Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Madman (Fool)


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1995


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, September 2018


Translator’s note. In current English, a ‘fool’, in the primary sense, is someone who exercises poor judgment; a ‘crazy person’ is someone who is of unsound mind, mentally ill; and a ‘madman’ is someone who acts in a crazy manner. Also, ‘crazy’ has a secondary sense of agitation or anger, and ‘mad’ one of frenzy, unlike ‘fool’, The word ‘stupid’ is different still, meaning primarily ‘. There is much overlap in meaning as well, in secondary meanings (A). But in modern Italian, the words ‘folle’, ‘pazzo’ and ‘matto’, are all roughly synonymous (B). Whether the same was true in Renaissance Italian I do not know. Another essay of Vitali’s, The meaning of the word 'Tarocco', suggests that at least in the 18th century, distinctions did exist (see the entries for ‘matto’, ‘folle’, and ‘pazzo’ in the lengthy quote about word-meanings near the end of  the essay). No doubt there was much overlap in meaning. But so as not to lose in translation what might have been distinct, ‘Matto’ and similar will be translated here as ‘Madman’, etc, and ‘Folle’ and similar as ‘Fool’, etc. (bearing in mind that they are synonymous in modern usage); other words will be indicated in brackets after my best guess as to their English translation in that particular context. In the case of Bible quotes, the King James Version uses ‘fool’ where the Italian has ‘stolto’ and the Latin Vulgate ‘stultus’ or ‘insipiens’. Here the Vulgate’s word is put after the translation to make clear what Latin wordit uses).


Madness [Pazzia], according to a common opinion, means acting without reason. Cesare Ripa has this to say in his Iconologia: “Non è altro l’esser pazzo, secondo il nostro modo di parlare, che far le cose senza decoro, & fuor dal comune uso de gli uomini per privatione di discorso senza ragione verisimile, ò stimolo di Religione”  (Madness [pazzo], according to our way of speaking, means none other than  doing things without dignity, and outside of the common custom of men, due to lack of discourse without likely reason or the stimulus of Religion) (1).


In the Sacred Scripture, he who does not believe is considered foolish, and often figures of fools appear in the Bibles of the 15th and 16th centuries, illustrating the Vulgate’s Latin translation of Psalm 52 [Psalm 53 in Protestant Bibles]: “Dixit insipiens in corde suo: non est deus (The fool [insipiens] hath said in his heart: there is no God) (2).


In a 16th century Bible, I found the same depiction of the Fool as in the Florentine minchiate (figure 1): a man dressed in rags, with feathers stuck in his hair, who walks riding a stick; in his hand, he holds a pinwheel, and children appear around him. (figure 2) / (figure 3 - Detail from an illuminated manuscript, 15th century).We will talk about the relationship between children and madness shortly.


Again Ripa provides an identical description: “Un’ huomo di età virile,…. starà ridente, & à cavallo sopra una canna, nella destra mano terrà una girella di carta istromento piacevole, & trastullo de fanciulli, li quali con gran studio lo fanno girare al vento” (A man of adult age will be laughing, and riding horseback on a cane; in his right hand, he will hold a paper pinwheel, a pleasant instrument and an amusement for children, who make him turn it in the wind with great care) (3). 


The same author also tells us that “reputandosi saviezza nella Città ad un huomo di età matura, trattare de reggimenti della famiglia, & della Repubblica; Pazzia si dirà ragionevolmente alienarsi da queste attioni, per essercitare giuochi puerile, & di nessun momento” (In the city, it is held to be wisdom for a man of mature age to engage in matters of the family and of the Republic, hence it will be reasonably called Madness [Pazzia] to abstain oneself from these actions, in order to play childish games, of no import) (4) .


Regarding the pinwheel, since it changes direction with the variation of the wind, it is symbolically placed in relation to the Fool whose thought is inconstant, a fact that identifies him as a lunar character: "The fool [stolto], that is, the sinner, changes as the moon, which increases today and tomorrow grows less: today he is seen laughing, tomorrow weeping, today cheerful and meek, tomorrow afflicted and furious; in sum he changes as the prosperous or adverse things that happen to him change. But the just man is as the sun, always the same and uniform in his tranquility, in everything that happens; because his peace is in conforming to the divine will: ‘Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis’ [And on earth peace to men of good will]’ (Luke 2:14).” (5)


The sinner, in exulting over good fortune and weeping over bad fortune, is thus like a child who gets and loses a toy, thereby displaying his lack of wisdom, which is according to Aquinas, “a certain rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal Law” (sapientia importat quandam rectitudinem iudicii secundum rationes divinas) (6). This Law advises us not to attach importance to changes in worldly fortunes.


