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Anonymous artist, Visconti-Sforza Tarot, c. 1475

Hercules as Allegory of Force
Christine de Pizan (c. 1364-1430)
Cent Histoires de Troye
THE VISCONTI-SFORZA TAROCCHI depicts the trump "Force" or "Strength" in a unique way. Instead of the usual portrayal of the moral virtue of Fortitude, typically shown either as a woman taming a lion or a woman holding a cracked pillar, the Visconti-Sforza tarocchi shows a man with a raised club, about to beat a lion with it. Commentators unanimously take the scene to be a depiction of the first of Hercules' Twelve Labours, the killing of the Nemean Lion. While classical motifs were ubiquitous in the Renaissance, this substitution of the classical demigod for the traditional virtue in the tarocchi pack is unique and startling in its difference, a daring departure from the standard depiction of this virtue in the pack. Who made this choice, and why? It may not be possible to answer these questions with certainty, but by looking at the traditional iconography of Hercules and the people connected with the Sforza family at the time the cards were painted, we may glean some understanding of what this image might have meant.

The ancient legend of Hercules remained popular throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, and still into our own time, his name always being synonymous with physical strength. Because of his heroic exploits, he could also be taken as an embodiment of the virtue of Fortitude, at least its parts of physical endurance, strength and fearlessness, if not the subtler moral aspects of the virtue. Moreover, in medieval depictions, Hercules is frequently shown battling the lion while holding his club. Thus the interpretation of the card as showing Hercules seems fully consistent with both the literary and iconographic conventions of the time.


The artist Bonifacio Bembo (c. 1420-1486) painted the gilded card-pack around 1450 for Francesco Sforza, who was acclaimed Duke of Milan in that year. He was born in 1401 to Muzio Attendolo, a “condotierre” or mercenary-general, who had earned the name “sforza” - an old Italian spelling of “forza”, strength or force - because of his bravery and strength on the field of battle. Francesco carried well his father’s reputation, being both a successful general and a physically powerful man, renowned for bending metal bars with his bare hands. Although the Sforzas were employed both by the Viscontis against the Venentians and then the Venetians against the Visconti, both Murzio and Francesco finally carved city-states out for themselves, with Francesco controlling Cremona, south of Milan. After battling Filippo Maria Visconti for some years, Francesco made peace with the Visconti and married Filippo’s daughter Bianca. Visconti died in 1447, leaving the Visconti possessions to Alfonse V of Spain. The latter was unable to claim the Duchy, however, and the Milanese proclaimed their independence by setting up a republic, the Ambrosian (after St. Ambrose, celebrated 4th century Bishop of Milan and its patron Saint), which was soon wracked by internal squabbles and external foes. Although Sforza had already taken many former Visconti possessions, including Pavia and its library in the same year as Filippo Maria’s death, it took him three years to win Milan, claiming the right by virtue of his marriage to Visconti’s daughter. Although unprecendented, the privilege of granting noble status being normally reserved to superiors, the Milanese granted him the title of Duke. He lived until 1466, and proved an enlightened and popular ruler, although his sons would hold power continuously for only another 33 years.

