been skilfully re-conjugated with pl. 28 (Philosofia, Hind 28a). Many sheets feature a watermark 'Flower in a Stem with two Leaves' similar to Briquet nos. 6647-6649, from Northern Italy, ca. 1465-1472. Impressions in greyish black with the fine shading of the figures just outlined, and very few details worn. Generally in very good condition, with margins of 10-15 mm on all four sides, some leaves with minor staining, light discolouration and a few areas of foxing, the last four pages with short worm-track. Traces of glue in several blank versos of the plates. Rebound in early boards, in a full calf slipcase.

Provenance: the volume of forty-nine plates was once owned by Natalizio Benedetti, priore novello and an antiquarian in the Umbrian city of Foligno (1559–1614; ownership inscription in brown ink on the blank recto of the first leaf, 'De Natalitis Benedetti. Suoi Amici e fr.elli. i.e., 'His friends and brothers'); the Benedetti family and its descendants (i.e., Bernardino Lattanzi); Sotheby's London, Catalogue of Important Old Master Engravings, Etchings, and Woodcuts, 26 April 1979, lot 117 (see below); Bernardino Lattanzi; by descent to Christie's London, Old Master Prints, 8 December 2009, lot 4.

For the Rhetorica plate (pl. 23): Henry Foster Sewall (1816-1896); acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in November 1897; deaccessioned around 1917 (see stamp on verso 'Duplicate Sold by The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston'); Anderson Gallery (Catalogue of Engravings, Etchings, Woodcuts and Lithographs. Duplicates from the Collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, New York, 19-20 February 1918, lot 2); Robin Halwas, London.

An extremely rare and important complete set – exceptionally presented in its wide-margined book form – of one of the few Renaissance works of art, not only in the field of engraving, to fully express the life, customs, and indeed entire cultural world of the courtly and learned class of fifteenth-century Italy.

Traditionally called Tarocchi or the Tarot Cards of Mantegna and generally dating to before 1467, these are the earliest engraved cards in Italy, and without a doubt the most fascinating and problematic of the surviving fifteenth-century prints. Although these engravings have been studied extensively and have long been regarded as highly significant examples of early Italian engraving, the cards have yet to disclose all their secrets. It must also be stated at the outset that their conventional title is doubly misleading, for they have only a slight discernible relationship to Mantegna – arguably one of the greatest artists of the fifteenth century – and the very assumption that they are playing cards at all has been called into question. They were most likely an educational game, as supported by the fact that in the very few copies that survive, the prints are presented or in book form or as single prints, but never mounted as playing-cards in a loose deck. Furthermore, there are only fifty cards in total, as opposed to the standard seventy-two typical of a fifteenth-century hand-painted deck of playing-cards, and, most interestingly, their organization and sequence is quite different.

The Tarocchi are known in two series, conventionally referred to as the 'E-series' and 'S-series', both comprising fifty plates divided into five groups. “No impressions are known showing differences of state, or later rework” (Hind I, p. 228). Each print bears a descriptive title, a letter identifying the group to which it belongs, and a number (in both Arabic and Roman numerals) indicating its position in the sequence.

In the E-series the groupings are as follows, according to a scheme in which the letters are in reverse order to the numbers: Ranks and Conditions of Men (letter E, cards 1-10); Apollo and the Muses (letter D, cards 11-20); Liberal Arts (letter C, cards 21-30); Cosmic Principles (Genii) and Virtues (letter B, cards 31-40); and Planets and Spheres of the Universe (letter A, cards 41-50). The first group of ten prints, marked with the letter 'E' in the E-series, is marked with the letter 'S' in the S-series, hence the adopted nomenclature.

The issue of the date and priority of these two series has long been discussed among scholars. Hind's argument, in opposition to Kristeller and Donati, for the priority of the E-series, has proven most convincing. In fact, numerous technical and stylistic details strongly suggest that this series is the earliest, and that the S-series is a direct copy of it. The iconographic and textual details are mostly identical across the two series – the 'second artist' has even copied some errors in the lettering of the titles, as with the reversed 'N' in the Merchant (pl. 4) – but the quality of outline and modelling in the prints belonging to the E-series is evidently higher: the E-series prints have, as Hind has remarked, an “impressive dignity”: “The E series is engraved with remarkable technical precision and neatness in fine rectangular cross-hatching, more cleanly cut and more clearly printed [...] The S series is cut with less precision [...] Moreover the engraver of the S series shows a certain lack of skill in the control of his graver, letting his lines of shading slip from time to time over the contour-line of his figures” (Hind I, p. 224). Furthermore, forty-two of the images are completely or partially reversed in the S-series, and one image – the Re (pl. 8) – was extensively modified: in the E-series the image of the King still follows the medieval iconography, while in the subsequent S-series it is significantly changed into the image of a classical ruler (see Hind, 8b, pl. 327).