Diego Lanza writes about the fool-child relationship: "Locating the fool [sciocco, i.e. simpleton] and the child in the common denominator of naivety involves two convictions, not always clearly explicit, but which implicitly govern the most common attitudes and the most common behaviors. The first is that the child is a temporary fool [sciocco], who must therefore be protected, corrected and educated so that he abandons the state of stultitiam as soon as possible, abandoning thoughts, behaviors, fantasies that appear socially inadequate when not dangerous. [...]. The second conviction is that the fool is in essence a child who has not been able to mentally grow and has not been able to adequately get rid of the simplicity of his childhood” (7).


Aristotle was convinced of this simple-mindedness of the child, probably the first to emphasize this aspect.  Declining to glorify the child, Aristotle assimilated him to a dwarf who, for his deformity, undoubtedly presented an intellectual lack: "For all children are dwarfs in shape, but cease to be so as they become men, from the growth of their lower part” (8); and again: "For even among men themselves if we compare children with adults, or such adults as are of dwarf-like shape with such as are not, we find that, whatever other superiority the former may possess, they are at any rate deficient as compared with the latter in intelligence"(9). It is thus their lack of intelligence, or perhaps more properly their lack of intellectual development, then, that enables children and the dull-witted [stolti] to enjoy the same simple pastimes.


The artistic iconography of the fool as so described, originates from the depictions of the psalms at the end of the 12th century, changing substantially towards the middle of the fourteenth century, to disappear from religious texts in the following century (10). Inside the initial letter D of “Dixit insipiens in corde suo: non est deus”, medieval miniaturists depict the fool [folle] as a poor, inept and violent man, dressed in rags or naked, and holding the bulging or bifurcated stick. In the earliest psychiatry, the skull is shaved, sometimes cross-shaped, because the tonsure-barbers so treated the insane by suppressing their excessive melancholia and the hair that was its expression.  He brings to his mouth something white (cheese?), A color that is opposed to black moods (figure 4 - Miniated letter D, initial of Dixit, Amiens, manuscript psalter, 15th century) (11). Sometimes the madman is depicted addressing a king, or, as in this image, God the Father.


This representation evolved in the mid-fourteenth century and, keeping the reference to madness, he becomes a jester, again linked to the figure of the unbeliever, be it an atheist or a Jew (figure 5- Antonio di Niccolo (1445-1527), Letter D, initial of Dixit / figure 6  - Full page, datable between 1480 and 1500. Private collection) (12).


According to A. Belkin, a correspondence between mental illness, seen as low intelligence, and lack of faith in God, implied by the Latin inspiens (and also stultus), is foreign to the Hebrew term which the Latin translates, naval. The original meaning of the Hebrew is “foolish” in a moral sense, that of disregarding God’s’ law. There is no implication that the person so called is mentally deficient, in fact, just the opposite: he is knowingly disregarding God’s commandments. Belkin writes: “The Latin “insipiens” - a translation of the Hebrew “naval” - lacks the wide negative connotation which, in the original Hebrew text, removes the “naval” of the Psalm from the sphere of folly as a mental weakness and places him within a certain category of heresy. The biblical “naval” is not confronted - like folly - with wisdom as an intellectual faculty but rather with wisdom to do the right thing, in an order that harmoniously ties the individual’s life and social behavior with the principle of divine rule” (13).


With “insipiens” and “stultus”, however, medieval miniaturists have the opportunity to create an amusing and memorable figure with which to illustrate the person of the psalm, whose moral deficiency is the result of his mental deficiency.


Thus a figure emerges of the evil and unfaithful spirit (as indicated by the psalm), but also the mentally ill (coming from the Vulgate and later exegetes). "Therefore the comparison is established between the madman, the one who by nature is outside the rules of civil coexistence, and the infidel, the man who does not admit and does not respect the laws of God. The insipiens, who due to of his own unfaithfulness perpetuates evil, is someone is 'morally mad [pazzo]' and therefore depicted as a 'sick madman' [pazzo malato]" (14).


