Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on Tarot

The Emperor


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1995


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, January 2018


The power of the Emperor, which extended also to the figure of the King, manifested itself as an image of God and made reference to the heavenly court, model of earthly courts. Complying with the concept of the identification Macrocosm - Microcosm, the earthly hierarchy had to imitate the Celestial, thus providing a leader with a host of personnages below him with obviously less power. In the commentaries on the Psalms, as in the illustrative apparatus of the Psalter, spreads the image of David, model of the king, with his sacred powers symbolized by the harp he plays to create a musical order, a regal image that has been picked up by the Kings of the earth, new Davids who create a sacred harmony on earth through their government.


Venice, starting from the peace of 1177, is depicted in paintings with the features of the Crowned Virgin.


Obviously, as history has taught us, even if the sovereign's power was considered to be derived from above, not all Emperors or Kings behaved accordingly. Numerous were the teachings expressed by scholars on the right and correct comportment that every sovereign had to adopt, among them Innocenzo Ringhieri, who in this regard wrote in 1551:


“Se gli è vero che il legittimo, giusto, & savio Re, nato per dominare gli altri, & reali Donne, debba per ragioni di maggioranza esser venerando a’ tutti, & a’ Suditi un chiarissimo essempio   d’ogni virtù, che qualunque nella strada del ben’oprar’indirizzi, & con ottime leggi la norma del vivere honesto insegni, dando dovunque bisognano & guiderdoni, & gastighi, come potranno dir coloro che per odio ò per invidia a torto di molte mende v’incolpano, che dentro al vostro petto un Re sapientissimo non alberghi: pietoso, prudente, & giustissimo, che venerabili nel cospetto di tutti coloro che v’osservano, & amano non vi renda: & quinci ne dia legge scorgendo al difficile, & faticoso calle d’ogni virtù, i vostri fedeli, & seguaci ad ogni atto lodevole sempre invitando, & la lor vita ottimamente reggendo, a questi del ben servire il guiderdone, & a quegli la pena della inubbidienza, & del temerario loro ordire imponendo, cose tutte che degne di grandissima reverenza vi dimostrano, & se colui è nato Re per l’opinione de savi, che regger potrebbe gli altri, & se stesso, avvenga che in effetto reame non posseda, con tanta saviezza da lacciuoli in ogni parte tesi, & dall’amorose insidie con tanta discretezza, & tanto avvedimento guardandovi, & tanti cuori con un solo sguardo accendendo, & affrenando possi dire forse con vero, che in voi non siano qualitadi, e conditioni Reali […]”.


(Free translation: "If it is true that the legitimate, just, and wise King, born to dominate over others and his royal women, must be venerated by all by reason of being the greatest, a clear example of every virtue for his subjects, directing everyone to work on the path of good, and teaching with excellent laws the conduct of honest living, giving, when and where necessary, compensations and punishments, how can those affirm unjustly, because of hatred or envy and who blame you for their many faults, that a most wise King does not reside in your heart? Pious, prudent and most just: attitudes that make you worthy of veneration in the presence of others who observe and love you, and promulgating laws where complications exist to overcome them, sustaining the tiring ways of the virtues, always inviting your faithful followers to comport themselves commendably and governing their lives, to give to the latter compensation for their well-being, and impose penalties on others for their disobedience and reckless audacity against you, these are all qualities that will show that you are worthy of great reverence. And if one who is born King in the opinion of the Sages, able to reign over others and himself, had no realm, using so much wisdom through his relationships and so much discretion in amorous traps, and being well regarded in the work, at the same time inflaming so many hearts with your gaze alone, in the eventuality that you did not comport yourself in such a manner, then  it could perhaps be said, not wrongly, that in you are no royal qualities and conditions") (1).


Among the prerogatives of every emperor, who received the command by divine will, a relationship with the positive symbolic values of the eagle was always at the forefront: among these the ability to see beyond, to be enlightened, in some ways clair-voyant, a quality attributed in fact to that bird of prey.