The E-series was executed around 1465, as supported by documentary evidence in the form of a Bolognese manuscript – dated to 1467 and preserved in the State Archives in Bologna – which contains a miniature featuring a close copy of the print titled Imperator (pl. 9). Further evidence is found in a manuscript held at the Abbey Library of Saint Gall (Switzerland) which was completed on 28 November 1468 and contains images of the four cardinal virtues copied from the Tarots of Mantegna. The S-series is generally dated to about 1485, or as late as the end of the 1480s, and the attribution is similarly uncertain.

The possible identity of the artist(s) who produced these Tarocchi, as well as their possible pictorial sources, is still a controversial topic that is open to debate. It has long been acknowledged that their execution should not be attributed to Mantegna. Scholars have since variously turned their attributions to schools or artists operating in different Italian cities; among these Venice had previously been considered most probable, as argued by Kristeller and others, owing to the presence of a print titled Doxe, i.e., the head of government in that lagunar town. However, the Tarocchi may instead be the work of artists belonging to the Ferrarese school, as several stylistic and iconographic features suggest. For example, a figure similar to the Merchadante (i.e., the Merchant, pl. 4) appears in a fresco devoted to the Month of August in the Palazzo Schifanoia cycle, while the Chavalier (i.e., the Knight, pl. 6) bears close resemblance to a figure included in the Triumph of Venus from the Month of April, likewise part of the fresco cycle executed by Francesco Cossa.

Furthermore, other prints of the Tarocchi closely resemble two allegorical figures of the Muses preserved in the National Museum of Art in Budapest and attributed to the Sienese artist Angelo Parrasio, a pupil of Piero della Francesca who was active at the Ferrarese court between 1447 and 1456, and who worked on a series of Muses painted for the Este studio at Belfiore. Other similarities can be found in the figures of the two Enthroned Goddesses belonging to the Strozzi Collection in Florence, likewise attributed by Georg Gombosi to Parrasio. On this basis, Kenneth Clark has concluded that Parrasio may have been the designer of the Tarocchi, an attribution which is, however, rather speculative: “there is no documentary evidence of printmaking in Italy before the 1460s, and if the Tarocchi were engraved after Parrasio's inventions, they would have to be dated around 1455. More importantly, it is hard to believe that the Tarocchi are simply reproductive prints [...] Their meticulous, even exquisite technique is so perfectly suited to the style of the images that the engraver and the designer must have been identical [...] we think it most likely that the Tarocchi are the work of a miniaturist, not a monumental painter, schooled in the circle of the Budapest and Strozzi master and active in Ferrara in the early 1460s” (Levenson, Early Italian Engravings, p. 87).

The set presented here is in good condition, with 10-15-mm margins on all four sides. It contains a total of fifty engravings, forty-eight of which belong to the earliest E-series (Hind 1a-18a, 20a-31a, 33a-50a; Bartsch 18A-35A, 37A-48A, 50A-67A), and two to the S-series, Clio (pl. 19; Hind 19b; Bartsch 36) and Chronico or The Genius of Time (pl. 32; Hind 32b; Bartsch 49). Only one print – the Rhetorica (pl. 23; Hind 23a; Bartsch 40A) – has more recently been added to the set, while the two S-series plates have been ab origine, i.e., always, bound with the forty-seven from the E-series.

Even single plates in good condition are extremely scarce on the market, with complete sets being almost impossible to find; Bartsch records ten complete sets in public collections, including only three bound sets in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and the Museo Civico in Pavia. Another bound set with one plate missing is held at the Musée Condé, Château de Chantilly. To these four bound sets already on record, the present set is now to be added, providing significant further evidence that the Tarocchi were originally printed in pairs of two to a single sheet, with each sheet subsequently folded and bound together as a book, or, more frequently, cut as single prints.