In the Florentine miniature above (see figure 1) and in the seventeenth-century Tarocchini of Mitelli (figure 7), in the figure of the madman-simpleton [folle-insipiens] with the pinwheel is found hanging a balloon (two in the minchiate), object found in the depictions of the mad already from the 15th century (figure 8 - Insipiens as a jester, initial of Psalm 52, Spencer manuscript, c.1450). To understand the presence of this object we need to go back to the etymology of the word 'folle', from the Latin follis, that is, 'bladder, sacca, soffietto or pallone'. In the sixth century its meaning will be amplified indicating the person deprived of sense, whose head was assimilated to the inconsistency of the balloon, or of the pig-skin bag (15).


The Fool’s laughter, which we find on the card of the so-called Charles VI Tarot and that of Ercole I d’ Este, is “facilmente indicio di pazzia, secondo il detto di Salomone; però si vede che gli uomini reputati savij, poco ridono, & Christo N.S. che fù la vera saviezza, & sapienza, non si legge, chi ridesse giamai” (easily evidence of madness [pazzia], according to the words of Solomon; however, one can see that men considered wise rarely laugh, and of Christ Our Lord, who was true wisdom and knowledge, we never read that he laughed) (16). An anonymous engraving of the 16th century shows a fool laughing before an angel, who covers his eyes with his hands in order not to see such an unconscionable deed (figure 9).


On the illuminated card of the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, the Fool carries feathers on his head and a stick on his shoulder (figure 10). A similar figure was painted by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, as an image of Stultitia (figure 11). In this fresco, the Fool holds an object between his lips which virtually prevents him from speaking. The notion of folly that we find in this allegory is further increased by the presence of feathers on the figure’s head. 


We must first of all consider that in ancient times wings, feathers and plumage were used as symbols of speed. Cartari in his work Imagini delli Dei de gl'Antichi [Images of the gods of the ancients] indicates feathers as an attribute of the Sun, to signify the speed of its path.Regarding the plumage on the head of Mercury, the author says this “Furono poi date le penne à Mercurio […] perche nel parlare, di ché egli era il Dio,…., le parole se ne volano per l'aria non altrimenti, & che se havessero l'ali. Onde Omero chiama sempre le parole veloci alate e che hanno penne” (Feathers were given to Mercury, because, when speaking - as he was a god - his words flew through the air as if they had wings. This is why Homer always spoke of words as fast, winged, and feathered) (17). Moreover, Mercury was the god of eloquence and eloquent words fly further and faster than ones that are not,  while the Sun was an image of God himself, and so of absolute goodness as well as of intellect without limits.


Sebastian Brant in his work Der Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools) of 1494, in sonnet LVII, “On Divine Providence”, has this to say about presumptuous fools: “One can even find fools who claim with their writings to gild their quills, and believe themselves to be wise...” (18).


The feathers on the head of the Fool thus represent the very elements in which the fool is lacking, that is, speed and intellect, as well as suitable words against his pride of feeling able to write, with the feathers on his head, who knows what truth. In fact, the padlock sealing the mouth of the fool, as painted by Giotto, takes on this function, since the Fool otherwise would only speak folly, as described in the words of Ecclesiastes 10:12-13, as translated in the Vulgate, "[...] labia insipientis praecipitabunt eum. initium verborum eius stultitia et novissimum oris illius error pessimus” “[...] the lips of a fool [insipientis] will swallow up himself. The beginning of the words of his mouth is folly [stultitia]; and the end of his talk is a mischievous error [error pessimus]) (19). The words “error pessimus” emphasize the moral dimension. Not only is the fool lacking in words that fly with the eloquence of a Mercury and the intellect of the Sun, but his words are dangerous error. All the more reason for a padlock.




Il sermone del Folle



Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), Folly, in the pulpit, begins his sermon, pen and ink drawing.

In "Praise of Folly" by Erasmus of Rotterdam (Basel, 1515), Switzerland Kustmuseum, Basel

                            The Latin writing at the top "Mala audiranno" means that the listeners will hear bad words.



