As much as any of his better-known Italian contemporariesLeonardo da Vinci, members of the Medici and Sforza families, Christopher Columbus, and Niccolò MachiavelliMatteo Maria Boiardo was also a Renaissance man. Like those more famous names, he too was a product of and a contributor to an age of discovery that dragged the world from the medieval into the modern age. Boiardo’s relative obscurity is more a result of his operation within a smaller sphere of influence than of his talent. His venue was the duchy of Ferrara, an enclave bordered to the south by the powerful Republic of Florence and the Papal States, and to the north by the Republic of Venice and the territories of the Milanese and Genoese city-states.
Boiardo was fortunately situated in both place and in time. Born just after the Gutenberg press was introduced, he was physically in the path of the first wave of scientific and intellectual inquiry called the Renaissance, which originated in Florence about 1400 and swept through Italy and the rest of Europe.
Steeped in the available literature of his era, Boiardo began writing in his late teens. Like authors from any epoch, he drew on past works for inspiration. He began by imitating Petrarch, writing sonnets of unrequited love in the traditional octave/sestet form. Once he had perfected the technique, he moved on to whatever attracted his eager mind, producing works to entertain the elite and discriminating court of Ferrara. Boiardo was successively caught up in the rediscovery of classical Greek and Latin thought and style, captivated by a popular card game, and enamored of drama. In the fullness of time, he took existing materials, reshaped and reinvented them, and made them his own, in the process becoming a consummate storyteller in verse, the unofficial poet laureate of Ferrara.
Introduced into northern Italy around 1425, playing cardscalled trionfi (triumphs, or trumps) because higher-numbered cards triumphed over lesser cardsquickly became a favorite aristocratic pastime at court functions. It is probable that gambling on the turns of cards took place from the outset. Early decks, consisting of four suits of either thirteen or fourteen cards, were produced for especially happy occasions such as weddings, military victories, and festivals.
In the 1460’s, Boiardo significantly changed the concept of playing cards, essentially inventing a new game that came to be known as the Tarot. He composed eighty poems for Trionfi:...
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