Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on Tarot

The Chariot


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1996


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, January 2018, who has also added an application of the allegory of the Charioteer in Plato's Phaedrus

"Hence, o mortals, learn ye that the joys of the world are empty, its labours vain, its honours fleeting, its favours false, that all is vanity and but a shadow. Sceptres, crowns, the purple of pomp, triumphs, laurels, honours, decorations, glories, even games, and delights, and feasts and riches: all is vanity and but a shadow. Where are the famous kings that gave the world its laws, where the leaders of peoples, the founders of states? They are dust and ashes. Where are the seven wise men, and those who increase knowledge, where the disputing rulers, where the skilful craftsmen? They are dust and ashes. Where are the mighty giants, excelling in great strength, where the invincible warriors, conquerors of the barbarians? They are dust and ashes. Where are the celebrated sons of heroes, where the vast constructions of cities, where is Athens, where Carthage, and the like of ancient Thebes? Only their name surviveth. Where are the glories of dictators, where the victories of consuls, where the triumphal laurels, where the immortal glory of Roman honours? Only their name surviveth. Alas, alas, for we are wretched. Like the waters shall we run out, and as the leaf that is seized by the wind are we weakened and borne away. We are deceived by promises, cheated by time, mocked by death; all that we seek in our anxiety, that we search for in our restlessness, is vanity and but a shadow. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1).


The Chariot, which assumes in the tarot the value attributed by Petrarch to Fame in his famous poem I Trionfi (The Triumphs) (3), is defined by the monastic author of the Sermones as a mundus parvus, which is to say ephemeral success, a small triumph, in relation to the fact that Fame, who gives to time the deeds of great men, will have to succumb to Time itself and above all to the only true unchangeable reality, that is, the Divinity that Petrarch expressed in the Triumph of Eternity. 


The triumph that follows the Chariot in the first known list of tarots, i.e. the Sermones de Ludo (figure 1) (2), is Christian Fortitude, to specify that the desire for power, glory and fame must be mitigated by appeal to this virtue. For St. Thomas, Fortitude is the virtue that ‘subjects’ appetite to reason in everything pertaining to life and death, “appetituvum motum subdit rationi in his quae to mortem et vitam pertinent” (fortitude which subjects the appetitive movement to reason in matters of life and death) (4). A reasoning that, according to the concept of scholasticism, made the truth of faith comprehensible, suggesting a Christian and correct behavior for men.


Fortitude occupies first place among the moral virtues targeting the passions which, in relation to Fame, are expressed in the desire for glory and imperishable fame.


Certainly if the actions taken to satisfy these passions are undertaken with nobility of spirit, the intent is more exemplary, but despite this it is necessary to take into account that the Fame achieved will not be eternal and, above all, that every action must be conceived as a duty that every good Christian has towards a Divinity which has honoured him with particular gifts. In simple words, any human greatness comes from God, because of his will and for purposes unknown to men, who have to understand all this by appealing to reason.


Ripa writes about ‘Good Fame’: “Donna con una tromba nella mano destra, & nella sinistra con un ramo d’Oliva, haverà al collo una collana d’oro, alla quale sia per pendente un cuore, & haverà l’ali bianche à gli omeri. La tromba significa il grido universale sparso per gl’orecchie de gl’ huomini. Il ramo d’Oliva mostra la bontà della fama e la sincerità dell’Huomo famoso per opere illustri, pigliandosi sempre, & l’Olivo, & il frutto suo in buona parte; però nella Sacra Scrittura si dice dell’olio, parlando di Christo N. Signore in figura, Oleum effusum nomen tuum. Et dell’Oliva dice il Salmo, Oliva fructifera in domo Domini. Et per questa cagione solevano gli Antichi coronar Giove d’Oliva, fingendolo sommamente buono, & sommamente perfetto. Il cuore pendente al collo, significa, come narra Oro Apolline ne suoi Geroglifici, la fama d’un huomo da bene. L’ali di color bianco notano la candidezza, & la velocità della Fama buona”.