A further plausible reading on the origin of the feathers on the headdress brings the symbol back to the rooster killed during the Feste dei Folli [Feast of Fools]. Typical of the festival was the race that rewarded the one who, blindfolded, was able to hit the animal with sticks, the winner awarded with the crown made of the plumage of  the animal and with the title of King of the Rooster, or King of Fools (20).


This festival represented a reversal of all the values celebrated during the rest of the year; nothing was too sacred to be spared, in particular the Christian religion, the force that permeated everything (21). From this aspect we may recall the famous hymn of Prudentius, Hymnus ad Galli Cantum [Hymn to the Cock-Crow], where the cock crow does not refer to the morning itself but to the passage from night to day, from darkness to light, to physical awakening symbolically related to spiritual awakening. It begins: 


Ales diei nuntius

lucem propinquam praecinit;

nos excitator mentium

iam Christus ad vitam vocat.


(The bird that is herald of the day foretells the light at hand; now Christ the awakener of mnds calls us to life. ....)


and closes:


Tu, Christus, somnum dissice,

tu rumpe noctis vincula,

tu solve peccatum vetus,

novumque lumen ingere 


(You, O Christ, shatter our slumber, break the bonds of night, dissolve our ingrained sin, and pour in new light) (22)


Here the cock is not mentioned as such, but it is clear, if only from the hymn’s title, thatthe bird, referred to in the first line is the rooster. Lisa M. Sullivan, writing of these lines, observes: “The rooster, a traditional symbol of alertness to the coming of light and day, is also a sign of repentance of sinners (specifically Peter, who ‘wept bitter tears’ after his denial of Christ), but also more specifically assures that the rooster is to be seen as a representation of Christ himself  [... ] With this primary symbol in place, the others fall in with little effort” (23). Likewise Brian Dunkle, in a study of the hymns of Ambrose holds that Ambrose “communicates the identity of the rooster and Christ in symbolic language”, while Prudentius “uses explicit identifications” (24). In any of these interpretations, it is a positive sacred symbol being made the object of a joke in the Feast of Fools (25).


The feathered head also recalls the transformation of the enemy of the people of God Nebuchadnezzar, who is punished by God with madness and consequent transformation of the body into a savage being: “...a voice came down from heaven: To thee, O king Nabuchodonosor, it is said: Thy kingdom shall pass from thee. And they shall cast thee out from among men, and thy dwelling shall be with cattle and wild beasts: thou shalt eat grass like an ox, and seven times shall pass over thee, till thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will. The same hour the word was fulfilled upon Nabuchodonosor, and he was driven away from among men, and did eat grass, like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven: till his hairs grew like the feathers of eagles, and his nails like birds' claws” (Daniel 4: 28-30, Douay-Rheims translation from the Vulgate).


There is also a possible significance to the number of feathers in the Fool’s hair, seven in both Giotto’s figure and that of the Visconti-Sforza card. Gertrude Moakley commented: “The seven feathers in his hair, and the ragged penitential garments which he wears, show that he is the personification of Lent, which puts an end to the Carnival season. According to custom, one of his feathers will be pulled out at the end of each week in Lent. The figure of Lent himself will be destroyed in effigy on Holy Saturday, when the fast ends” (26). In that context the Folly of unfaithfulness to God is a condition gradually removed in the observances of Lent.


In the Tarot of Ercole I d’Este, the Fool appears nearly naked. Concerning this, Ripa writes that “Stoltitia: il Pazzo palesa i suoi difetti ad ogn’uono, & il savio li cela, & perciò si dipinge ignuda, & senza vergogna” (Folly [Stoltitia]: the Fool [Pazzo] reveals his defects to everyone, & the wise conceals them, & that is why he is depicted naked, & without shame) (27).