In the Bestiaire (Bestiary) by Philippe de Thaün of 1126, there are these verses about the eagle:


Aigle est reis de oisels, 

Mult mustre essamples bels. 

En latine raisun 

Clear-veant l'apelum, 

Kar le soleil verat 

Quant il plus clers serat,

Tant dreit l'esguarderat 

Ja l' oil ne cillerat


(The eagle is the king of birds; it shows a very beautiful example. In Latin it is rightly called ‘clear-seeing” because it looks at the sun when it is brightest. and although it looks fixedly at it, never turns its eye away, […].) (2).


The Latin Physiologia (Version Bis, VIII), which according to some thinkers dates back to the time of Charlemagne, reports the fanciful etymology attributed to the word “aquila” [eagle] by Isidore:“Aquila ab acumine oculorum vocata” (The eagle is so called because of the acuteness of its eyes): “It has such acute sight that when it glides above the sea with its immovable wings, invisible to human eyes (nec humanis pateat obtutibus), from so great a height it is able to perceive small fish that swim; then, descending rapidly, it grabs its prey and with a flap of its wings it hauls it  to shore. It is said that it doesn’t turn away from the rays of the sun and that it even puts its brood through that test, suspended from its claws: those that are able to look fixedly at the sun, are judged worthy to belong to the stock of eagles and held onto, but he lets the ones that look elsewhere fall, as degenerate ones” (3). Here the symbolism of the eagle is compared to the ability of the Emperor to see beyond, to his faculty of perceiving “from afar” the things that are necessary to his kingdom, as well as his capacity of will, to identify what to maintain and what to eradicate for the good of his people.


The eagle (4) appears on the headgear of the Emperor, who holds the usual signs of  command in his hands, the globe and the scepter in all of the hand-painted Visconti  and Visconti-Sforza tarot decks:


- Visconti di Modrone, in the Cary Collection of Playing Cards at the Beinecke Library of Yale University, New Haven           (figure 1)

- Brera-Brambilla, now at the Brera Gallery, Milan (figure 2)

- Colleoni-Baglioni, at the Academy of Fine Art, Carrara (figure 3) (5)


The eagle then appears on the shield in the so-called Cary Sheet of the beginning of the XVIth century (figure 4) and in one sheet, probably from Ferrara, at the Budapest Museum of Fine Art, reproduced in Stuart R. Kaplan (6) (figure 5 - From the left and above as Kaplan gives them::  The Chariot, The Tower, The Wheel of Fortune, Death, The Devil, The Emperor, The Pope, The Empress, The Popess, The Fool). The eagle on the shield is also a feature of the so-called Tarot of Marseille, starting in the 17th century.


In the so-called Charles VI tarot, a sitting Emperor has two pages. On his head he bears a crown, expression of a cosmic symbolism, and at his side and holds a scepter that culminates in a lily and the golden globe (figure 6). The baton of command, present in numerous narratives of the Old Testament, was used in ancient times by all dignitaries of high rank. The scepter, as a physical reduction of this staff, due to its vertical position, if on one side it symbolizes the man as such and the superiority of the one who assumes it with respect to others, on the other indicates that the power received from above it qualifies him as a mediator between earth and heaven. The crown and scepter therefore represent the emblems of the sovereign himself. The globe, for its spherical shape that connects it to the symbol of the circle and therefore of infinity, is often depicted in the hands of God (figure 7 - Albrecht Dürer (?), The Seventh Day of Creation, woodcut from the Nuremburg Chronicle, 1493) or Christ, to be subsequently attributed to all the sovereigns of the earth (figure 8 - Michael Wohlgemut, Cambises, woodcut from the Nuremburg Chronicle, 1494). ). The globe therefore appears as a symbol of the kingdom that the Emperor rules.


The presence of the lily in the Charles VI card does not mean that a French emperor was meant, since this flower was widely adopted in European heraldry, even if its origin dates back to the so-called Lily of France.


