Upon examination of the Esztergom Justice, I was all the more puzzled that, in 2008 already, I had identified another Justice that seemed like a twin to the Justice of the Tarot of Marseille. What was the link between these three images?


Biagio d’Antonio, Justice, circa 1470.

The painting is kept at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Attributed to the Florentine painter Biagio d’Antonio, it represents Justice, and is akin to both the Esztergom Justice and the Justice of the Tarot of Marseille. Some similarities can be seen among all three images, while others are shared by only two. The three Justices share the same frontal view with a sword in the right hand, vertically with the point up, and it is the same double-edge weapon, with the blade divided by a fine line that splits into two at the guard. Likewise, the three of them hold a beam scale, whose bowl-shaped pans are suspended by three strings. They all have rather similar clothes: a dress with a round, bordered collar and wide sleeves; a belt worn high; and a large coat whose folds cover the legs. All three have blond hair cascading along the temples and over the shoulders. Some details, however, belong only to Biagio’s Justice and to the tarot card: the sword’s round pommel divided into segments, positioned precisely on top of the right knee, and the round shapes at both ends of the scales’ beam.

The sword of Biagio’s Justice (left) compared to that of the tarot card (right).

Other features belong only to Esztergom’s Justice and the tarot card: the symmetrical face seen from the front, as well as the throne (in Biagio’s painting, Justice sits on clouds). Finally, other features can only be observed in Biagio’s painting and in the Esztergom fresco: the open position of the left arm (in the card, it is folded inward), and the fine pleats of the dress under the belt.

The left arm of the Esztergom Justice (left) compared to that of Biagio’s Justice (right)

This maze of cross-references makes it impossible to determine logically which image derives from which. Whichever is the final one, it necessarily inherits features from both others. The only obvious conclusion to be drawn is that all three images were created in the same milieu, not necessarily by the same hand, but by artists who shared common models, a frequent workshop practice at that time.[1] This gives good reasons to think that they were conceived during a rather short interval of time, say a few years at the most. One detail in Biagio’s painting allowed me to narrow my research. The four corners are marked with coats of arms. As noted by the art historian Roberta Bartoli, the one at the top right is the lily of the Tribunale della Mercanzia. Bartoli deduces from this that Biagio’s Justice is linked to the Virtues painted by Pollaiolo and Botticelli for Florence’s Mercanzia in the years 1467-1470.[2]  Basing her conclusion on Biagio’s stylistic evolution, she dates his Justice to the early 1470s.

The Esztergom Justice did have links with Florence. This gave much weight to the hypothesis that the Cardinal Virtues fresco was the work of a Florentine artist, possibly Sandro Botticelli or another painter from the same milieu who was stylistically akin to him. But why would a painter have gone all the way from Florence to a remote Hungarian city to take the job?

In the 15th century, Esztergom shined with a remarkable cultural influence. Between 1465 and 1472, this city was the seat of the most important archbishopric of Hungary. The archbishop was a humanist named János Vitéz. In 1447, he sent his nephew, Janus Pannonius, to study in the Italian city of Ferrara under the famous humanist and pedagogue, Guarino Veronese. When Pannonius returned to Hungary in 1458, he maintained close ties with the intellectual milieu he had frequented in Italy. In 1465, he traveled to Florence, where he met Marsilio Ficino, with whom he made friends.[3]

Between 1465 and 1471, thanks to the influence of Pannonius and Ficino, the relationship strengthened between the court of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence. Presents were exchanged, among which were precious books. It is also likely that artistic exchanges occurred during that period. Such circumstances may explain the presence of a Florentine artist to paint the fresco in János Vitéz’s Esztergom palace. Fragments found during the archaeological excavations allowed for a reconstitution of the entire fresco’s program, of which the Cardinal Virtues represents only a small part. It combined astrological scenery with philosophical allegories, in the manner of the renowned Schifanoia frescoes in Ferrara, which were painted during the same period, in the years 1469-1470. Vitéz was passionate with astrology, while Pannonius had been strongly impressed by Ficino’s Platonic doctrine and applied himself to circulate it in the kingdom of Hungary.

In 1471, however, Vitéz and Pannonius were involved in a failed plot against King Matthias Corvinus. The archbishop was arrested and his nephew was forced into exile. They both died in the aftermath, in 1472. Because of their close acquaintance with the Medici, this event brutally brought to a halt the relationship between Hungary and Florence. Diplomatic relations resumed by 1477.

Therefore, it seems most unlikely that a Florentine painter would have painted the Esztergom Cardinal Virtues between 1471 and 1477. It could have been the case after 1477 but then, why would the artist have used Biagio’s outdated model? A more probable hypothesis is that the Esztergom frescoes were painted sometime between 1465 and 1471, when the archbishop showed a keen interest in astrology, philosophy, and the arts; when the relationship with Florence was flourishing; and when the graphic model of Justice was popular in Florence. Furthermore, during that very period, frescoes of similar inspiration were made in Ferrara, and Pannonius could have been informed about them by Ferrarese correspondents whom he might have known when he was a student in that city only a few years earlier.

To account for the Botticellian accents in the Cardinal Virtues fresco, Waldman dates it from the mid-1490s, when Botticelli’s manner was being imitated by other Florentine artists. Before 1471, conversely, Botticelli had barely begun his career. Thus, his style could not have influenced other painters. Dating the fresco before 1471 leads to the conclusion that its author has to be Botticelli himself. Rather interestingly, Roberta Bartoli likens Biagio’s Justice to Botticelli’s Madonna in Glory with Seraphim, painted circa 1469-1470.[4] In that painting, indeed, the Virgin is clearly reminiscent of our three Justices – or anticipates them – especially as regards the seated position and the clothing.

Botticelli, Madonna in Glory with Seraphim, circa 1469-1470.

A question lingers: If Botticelli painted Esztergom’s Cardinal Virtues, and two of the virtues are very similar to two cards of the Tarot of Marseille, could it be that the Florentine painter played a role in the making of the Tarot of Marseille?

[1] See John Goldsmith Phillips, Early Florentine Designers and Engravers, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1955.

[2] See Roberta Bartoli, Biagio d’Antonio, Milano, Motta, 1999, p. 30-31; see also the note by Roberta Bartoli in Mina Gregori, Antonio Paolucci, and Cristina Acidini Luchinat, Maestri e Botteghe. Pittura a Firenze alla fine del Quattrocento, Milano, Silvana, 1992, p. 242-243.

[3] See Sebastiano Gentile, Marsilio Ficino e l’Ungheria di Mattia Corvino, in Sante Graciotti, Cesare Vasoli (eds.), Italia e Ungheria all’epoca dell’umanesimo corviniano, Florence, Olschki, 1994, p. 89-110, here p. 91. About the influence of Marsilio Ficino’s ideas in Hungary, see also Valery Rees, Marsilio Ficino and the rise of philosophic interests in Buda, in Péter Farbaky, Louis A. Waldman (eds.), Italy & Hungary, cit., p. 127-148.

[4] See Roberta Bartoli, Biagio d’Antonio, cit., p. 31.

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