In the so-called Tarot of Charles VI, the Fool wears a cap with huge ass ears, thus showing his beastly nature, and wears underwear of an incredibly modern design  (figure 12). The image is very much like that of a fool shown in a codex from Bologna dating back to the second half of the 15th century  (figure 13) who carries the usual stick, but in such a way that it seems to cut through the palm of his hand (an allegorical relationship to the stigmata of Our Lord), as can be seen more clearly in a woodcut in the above-mentioned work by Brant. The presence of a reed, which has the same function as the stick, is justified in this way: “Chi mercede illimitata vuol godere, / L’appoggio di una canna potrà avere / Fragile e su un grosso gambero sedere)” (He who wishes to enjoy without limits, will have but the support of a fragile reed, sitting on a great lobster (28).  If the reed that pierces the fool's hand satirizes the attitude of the person who in seeking at all costs material well-being does not take into account the possibility of procuring suffering, his sitting on a lobster unites the fool with the crustacean considered inconstant, because it walks as easily backwards as forward (figure 14). For the same reason that Ripa calls the crab a symbol of irresolutness: it walks as easily backwards as forward. Ripa says, “Il granchio è animale, che cammina inanzi, & in dietro, con eguale dispositione, come fanno quelli che essendo irresoluti, hor lodono la contemplazione, hora l'attione, hora la guerra, hora la pace”. (The crab is an animal that walks forward and backward, with the same inclination as those who are irresolute: now they love contemplation, but now action, now war, now peace) (29).


An iconographic variant concerns the representation of the Fool to be found in the so-called Tarot of Mantegna, where a dog attacks a poor man’s calf (figure 15). This figurative typology will remain stable throughout the later production of the tarot. A kind of bundle will also appear on the top of the stick, supported by a shoulder. The presence of a dog near a poor wanderer is typical of Renaissance art; it provides a touch of realism, since this animal would bark and often attack vagabonds who approached houses to beg for charity. A well-known example can be found in Bosch’s Prodigal Son (figure 16) and the Path of Life panel of his “Haywain Triptych.


In the miniatures of medieval psalters the dog is inextricably linked to the fool. He is given a negative connotation for his habit of eating his own vomit, like a sinner who after sinning and confessing himself falls into temptation“As a dog that returneth to his vomit, so is the fool that repeateth his folly" (Sicut canis revertitur ad vomitum suum, sic imprudens qui iterat stultitiam suam) (Proverbs 26:11). We find it in a French Bible of 1356-1357 (figure 17 - Guyard de Moulins, Fool with dog, initial D Psalm 52), containing the animal belonging to the madman, and in Psalm 52 of the Bible Historiale of the Bibliothéque de l'Arsenal in Paris (figure 18 - Fool with dog, Initial  D of Psalm 52, ms. 5057 fol. 276v), in which the insipiens dressed in green defends himself or tries to attack a rabid dog.


In this regard there is an extremely interesting 15th century engraving by Israel van Meckenem (figure 19). The diabolical symbolism associated with wind instruments - pipe and bagpipe, in contrast to ‘celestial’ string instruments - shows the negative character of the engraving. There might also have been an association to the word “folle” in Latin, which meant “sack” or ”bellows”, so a “folle” might be a bag of air, nothing, nonsense.


A further example is a mad jester at the 15th-century Church of Santa Maria la Real in Najena, where he shows himself with his robe open at the front, wanting to show what others hide and playing a bagpipe. Two dogs are at his feet (figure 20). On the other hand, the presence of the dog relates the jester-fool with the poor man, thus creating a bridge between the two iconographic variants.


In the early tarot a famous Fool card with a bagpipe is in the Sola-Busca deck, named for its long-time owners and thought by art historians to be late 15th century in the style of Ferrara, (figure 21 - Sola-Busca Mato, Brera Gallery, Milan) (30). The card has on it the Arabic numeral 0, in the form of an empty circle, perhaps suggesting the nullity of his brain. At the top the letters “MA” are on one side and “TO” on the other. The black crow represents the unfortunate state of the fool and also of man as irresolute and sinful, made black by his faults. Thus the Fool looks at it as if the bird was his mirror. Ripa writes about such a figure holding “nella sinistra [mano] un Corvo“ (in his left [hand] a Crow) – just as the crow is on the Mato’s left, the “sinister” side: “L’infortunio, come si raccoglie d’Aristotele, è un evento contrario al bene, & d’ogni contento: & il Corvo non per esser uccello di male augurio, ma per essere celebrato per tale da' Poeti, ci può servire per segno dell’infortunio: si come spesse volte, un tristo avvenimento è presagio di qualche maggior male soprastante, & si deve credere, che vengano gl'infelici successi, & le ruine per Divina permissione, come gli Auguri antichi credevano, che i loro augurij fussero inditio della volontà di Giove. Quindi siamo ammoniti a rivolgerci dal torto sentiero dell'attioni cattive, al sicuro della virtù, con la quale si placa l'ira di Dio, & cessano gli infortunij” (Misfortune, as Aristotle writes, is an event contrary to the good and of every contentment. The Crow, not by being a bird of bad omen but by being celebrated as such by the poets, can serve us as a sign of misfortune; if, as oftentimes, a sad event is an omen of greater misfortune to follow, we must believe that following unhappinesses, ruins come by Divine permission, just as the ancient Omens were indications of the will of Jove. Thus we are admonished to turn from the wrong path of evil actions to the security of virtue, with which the anger of God subsides & misfortunes cease” (31).