Its heraldic meaning in fact appears of a different nature. The flower, for its colour, represents purity, innocence of mind, honesty and consequently rectitude, and on the other hand it can represent acceptance of the divine will, that is, the Providence that provides for the needs of its elect, as we find in the biblical tradition in Matthew (6:28-29, King James Version): “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” In the “Charles VI” card - as in any other depiction linked to personages of power where the lily is present - the flower represented the particular properties of the sovereign, which, as we have seen, consisted of purity and honesty of his actions and the aims toward which he governed, as well as showing that the people would never be abandoned to themselves, but continually helped by the Emperor who would provide for their needs in the problematic moments of their existence.


The figure of the Emperor in the “Tarot of Mantegna” (figure 9), and that in which Emperor Theodosius is depicted together with Pope Paul II in the codex Costituzioni dello studio Bolognese  (Constitutions of  Bologna University) (7), share with the Emperor card of the tarot Visconti di Madrone and the Charles VI his appearance with crossed legs (figure 10). This is not a particularly usual attitude, but appears as an external mark of safety and of fair judgment, adopted by judges as they are passing sentence, as we find in the Sachsenspiegel in Dresden which Van Rijnberk amply examined (8).


After the 16th century, the image of the Emperor in the tarot did not change substantially, the iconography conforming to the attributes of the scepter,  the globe and the shield with the eagle on it. In some cases, as in the Viéville Tarot, the globe is positioned on top of the scepter, on which there is a cross (figure 11). The cross, the double joining of diametrically opposite points, is the symbol of the unity of extremes - for instance heaven and earth -, of synthesis and equilibrium. In it, time and space are united and because of this, even before Christ, it became the most universal symbol of mediation, of the mediator. The cross becomes the emblem of the Emperor's prerogative of being mediator between God and men as the holder of temporal power assumed by divine will.


In the Wirth Tarot the Emperor sits on a cubic throne, on which the figure of an eagle appears (figure 12). Many thrones had such a structure on their base, since “Being a three-dimensional square, the cube bears the same relation to volume as the square does to plane surfaces. It symbolizes the material universe and the four elements. It has been regarded as the symbol of stability because it provides a firm foundation and, for this reason, it is often found at the base of thrones" (9). According to Wirth the cubic throne is the only one that cannot be overturned, because its stability derives from the geometric shape attributed by the alchemists to the Philosophers’ Stone.




1 -  Innocentio Ringhieri, Cento giuochi liberali, et d’ingegno [One hundred educational and challenging games], Book Nine, Of the “Game of the King, drawn from the Game of cards”. Bologna, by Anselmo Giaccarelli, M.D.LI [1551], pp. 131v- 132r.

2 - Le Bestiairie de Philippe de Thaün, Texte Critique publié avec Introduction, Notes et Glossaire par Emmanuel Walberg (The Bestiary of Philippe de Thaün, Critical Text with Introduction, Notes and Glossary by Emmanuel Walberg), Lund, Sweden: E. Malmström, 1900, p. 74, lines 2013 -2020.

3 -  Francesco Maspero - Aldo Granata, Bestiario Medievale (Medieval Bestiary), Casale Monferrato, Piemme, 1999, p. 70.

4 - With regard to the eagle, an upward symbol, a sign of exclusively high power and other symbolic values attributed to people in command, see what is written in reference to the presence of the eagle on the card of The Empress.

5 - A copy of this last card, of later in the 15th century, is in the Museo Fournier de Naipes (Fournier Museum  of Playing Cards), Vittoria, Spain.

6 - Stuart R. Kaplan, Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol. 2, Cincinnati,U.S. Games Systems, 1984, p. 276.

7 - Cod. ms. 40, Archivio di Stato (State Archives), Bologna.

8 - Gérard van Rijnberk, Le Tarot: Histoire, Iconographie, Esotérisme (The Tarot: History, Iconography, Esotericism), Editions de la Maisnie, Paris, 1947, pp.108-113.

9 - Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, translated by John Buchanan-Brown, Dictionary of Symbols, Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1994, p. 268. Original work published as Dictionnaire des Symboles, Paris, Editions Robert Laffont S. A. et Editions Jupiter, 1969 and, for the 2nd edition, 1982.


Copyright by Andrea Vitali © All right reserves 1995