(A woman with a trumpet in her right hand & an olive branch in the left, she will wear a gold necklace, from which hangs a heart, & will have white wings at her shoulders. The trumpet means the universal proclamation disseminated for the ears of humanity. The olive branch shows the goodness of fame and the sincerity of a Man famous for his illustrious works, always picking the Olive, & its fruit in good measure; however in Holy Scripture it is said of the oil, speaking figuratively of Christ Our Lord, Oleum effusum nomen tuum [Thy name is as oil poured out, Song of Songs 1:2]. And with regard to the olive the Psalm says, the Olive fructifies in the House of God. And for this reason the Ancients adorned Jupiter with the olive branch, imagining him extremely good, & perfect. The heart hanging from her neck means, as Horapollo narrates in his Hieroglyphica, the fame of a good man. The white wings are evidence of the purity & speed of good Fame) (5).


Depictions of Fame also appear in manuscripts and printings of Petrarch’s poem I Trionfi, illustrating his ‘Triumph of Fame’. In part these illustrations are at variance with Ripa’s description. While maintaining the announcing trumpet, they put Fame on a chariot pulled by elephants (figure 2 - The Triumph of  Fame, woodcut from Petrarca, 1563). In the tarot, these are generally replaced by horses.


The elephant is an animal that, Pliny writes in his Naturalis Historia (6) (VIII, 10), can live up to three hundred years: a notable period of time that, in a general sense, is what Fame aspires to. Eminently appropriate here thanks to its physical characteristics, i.e. the magnitude that above all allegorically connected to the greatness of Fame, the animal was universally respected for its precious endowments and its wise manner of behavior. It rightly embodied the need for moral exemplars, so that Christian wisdom took it as a seed desiring to burst out: as wisdom, chastity, family virtues, and enmity toward the dragon (that is, the Devil), the animal became an example to be imitated by all who desired to excel.


The iconological version of the tarot Chariot presents the characteristics of of military or political triumphs in its attributes of globe and scepter. The globe, due to its spherical shape deriving from the circle, expresses the infinite and consequently the totalizing character of sovereignty, which is not to be understood as in the whole world, but only in its own kingdom. The scepter is a symbol of power and supreme authority: "The scepter is a reduction of the great staff of command: a pure vertical that allows it to symbolize first of all man as such, then the superiority of this man elected to leadership, and finally the power received from above. The scepter of our Western sovereigns is the reduced model of the pillar of the world that other civilizations explicitly assimilate to the person of the king or priest " (7).


In the Chariot card of a 16th century Italian Tarot (figure 3) (8), representing a commander on a chariot pulled by horses, the inscription Victoriae Premium at the bottom of the card clearly explains that it deals with a triumphal event offered as an award (premium) for victory. 

If in the Visconti Sforza Tarot (figure 4) there is a female figure, as we see in 15th century illuminations of Petrarch’s  Triumph of Fame, this lady is found instead in the numerous versions of Glory that we find depicted in the World card of the Charles VI Tarot (figure 5) and that of Alexander Sforza (figure 6). In each of these cards a female figure, holding the same attributes in her hands, stands above the image of the world contained in a circle, as an expression of the Divine Glory that governs everything.


In the Anonymous Parisian Tarot, of the beginning of the 17th century, this triumph is depicted by the chariot of Apollo, which the myth says is pulled by swans, melodious birds sacred to the god  (figure 7). The Homeric hymn to Apollo (Hymn XXI)) begins: “Phoebus, of you even the swan sings with clear voice to the beating of his wings, as he alights upon the bank by the eddying river Peneus” (9). Aelianus, in his work De nature animalium (XI, 1), writes that when the priests of Apollo, sons of Boreas and Chione, conducted sacrifices, swans gathered together there, going down in a great group from the Rhipaean mountains (mountains in Scythia), surrounding the temple and singing hymns in honor of the god (10).


In the Visconti-Sforza Chariot card, the chariot is pulled by winged white horses, while the rider is female, holding a globe in one hand and a scepter in the other. White is of course the color of purity and virtue, while the wings suggest an ascent towards the heavens. There may also be a more specific reference. Michael S. Howard (who is correcting the translations of this series of essays and authoring this part) has suggested that the scene on the card corresponds not to Pegasus, of which there was only one, never described as pulling a chariot, but to the “chariots of the gods” in the allegory of the charioteer of Plato’s Phaedrus. That portion of the dialogue had been translated into Latin and published in 1428 by Leonado Bruni, chancellor of Florence (11). Plato envisions the soul of mortals as a charioteer and two horses, one light and the other dark. Seeing its beloved (male, for Plato, but translated as female by Bruni, so as not to give offense) from afar, they (the driver and the horses) are stirred to go near, so that “the vision of the beloved dazzles their eyes. When the driver beholds it, the sight awakens in him the memory of absolute beauty; he sees her again enthroned in her holy place attended by chastity” (12). Despite the grammatically feminine endings for "absolute beauty" and "chastity" in Greek, Plato may have imagined those virtues as masculine or beyond gender. However, in medieval practice most virtues were personified as women, in accord with the feminine endings (-a) of the words that designated them.