And also: “Donna […] con un panno nero avvolto alla testa […]. Le si dà i Corvi per ciascuna mano in atto di cantare, il qual canto è sempre Cras, Cras (1), così gli huomini irresoluti differiscono di giorno in giorno, quanto debbono con ogni diligenza operare, come dice Martiale. Il panno nero [come il corvo] avvolto alla testa, mostra l’oscurità e la confusione dell’intelletto, per la varietà de pensieri, i quali lo rendono irresoluto” (Woman with a black cloth on her head, etc., holds two crows in her hands, which when they sing always make cras cras, as do the irresolute men who put off workng diligently from one day to the next, as Martial says. “The black cloth [like the crow] shows the darkness and the confusion of the intellect ...”) (32).


(1) Cras, Cras = from Latin: tomorrow, tomorrow


We must now consider another aspect of folly, this time associated with its mystical and sacred vision. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians was very much in favor during the Renaissance. Some of its words reflect the relationship that exists between Folly and the Divine: “For the word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness [stultitia]” (I Cor. 1:18.): “Let no man deceive himself. If any man thinks that he is wise among you in this world, let him become a fool [stultus], that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness [stultitia] with God” (I Cor. 3:18-19). It is only giving up material goods, according to Christian thought, that brings a man to God.


The Fool, because he possesses this prerogative, was at times seen as someone inspired, just a step away from the Divine. It is again Brant who satirizes vainglorious fools: “They believe that God has benefited them, and has left them His gifts forever” (33).


Concerning the divine nature of folly in relation to the tarot, there is an enlightening manuscript by an anonymous 16th century author (34), that I discovered at the Estense Library in Modena and later submitted to the attention of Pietro Marsilli on the occasion of our exhibition in Ferrara (35). To conquer the heart of a lady of the court, a certain Mamma Riminaldi, the anonymous author found no better method than that of pulling a card out a tarot pack, the Fool, "ch'e cervel divino" (who is divine brain). This is why the oldest known list of tarot cards, the Sermones de ludo cum aliis, places “El matto” (The Madman, i.e. Fool) next to “El mondo” [The World], that is, God the Father”, even if he also gives it the number zero and calls it “nulla” [nothing].


The thought of Scholasticism, which aimed to confirm the truths of faith through the use of reason, included in this category, as we wrote above, everyone who didn’t believe in God (36). In the tarot the presence of the Madman/Fool has therefore a further and deeper sense: the Fool, in so far as he possessed the power to reason but did not believe through reason, had to become, not only the simple believer who did not need intellectual argument for what he felt in his heart, but also, through the teachings of the Mystical Staircase, the ‘Fool of God’, as happened to Francis, the most popular saint, who was called “The Holy Minstrel of God” and ‘”The Holy Fool [Folle] of God”. Non fu mail el più bel sollazzo / Più giocondo, ne maggiore / Che per zelo e per amore / Di Iesù diventar pazzo. /…/ Ognun gridi com’ io grido / Sempre pazzo, pazzo, pazzo (“Never was there more beautiful pleasure, / More joyful or more great, / Than through zeal and through love, / Of Jesus to become crazy [pazzo!] / .... / Let everyone cry out, as I cry out, / Always crazy, crazy, crazy! [pazzo]”) (37).