In addition to its extraordinary completeness and rarity, the set described here is of the greatest importance and value owing to its provenance, which narrates a fascinating tale of collecting, even within the already fascinating context of the Tarots of Mantegna. The set's earliest recorded owner was Natalizio Benedetti (1559-1614), an outstanding antiquarian and collector from Foligno (Umbria). He was priore novello of the city in 1592, then entered the service of Bishop and later Cardinal Filippo Filonardi (ca. 1576-1622). Benedetti had a wide European network of relationships, as evinced through his correspondence with the renowned book collector, antiquarian, and great patron of the arts, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637). In 1601 Peiresc had visited Benedetti's museum or cimeliarchium in Foligno, and their late, mutual correspondence testifies not only to the exchange of learned information between the two men, but also to the number of jewels, antiques, and other art objects which Benedetti had amassed in his palace. Contemporary sources refer to Benedetti's possession of about five hundred volumes, and to the drawing-up of a 294-page catalogue of his entire art collection. After his death on 27 October 1614, his marvellous collection of books, prints, coins, jewels, sculptures, antiques, and other objects of exquisite taste, valued at approximately 5,000 scudi, was mostly dispersed. Books with his ownership inscription, many speaking to his antiquarian interests, are scattered across various libraries, in Italy and abroad, as in the case of a copy of the Antichità di Roma by Pirro Ligorio at the Stanford University Library. In 1774 the aforementioned catalogue is known to have been in the hands of Abbot Giovanni Mengoli, then rector of the Foligno seminary, who had received it as a gift from Natalizio's heirs. Unfortunately, the catalogue of Benedetti's collection is now believed to be lost; however, an interesting trace has recently been discovered in a manuscript held at the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice (ms Ital. Cl. VI, cod. 214) relating to another great Italian collector of the age, Francesco Angeloni (1587-1652), who had purchased a large portion of Benedetti's antique collection, then passed in the hands of Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1613-1696), and now partially preserved in the State Museums in Berlin. This manuscript provides a brief summary of the items found in Natalizio's studio after his death, including the general entry “Una quantità di dissegni a penna et in stampa notabili, et altre cose diverse curiose, et belle” (see V. Carpita, “Natalizio Benedetti e Nicolas de Peiresc”, doc. 3, p. 154). Among those 'notable drawings and prints' the anonymous compiler had perhaps had in mind the volume containing the so-called Tarots of Mantegna, a masterpiece which, in the volume presented here, provides a precious record of the history of collecting prints and drawings, along with its different practices throughout the centuries.

After Natalizio's death, the Tarots remained in the possession of the Benedetti family, and then, at the end of the eighteenth century, the collateral line of Roncalli-Benedetti (see B. Lattanzi, “La mostra dei Tarocchi a Foligno”). In 1989, the historian Luigi Sensi provided the first information on the possible fate of Natalizio's collection, mentioning, among others, “una singolare serie di stampe del XV e del XVI secolo che ha seguito, per via ereditaria, la storia della famiglia e che ora è conservata presso i discendenti”, i.e., a “singular series of engravings dating to the fifteenth and sixteenth century which followed, by descent, the story of the family, and is now owned by its descendants” (L. Sensi, “Alla ricerca della collezione di Natalizio Benedetti”, p. 634). In 1990, this 'singular series of engravings' was shown in Foligno, at the occasion of the exhibition Tarocchi. Le carte del destino (i.e.,'Tarocchi: The Cards of Destiny'), for which they were carefully described by Bernardino Lattanzi in his report “La mostra dei Tarocchi a Foligno”. Here Lattanzi described the set as being in its exceedingly rare book form, consisting of forty-nine engravings, of which forty-seven belonged to the earliest E-series, and two (Clio and Chronico) to the S-series. Only one print – the Rhetorica – was lacking, and the recto of the first leaf bore the ownership inscription 'De Natalitis Benedetti. Suoi Amici e fr.elli.': this is undoubtedly the very set presented here. Lattanzi's description does, however, add a critical detail for our reconstruction, in that it reports that the album contains – or better yet, contained, in 1990 – not only the celebrated Tarots of Mantegna, but also thirty-eight additional engravings executed by various fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian and German artists, mostly by the renowned German 'Master ES' (see B. Lattanzi, “La mostra dei Tarocchi a Foligno”, pp. 568-569). Evidently, along with other print collectors of the Baroque, Natalizio Benedetti had glued supplementary engravings – unrelated to the subject-matter of the Tarots – onto the blank sides of the leaves bound in his volume. Indeed, it was a tendency among collectors of the time to assemble a specific series of engravings alongside other items, thereby creating heterogeneous art objects.