Francesco Sforza
Francesco Bonsignori (1455-1519)
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Galeazzo Maria Sforza
Piero Pollaiolo (1456-1494)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Although the bulk of the deck, 68 extant cards, was undoubtedly painted for Francesco during his lifetime, six of the trumps, including Force, were painted by another artist somewhat later. Scholars put the date variously between 1460 and 1480, with the artist’s identity uncertain, although Antonio Cicognara (fl. late 15th century) is often put forth as a candidate. Historians see a Ferrarese style of the 60s and 70s in the cards, while also noting a clear resemblance to paintings in Pavia at the time. Classical mythology was one of the most popular subjects for artists in this period of the revival of all classical tastes and styles. Artists like the Pollaiolo brothers, Francesco della Cossa and Cosimo Tura painted and sculpted for the Medicis, Sforzas and d’Estes, and classical subjects and allegories were frequent commissions. Therefore while the newer cards were clearly painted for a Sforza, we cannot be sure whose tastes among Francesco’s successors or contemporaries the cards represent. Symbolically they appear more austere than the contemporary tarocchi from Ferrara, although the colours are bolder. Within the pack itself, two distinct features distinguishing them from the older cards are the nudity of the winged putti in the Sun and the World cards, in contrast to the robed figures of Bembo’s Angel trump, and the painter’s use of bright red in every one of the cards, a colour barely present in the older trumps of the pack, with the stunning exception of the Bagatello (trump no. 1). This bright red is especially reminiscent of Francesco Sforza, and appears to have been his signature colour, appearing often in his portraits. As the colour of the warlike god Mars, perhaps Sforza wore it for victory, following the custom of his Ferrarese contemporary Leonello d’Este, who wore clothes coloured to correspond with the planetary ruler of a given day of the week.

But it is equally possible that these newer cards were executed under Francesco’s sons and successors Galeazzo Maria (1444-1476) or Ludovic Maria (“the Moor” 1451-1508). The former was recording as having “sibilline cards” and was an intellectual and esthete, while the latter had close connections with Ferrara, being married to Beatrice d’Este, the daughter of Ercole (Hercules), Duke of Ferrara. Ludovic himself noted the popularity of the cards, which had been present in the Ferrarese court since at least 1442. A final possibility, recalling the noted similarity with the style at Pavia, is that the cards were painted for Galeazzo Maria’s son Gian Galeazzo (1468-1494). This young man with his wife and family were imprisioned at Pavia on his uncle Ludovic’s orders in 1489, when he wrested complete power in Milan from him. While surrounded by the riches of the Visconti artistic and intellectual heritage, Gian Galeazzo would no doubt also have been fond of the sumptuously decorated cards which were a part of it. Ludovic had him poisoned there in 1494.


Hercules is mentioned in dozens of Greek and Latin sources. But the complete or “canonical” tale of his 12 Labours only appears in two Greek histories - those of Diodorus Siculus and Apollodorus, both called Bibliotheca. The manuscripts of these two authors are few, and it seems doubtful that any of the Sforza’s artistic contemporaries would have been familiar with them. Instead, the legend had lived on in an independent icongraphic tradition since antiquity, and had its most popular literary setting within two kinds of works. First was the larger cycle of the Trojan War, especially Benoit de Sainte Maure’s Roman de Troie and Guido della Collone’s Historia destructionis Troiae. Sforza himself had several copies of each in his library at Pavia, and the ducal court in Ferrara also had at least three manuscripts. These lengthy works were sumptuously illuminated, and Hercules was frequently depicted. Secondly, since at least Dante’s time the similarities between the legend of Hercules and the story of Christ had provided writers with a fruitful subject. A Canzone attributed to Dante himself is addressed to Hercules, and in the Divine Comedy the journey of Hercules to Hades and back is seen as prefiguring that of Christ. Another important 14th century theological writer, Collucio Salutati, composed De Laboris Herculis on these themes in 1378. The d’Este family in particular seems to have had a passion for Hercules - the Marquis of Ferrara Nicholas III d’Este named his third son, born in 1433, Hercules (Ercole in Italian), and commissioned a book about Hercules to be written and sumptuously illuminated to commemmorate the event. By Pietro Andrea di Bassi, it was called "The Feats of Hercules" (Le Fatiche d'Ercole) and proved very popular. Franscesco Sforza's son Galeazzo Maria commissioned a copy. Thus in the intellectual and artistic climate of the princely courts of northern Italy there are many possible sources of inspiration for the image of Hercules fighting the Nemean Lion, and Herculean imagery in general.