In conclusion, the name “Tarocco” itself is owing to the Fool [Matto], with the replacement of the previous Ludus Triumphorum by the Ludus Tarochorum occurring towards the end of the 15th century, inasmuch as the in non-ludic contexts the word ‘tarocco’ had precisely that meaning, ‘fool’ (38).




A - Webster’s New World Dictionary, New York 1967. Most online English dictionaries, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, show the same contrast in meaning, at least in the primary senses of the various words.

B - Grande dizionario italiano dell'uso, UTET, Torino, 1999.

1 - Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, Rome, Lepido Faeij, 1603, p. 381.

2 - Vulgate, Psalm 52:1; King James Version, Psalm 53:1.

3 - Cesare Ripa, op. cit., p. 381.

4 - Ibid, p. 382.

5 - Alfonso de Liguori, Apparecchio alla morte cioè considerazioni sulle massime eterne utili a tutti per meditare, e a'sacerdoti per predicare [Preparation for death, that is, consideratons on the eternal maxims useful to all for meditating, and to priests for preaching], Turin, Brothers Pomba Libraj, 1809, p. 383. Originally written 1758.

6 - Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II - II, 45, 2.

7 - Diego Lanza, Lo stolto. Socrate, Eulenspiegel, Pinocchio e altri trasgressori del senso comune [The fool, Socrates, Eulenspiegel, Pinocchio and other transgressors of common sense], Turin, Einaudi, 1997, p. 165.

8 - Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals, trans. William Ogle, in Aristotle, Works, vol. 5, ed. J. A. Smith and W. D. Ross, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1912, 686b, 10. Originally in Greek, 4th century b.c.e.

9 - Ibid, 686b, 25.

10 - Jessica Ghezzi, Follia e Insipienza. Indagine iconografica nell’arte devozionale tedesca ed emiliana tra fine Quattrocento e inizio Cinquecento [Madness/Folly and Ignorance,An Iconographic investigation into German and Emilian devotional art between the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries], p. 25. (Master's Degree Thesis in Iconography and Iconology, Academic Year 2016/2017. Adviser: Prof. Sonia Cavicchioli. Co-tutor: Prof. Andrea Vital

11 - On the role and figure of the fool with regard to the aspect of melancholia and the sensible and senseless folly that characterizes the procession of the Triumphs, see the essay Folly and ‘Melancholia’.

12 -We thank Lothar Teikemeier, collaborator of our Association and editor of the website, for informing us of the existence of this miniature.

13 - Ahuva Belkin, “Suicide scenes in Latin psalters of the thirteenth century as reflection of Jewish midrashic exposition“ in Manuscripta, XXXII, no. 2, July 1988, pp. 75-92.

14 - Jessica Ghezzi, op. cit., p. 26.

15 - Patrizia Serra, Il sen della follia [The Wisdom of Folly], Cagliari, C.U.E.C., 2002, p. 47 / Maurice Léver, Le sceptre et la marotte, Histoire des fous de la cour, [The scepter and the fool, History of court fools], Paris, Fayard, 1983, p. 66.

16 - Cesare Ripa. op. cit., p. 381

17 - Vincenzo Cartari, Le Imagini de i Dei de gli Antichi [Images of the Gods of the Ancients], Venice, Giordano Ziletti and companions, M.D. LXXI [1571], p. 322.

18 - Sonnet LVII, in Francesco Saba Sardi (ed. and trans.), La nave dei folli [Ship of Fools], Edition Spirali, Milan, 1984, p. 140.

19 Ecclesiastes 10:12-13, Vulgate and its Douay-Rheims translation. The Hebrew words here are  hō·w·lê·lūt, meaning “madness” and  rā·‘āh, meaning “mischievous” (

20 - Selma Pfeiffenberger, The iconology of Giotto’s Virtues and Vices at Padua, Bryn Mawr College, University Microfilms, Inc. Ann Arbor Michigan, 1966, V. 7-9, in Marco Assirelli, Il codice miniato: rapporti fra codice, testo e figurazione [Marco Assirelli, The illuminated codex [manuscript], connections among codices, text and representation]. Atti del III congresso di storia della miniatura, [Acts of the Third congress of the history of illumination], edited by M. Ceccanti and M.C. Castelli, Florence, L. S. Olschki, 1992, p. 32.

