14 – A TREASURE IN THE VATICAN LIBRARY

On July 13, 2011, a great friend of mine, a specialist in Renaissance philosophy, introduced me to the Vatican Library. I felt like a kid in a candy store. Among the many treasures it offered was the manuscript Reg. Lat. 1388, one of the collections of texts that Felice Feliciano had copied and illustrated for his personal use.

Felice Feliciano’s Mars Victor, Ms. Reg. Lat. 1388, folio 31 verso, 1463.

On the verso of the 31st leaf, a superb full-page miniature caught my interest. It depicts a knight in armor, brandishing his sword while riding a rearing horse. Luminous rays seem to emanate from the figure, which includes inscriptions written in antique-style capital letters: above, Mars Victor; below, Orion. The image looked vaguely familiar, but it didn’t occur to me until weeks later to compare it with the four cavaliers of the Tarot of Marseille.

Nicolas Conver’s Cavalier of Swords, 1760

When I put the Cavalier of Swords next to Feliciano’s knight, I immediately felt the brain waves that go along with a good catch. The similarities were too numerous to be mere coincidences. Using photo-editing software, I reversed the card to better observe the similarities: the general position of the horse; its breast plate decorated with a roundel on the shoulder; the bit, reins, and bridle; the animal’s eye and pointed ears. The arabesque drawn on the breastplate in the miniature reappears almost identically on the back of the caparison on the card. So, which one of these two depictions served as the model for the other? The differences between the two images provide the answer. They are explained by the tighter composition constraints of the card. To fit the frame, the card’s artist had to lower the hand brandishing the sword and fold down the horse’s foreleg, which is in the background behind the one in the foreground.

The Mars Victor miniature, slightly modified to fit the format of the card (left) compared with the Cavalier of Swords (reversed, left).

Thus, the card was inspired by the miniature. I obtained confirmation of this when I identified the graphic models of Feliciano’s miniature. One is found in a sketchbook we already had the opportunity to examine (see episode 2), that of Jacopo Bellini, kept at the British Museum, in which I identified the first prototype of the Chariot card.[1] The other model is also in a sketchbook, by the same artist, this one belonging to the Louvre Museum. In the latter, on the recto of leaf 14, the drawing Saint George and the Dragon appears to be the main graphic source of Feliciano’s knight.[2]

Jacopo Bellini’s Saint George and the Dragon (Louvre Museum sketchbook).

In the British Museum’s sketchbook, the joust scene on the recto of folio 55 provided the model for the breastplate, decorated with a roundel on the shoulder.[3]

Jacopo Bellini’s Joust (British Museum sketchbook).

These borrowed elements are not surprising, considering that Feliciano was a friend of Giovanni Bellini’s,[4] son of Jacopo, and, as such, he may have had direct access to his father’s sketchbooks, or to copies of them. Thus, Feliciano’s travels throughout the northern half of the Italian peninsula provides an explanation for the similarities between some figures in the Tarot of Marseille and artwork originating from places far from Florence, such as Ferrara and Venice (see episode 2).

[1] See Colin Eisler, The Genius of Jacopo Bellini. The complete paintings and drawings. New York, Abrams, 1989, p. 249.

[2] See Colin Eisler, The Genius of Jacopo Bellini, cit., p. 404.

[3] See Colin Eisler, The Genius of Jacopo Bellini, cit., p. 245.

[4] Felice Feliciano, Epistole e versi agli amici artisti, cit., p. 7.

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