But the surprises do not stop there. Although unrecorded in its provenance, in 1979 Sotheby's offered the album at auction, presenting the forty-nine Tarot plates bound exactly as they are now (forty-seven plates from the E-series, and the two aforementioned from the S-series) in one lot: they also offered close to thirty-eight fifteenth- and sixteenth-century German and Italian engravings as single lots. The Sotheby's catalogue seems to attest to the dismantling, although in 1990 Lattanzi was once again able to describe the collection as a composite album in the hands (or returned into the hands?) of Benedetti's descendants. In fact, eleven years after the Sotheby's auction, Lattanzi lists – often providing descriptions and illustrations – not only the unsold (or more probably withdrawn) Sotheby's lots which had returned to their original owners, but also surprisingly describes those that were sold! The Foligno Tarots exhibition was re-installed in Rome, Castel S. Angelo, in 1996, and the related catalogue was published in a new and revised edition; from this catalogue we discover that Bernardino Lattanzi was not only the compiler of the 1990 description of Natalizio Benedetti's album, but also the owner of it, being himself a descendant of the Roncalli-Benedetti family.

Regrettably, the album no longer exists in its original form, and only the marvellous series of Tarots survived the disassembling intact. These were eventually sold at auction by Christie's London in 2009; in the provenance, the sale catalogue indicates Natalizio Benedetti, and then “by descent to the present owners”, an aristocratic Italian family (i.e., Lattanzi family).

Despite such questions, however, it is abundantly clear that the so-called Tarots of Mantegna once owned by the distinguished antiquarian and collector Natalizio Benedetti are presented here in all their magnificence, a universally acknowledged symbol of the Renaissance in its purest expression, when art, craft, science and philosophy, were merged together in the service of humanity.

A. M. Hind, Early Italian Engravings. A Critical Catalogue, I, pp. 221-240; The Illustrated Bartsch, 24.3, pp. 1-61; G. Gombosi, “A Ferrarese Pupil of Piero della Francesca”, Burlington Magazine, 62 (1933), pp. 66-78; K. Clark, “Letter”, Burlington Magazine, 62 (1933), p. 143; J. A. Levenson et al., Early Italian Engravings from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC 1973, pp. 157; C. Cieri Via, “I Tarocchi cosiddetti del Mantegna. Origine, significato e fortuna di un ciclo di immagini”, G. Berti - A. Vitali (eds.), I tarocchi, le carte di corte. Gioco e magia alla corte degli Estensi, Bologna 1987, pp. 49-77; E. Calandra, I Tarocchi detti del Mantegna, Pavia 1992; B. Giordano, “I cosiddetti Tarocchi del Mantegna”, R. Signorini (ed.), A casa di Andrea Mantegna, Cinisello Balsamo, Milano 2006, pp. 298-307; S. Pollack, “I cosiddetti Tarocchi di Mantegna”, M. Natale (ed.), Cosmè Tura e Francesco del Cossa. L'arte a Ferrara nell'età di Borso d'Este. Catalogo della mostra, Ferrara 2007, pp. 398-403; D. M. Faloci Pulignani, “Tre antiche stampe del Giardinetto”, Il Bibliofilo, 5 (1884), pp. 153-157; L. Sensi, “Alla ricerca della collezione di Natalizio Benedetti”, Bollettino storico della città di Foligno, L. Sensi, “Alla ricerca della collezione di Natalizio Benedetti”, Bollettino Storico della città di Foligno, 13 (1989), pp. 629-639; G. Berti, P. Marsili, A. Vitali (eds.), Tarocchi. Le carte del destino. Catalogo della mostra, Foligno 15 settembre-14 ottobre 1990, Faenza 1990; B. Lattanzi, “La mostra dei Tarocchi a Foligno”, Bollettino storico della città di Foligno, 14 (1990), pp. 565-572; B. Marinelli, “Delle dimore della famiglia Benedetti”, ibid., 19 (1995), pp. 581-601; G. Berti - A. Vitali (eds.), Tarocchi. Le carte del destino. Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant'Angelo, Roma 1996, pp. 12-13; L. Sensi, “Natalizio Benedetti e la sua collezione”, Peiresc (1604-2004). Actes du colloque tenu à Peyresq du 26 au 30 août 2004, Science et Techniques en perspective, 9 (2005), pp. 153-171 ; V. Carpita, “Natalizio Benedetti e Nicolas de Peiresc. Dal gusto per le “anticaglie” agli esordi dell'archeologia”, M. Fumaroli - F. Solinas - V. Carpita (eds.), Peiresc et l'Italie, Paris 2009, pp. 105-156; Philobiblon, One Thousand Years of Bibliophily, no. 8.