Her “holy place” is her chariot, in the supersensible place of “absolute justice and discipline and knowledge” (13), where also the chariots of the twelve Olympian gods go round (14). Their horses are “well matched and tractable”, unlike those of mortals, of which one is noble (light) and the other lustful and ignoble (dark). For the chariot of "absolute beauty", there will likewise be two noble horses, both with wings. In the context of the early Renaissance, the card’s elegant lady and white horses with golden wings form an appropriate image of the whole.


The rider is thus “absolute beauty attended by chastity”, but in the card both in one, since only one charioteer is depicted. The whole corresponds to the “Triumph of Chastity” as designated by Petrarch (15), with the globe and scepter the signs of her rule. She is also, in idealized form, the female lover of that deck’s Love card,  and its Empress as well, who in each case is probably meant to suggest Bianca Maria Sforza, wife and duchess of the new duke of Milan, for whom this tarot or one like it was made in the her the city of Cremona that her father, Duke Filippo, had given  to the couple as her dowry. It is the triumph of chastity before the wedding (chastity of the virgin), during the wedding where a carriage was used between the bride’s house and the groom’s), and after the wedding (the chastity of a married woman); her fame and honor derive from all three (16).


In the Charles VI Tarot (figure 8) the female personage is replaced by a warrior as in the Rothschild (figure 9) and Rosenwalds (figure 10), while in the Alexander Sforza Tarot (figure 11) a personage in noble dress holds the same golden globe that we also find in the hands of the commander in the Rosenwald, according to an iconography that appears also in the tarocchini of the following centuries (figura 12 - Tarocchino Al Leone, 1770)    

These images, defined by the front of the chariot and a warrior with a sword or pike and armor, directly connect to the figure of Mars in the Mantegna Tarot (figure 13), an iconographical version that stabilizes in subsequent depictions of this card (figure 14 - Lombard Tarot Al Soldato, XVIII century).


The Tarot of Marseille Chariot card also has a male charioteer in armor. However there is an odd detail that can be explained by referring again to the Phaedrusboth horses look in the same direction, while their bodies point in different directions (figure 15 - Noblet tarot of 1660s Paris). This feature exists as early as the Cary Sheet of the early 16th century (figure 16). For there to be a triumph with good fame, the lustful horse of the soul's chariot must be subservient to the noble horse, even if the lustful horse's natural inclination is to go a different direction.


The situation in the Phaedrus is that in the descent to the body, the horses lose their wings, and at the sight of the beloved the lustful horse wants to satisfy itself quickly by any means. The driver needs to use much pulling of the bit between the teeth of the lustful horse, along with the full power of the noble horse, before the lustful horse learns from the pain of the bit to restrain itself without its use (254e). On the card there are not even any reins. Plato says that the noble horse responds simply to the voice of the charioteer (253d). The other horse, on the card, seems to be looking at his companion, often lighter in color, for direction. In this condition, guided by the faculty of reason, the soul will have the opportunity to achieve 'good fame', if this is the desired object.


In the Wirth tarot the Chariot of triumph is pulled by two sphinxes of contrasting colours  (figure 17): “The white Sphinx symbolizes the good, constructive will powers which aspire to the general well-being to be brought about peaceably and smoothly. The black Sphinx trembles with impatience, and pulls strongly on the left: its efforts risk dragging the chariot into the ditch, but in reality only succeed in stimulating the white Sphinx, who is obliged to pull harder on its side. Thus the vehicle advances more quickly according to the mechanical law of the parallelogram of forces” (17).