21 - See the essay Officium Lusorum

22 -Original and translation from R. V. Young, Doctrine and devotion in seventeenth-century poetry: studies in Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan, D. S. Brewer, Rochester, NY, 2000, p.142.

23 - Lisa M. Sullivan, "Bursting the Bonds of Night: Images of theApocalypse in the Cathemerinon of Prutentius", in Studia Patristica: vol. XXXVIII, Papers presented to the Thirteenth Internatinal Congress of Patristic Studies held at Oxford in 1999, Peeters Publishers, Louvain, 2001, p. 477.

24 - Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan, Oxford University Press, New York, 2016, p. 199.

25 - We thank Michael S. Howard for this paragraph.

26 - Gertrude Moakley, The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family, an Iconographic and Historical Study, The New York Public Library, New York, 1966, p. 113. Moakley’s source, as she says on p. 114, was  G. J. Frazer’s unabridged Golden Bough, “Pt. III, ‘The Dying God’ (London, 1950) pp. 244-245)”. More completely, these pages are in vol. 4 of the 3rd edition, at this writing available online. Frazer describes the figure as of an old woman, with the feathers stuck in the fruit or vegetable attached to it; the head is not mentioned. We thank Michael S. Howard for this paragraph.

27 - Cesare Ripa, op. cit., p. 478.

28 - Sonnet LVII, in Francesco Saba Sardi (ed.), op. cit., p. 139.

29 - Cesare Ripa, op. cit., p. 225

30 - Andrea De Marchi, “Nicola di maestro Antonio da Ancona peintre-graveur tra vis comica e invenzioni esoteriche” [painter-engraver between comic assault and esoteric invention], in Il segreto dei segreti.  I tarocchi Sola Busca e la cultura ermetico-alchemica tra Marche e Veneto alla fine del Quattrocento [The secret of secrets: the Sola Busca tarot and the hermetic-alchemical culture between the Marches and the Veneto at the end of the 15th century], ed. Laura Paola Gnaccolini, Skira, Milan, 2012, pp 61-73. De Marchi’s own proposal is the painter Nicola of maestro Antonio; he was the son, emigrated to Ancona, of the Florentine painter Antonio di Domenico)

31 - Cesare Ripa, Iconologia Siena, Appresso gli Heredi di [Printed by the Successors of] Matteo Florimi, 1613, pp. 371-372. For the lobster and inconstancy, see Charles-Édouard Levillain (author) and Tony Claydon (editor), Louis XIV Outside In: Images of the Sun King Beyond France, 1661-1715, Routledge, New York, 2016, p. 140.

32 - Ibidem, pp. 380-381

33 - Sonnet LVII in Francesco Saba Sardi, op. cit., p. 140.

34 - Due sonetti amorosi [Two love sonnets], in Gaspare Sardi, Adversaria…. cod. lat. 228 =  α. W. 2, II, in one of two small sheets  inserted among the folio pages. Estense Library, Modena. See the essay Tarot in Literature I.

35 - See the exhibition catalog I Tarocchi: le Carte di Corte, Gioco e Magia alla Corte degli Estensi [The Cards of the Court. Tarot. Games, and Magic at the d’ Este Court], G. Berti - A. Vitali (ed.), Nuova Alfa, Bologna 1987, pp. 107-108.

36 - Many times those who did not believe were sentenced to death. In a "Note of some documents illustrating superstition in Italy collected in the Psychological Museum of Florence" we find "Playing cards that belonged to an old Prussian called Tarot, condemned to the gallows as incredulous. He needed them to make predictions" in the Archive for Anthropology and Ethnology, Vol. 27, Florence, Italian Anthropology and Ethnology Society, 1897, p. 483.

37 - Laude dello amore di Iesù Cristo chiamata La Savia Pazzerella (Lauda on the Love of Jesus Christ, called The Wise Crazy One”), dance song by Girolamo Benivieni (1453-1542), a fervent follower of Savonarola, in Patrick Macey (ed. and trans.), "Savonarolan Laude, Motets and Anthems", vol. 116 in the series Recent Researches in the Music of the Renaissance, A-R Editions, Madison, Wisconsin, 1999, pp. xxxvi-xxxviii.

38 - See in this regard the essays The meaning of the word ‘Tarocco and Tarocco sta per Matto (the latter currently in Italian only).


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