Hercules and the Nemean Lion
Raoul Lefèvre, Histoires de Troyes
Belgium, XVth century (B.N. Français 59, Fol. 137)

Hercules and the Lernean Hydra
c. 1475
Antonio Pollaiolo (1451-1498)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
On the face of it, the identification of the figure in the card seems certain - Hercules is a proverbial symbol of strength; this would be an appropriate figure for a Sforza, whose name means “force” or “strength”, or as an allegory of the name of the Duke of Ferrara. Moreover, Hercules is frequently depicted carrying his weapon of choice, a club. And indeed, a club figures in the first Labour, which depending on the version has Hercules vainly trying to kill the Lion with it (its skin proving impervious to arrows and blows) or chasing the Lion into a cave with it.

Sardonyx Cameo of Hercules
ca. 1220, southern Italy
The Milton Weil Collection
Metropolitan Museum, New York City

But while doubtlessly reasonable, there are some difficulties with this hypothesis. There are incongruities between the traditional depictions of the Labour, and the iconography of the card, as well as in the story itself. For instance, in the story Hercules, after vainly trying to kill the lion with arrows and then beating it with a club, succeeds finally only by using his superhuman physical strength to strangle it. The imagery of the Labour usually shows this victory, depicted as either grappling head-to-head with the lion, or wrestling with it, Hercules having a stranglehold around the lion's neck. Finally, after choking the Nemean Lion, Hercules henceforth wore its invulnerable skin, as depicted in the 1475 portrayal of Hercules’ second Labour, the Killing of the Lernean Hydra, by the artist Antonio Pollaiolo. Certainly Pollaiolo's dyanmic figure, with the lion's tail snapping out behind, is reminiscent of Hercules' billowing sash that lends movement to the Visconti-Sforza card. But if the intention of the card-painter were to show this particular triumph of Hercules, it would be odd to show him using one of the unsuccessful methods. Rather it may be that the image is a visual synecdoche, a representation of all that Hercules means in general.

Another apparent departure from the then-blossoming Renaissance tradition is that while Hercules always appears naked in the neo-classical depictions of his Labours, wrestling with the lion, a convention also known in the middle ages (above), in the Trojan romances artists could clothe him in armour, for example in the early 15th century version of the Histoires de Troyes illustrated above. While definitely sharing generic features with the Visconti-Sforza card, this contemporary miniature differs substantially from it. For instance, in the romance Hercules is helmeted and in full armour; a broken sword lies at feet; there are three lions, all coming at him (and one lying beheaded). It seems as if neither the romantic nor the independent iconographic tradition could be the direct source of the card’s imagery.

26 Libra from Iohannis Angelus
Astrolabium PlanumVenice 1494
Another possible interpretation of the card is that it represents an image from the astrological tradition, so beloved of the Renaissance, including the courts of Pavia and Ferrara. When Iohannis Angelus published Petrus de Abano’s images of the decans and degrees in his Astrolabium Planum in 1494, he depicted the 26th degree of Libra as "Victor Belli", The Victor in War. The translations and original works of Petrus de Abano (1250-1316), are considered the sources of the astrological imagery in the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua and the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. Angelus' depiction of the symbol for 26 Libra is remarkably similar to the VS card, both in the overall simplicity of its design and in such details as the shape of the man's garments and the lion's tail between its legs. Like the Viscontis before him and as mentioned above, Francesco Sforza and many of his contemporaries relied on astrologers to help them plan their major activities. In Sforza’s case, unlike the area of Trojan romances, where all the manuscripts pre-dated his rule, astrology was one area of the Pavian library to which he added - in particular a highly illustrated volume of Iohannes de Sacrobosco’s De Sphaera, treating allegorically of the influence of the planets on human life. While Hercules alone would certainly be an appropriate subject for the triumph of Force, invoking both the Sforzas’ reputation for strength and their acquired name, the astrological subject of Victory in War seems to add another dimension to the card, both in its iconography and in the Sforza's ultimate military aims. Finally, Cornelius Agrippa, around 1530 citing Petrus de Abano and Hyginus, says that Hercules represents Victory in War (Three Books of Occult Philosophy II,37). We have a perfect match.