It is a synthesis of strengths to be harmonized, according to Wirth, those of the “thinking principle (the Magician), the center of volitive energy (The Emperor) and the center from which affection radiates (The Lover)”. It is Wirth’s version of Plato’s mortal soul, with its charioteer (thinking), light horse (nobility) and dark horse (concupiscence), or again St. Thomas’s fortitude (noble horse) submitting appetite (lustful horse) to reason (charioteer). This synthesis, Wirth says, is that represented alchemically as the triumphal Chariot of Antimony, the Currus triumphalis Antimonii of Basil Valentine, the legendary German alchemist of the 16th century (18). 




1 - Hinc, mortales, from “Vanitas vanitatum II”, put to music by Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674), Paris, Conservatoire National de Musique.  Here is the original Latin:

“Hinc, mortales, ediscite quod vana mundi gaudia, inanes labores, fugaces honores, mendaces favores: omnia vanitas et umbra sunt. Sceptra, coronae, purpurae, pompae, triumphi, laureae, decora, ornatus, gloriae, et lusus, et deliciae, et fastus, et divitiae: omnia vanitas et umbra sunt. Ubi sunt praeclari reges qui dederunt orbi leges, ubi gentium ductores, civitatum conditores? Pulvis sunt et cineres. Ubi septem sapientes, et scientias adolentes, ubi retores discordes, ubi artifices experti? Pulvis sunt et cineres. Ubi fortes sunt gigantes, tanto robore praestantes, ubi invicti bellatores, barbarorum domitores? Pulvis sunt et cineres. Ubi heroum inclita proles, ubi vastae urbium moles, ubi Athenae, ubi Carthago, veterisque Thebae imago? Solum nomen superest. Ubi dictatorum gloriae, ubi consulum victoriae, ubi laureae triumphales, ubi decus immortale Romanorum honorium? Solum nomen superest. Heu, heu, nos miseros. Sicut aquae dilabimur, et sicut folium quod vento rapitur, deficimus, eripimur. Votis decipimur, tempore fallimur, morte deludimur; quae nos anxii quaerimus, quae solliciti petimus, omnia vanitas et umbra sunt. Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas”.

2 - Sermones de Ludo cum Aliis, anonymous, end of the 15th century.

3 - Petrarch, I Trionfi. See online

4 - St. Thomas Aquinas, Summar Theologiae, First part of the Second Part, Question 66, Article 4. Online at 

Question 66. Equality among the virtues - NEW ADVENT

5 - Cesare Ripa, Iconologia (Iconology), In Rome, By Lepido Faeij, 1603, p. 143.

6 - Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, John Bostock, translator. London. Taylor and Francis, 1855, Book 8, Chapter 10, online at

7 - Gérard de Champeaux - Sébastien Sterckx, I simboli del Medioevo [Symbols of the Middle Ages], Milan, Jaca Book, pp. 382-383. Original title: Introduction au monde des symbols, Paris, 1955.

8 - Anonymous, Northern Italy, 16th century, Leber 1351, XIV. Municipal Library, Rouen.

9 - Anonymous. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Cambridge, MA, Harvard Univ. Press; 1914. Hymn 21 online at

10 - Claudius Alianus (deceased c. 235 c.e.), On the Characteristics of Animals, with an English Translation by A. F. Scholfield, Vol II, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; 1959. Book XI, Ch. 1, online at

11 - James Hankins, Plato in the Italian Renaissance, Vol. 1, New York, Brill, 1990, p. 67.

12 - Phaedrus, 254, in "Plato, Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII", translated by Walter Hamilton, New York, Penguin Books, 1973, p. 60. Other translations have 'temperance' or 'self-control'. The word in Greek is σωφρόσυνος, listed in Wiktionary in the form σωφροσύνη with a variety of meanings, even 'discretion'. But as companion of absolute beauty in a 'holy [ἁγνῷ] place', both the dialogue and the Renaissance context suggest that the most natural understanding would have been as chastity, in the sense applying to Petrarch's Laura.

13 - Ibid, 247, p. 53.

14 - Ibid, 246-247, pp. 51-52. 

15 - See note 3.

16 - For an application of Plato’s allegory to other Chariot cards, see Howard’s  Platonism and the Tarot, online at

17 - Oswald Wirth, Le Tarot des Imagiers du Moyen Age, Le Symbolisme/Emile Nourry, Paris, 1927, p. 135; English translation 1985, as Tarot of the Magicians, pp. 91-92.

18 -  Ibid., p. 131 of original, p. 89 of translation.


 Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 1996