Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Wheel of Fortune


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1997


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, May 2018 


Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit umiles

He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble



Est rota fortunae variabilis ut rota lunae:
Crescit, decrescit, in eodem sistere nescit

The wheel of fortune is as changeable as the wheel of the moon:

It grows, decreases and does not know how to stay in the same place


Latin motto

“O Fortuna levis! Cui vis das numera que vis, / Et cui vis que vis auferet hora brevis./ Passibus ambiguis Fortuna volubilis errat / Et manet in nullo certa tenaxque loco; / Sed modo leta manet, modo vultus sumit acerbos, / Et tantum constans in levitate manet. / Dat Fortuna bonum, sed non durabile donum ; / Attollit pronum, faciens de rege colonum. / Quos vult Sors ditat, quos non vult, sub pede tritat. / Qui petit alta nimis, retro lapsus ponitur imis” (Oh inconstant Fortune! You give gifts to whom you want, and to whom you will, you take away everything in an instant. With ambiguous footsteps inconstant Fortune wanders and stays in no place secure and unchangeable. She sometimes appears pleased, sometimes embittered, and she is constant only in her betrayal of faith. Fortune gives good but never durable gifts, lifts whoever is down, makes of a king a farmer.  Of those she wants, she takes care of their Fate; those she does not want, she grinds underfoot. Whoever goes too high, slips back and falls down).


                                     Ruota Bergamo

                                                                                Wheel of Fortune
                                     Fresco, thirteenth century. Bergamo, Curia's Hall or Aula Picta


In this way, in the Carmina Burana, an anonymous student of the 13th century lamented about the instability and tyranny of Fortune, where in contrast to his own Virtus, the state of things  was getting proportionatly worse.


A similar destiny is expressed in the verses of the same Carmina in reference to the justice for which Fortune holds no consideration: “Bulla fulminante / sub iudice tonante, / reo appelante, / sententia gravante / veritas opprimitur / distrahitur / et venditur / iusticia prostrante” (When the verdict strikes like lightning,/ from a thundering judge,/ when the accused appeals,/ and is overpowered by the sentence,/ then truth is oppressed,/ distorted/ and sold,/ justice is prostrate), underlining in another song the unfair character of  Fortune: “O varium fortune lubricum / dans dubium tribunal iudicium / non modicum parans huic premium / quem colere tua vult gratia / et petere rote sublimia / dans dubia tandem prepotere / de stercore pauperem erigens / de rethore consulem eligens” (Oh Fortune variable and slippery,/ what an inconstant judge you are. /You bestow excessive rewards/ to those you wish to honor with your grace/ and  set on the summit of your wheel/. But your gifts are uncertain,/ and without  notice/ you lift the poor man from the dungheap and elect the orator to consul).


In the Greco-Roman world there was a connection between Fortuna and Fate. Popular mythology held that the course of a person's life - one's fate, lot, or destiny - was predetermined by the Three Fates, (in Greek the Mοιραι, from μοιρα," assigned part, destiny) known in Roman mythology as the Parcae. Greek philosophy had various concepts corresponding to this popular notion. In Stoicism, life in the material world was governed by divine Reason, Logos, Providence, also known as Fate or Destiny. Freedom was the acceptance of Fate in the material world while rising above it mentally and emotionally.  For Platonists in the first two centuries of our era (i.e. Plutarch, Apuleius), Providence was the divine assistance offered to help man freely rise above material concerns. Epicureans denied the existence of Providence altogether, arguing instead that human lives were subject to the random and arbitrary action of chance, which a person must take into account and rise above in his or her securing of pleasures immune from chance. Christian thinkers accepted the Platonic conception but argued against other aspects of pagan Platonism. As St. Augustine said, "... the world is governed, not by fortuitous haphazard, but, as the Platonists themselves avow, by the providence of the supreme God" (1). In Christianity, Fortune, as a personification of the seemingly arbitrary events that affect one's life, is not exactly replaced by Providence, but rather coexists with Fortune as a force leading souls to salvation.


This negative idea of Fortune, as something to be triumphed over by means of indifference, seen through rather than given trust, can be found in the illustrations of the goddess. As highlighted in a 16th century woodcut, that her feet are set on a sphere allegorically expresses its state of instability, just as the wings with which she is sometimes depicted change her direction according to the wind.. Below the goddess two groups of people are shown, which Fortune by her actions has divided into rich and poor (figure 1 - Anonymous, Fortune, woodcut frontispiece of Lexicon Graecolatinum, 1548).  The leather straps that she holds in her right hand appear to be those of a bridle and harness, representing the yoke of bad fortune she gives to some; the cup represents the rewards she gives to others, both independently of desert.


We see these straps also in a c. 1502 engraving by Dürer called Nemesis (The Greatest Fortune as opposed to another called The Small Fortune), where the goddess, either Fortune or Nemesis, holds out a goblet as well as straps. These last are those of a bridle, an attribute often associated with Temperance. One interpretation would be that with proper self-restraint, symbolized by the bridle, one might be able to attain Fortune's rewards with some stability, allowing appropriately for chance disasters in risky ventures by "spreading the risk" among various ventures and "saving for a rainy day". Both involve not spending much of one's income on personal consumption. Thus the Renaissance, insofar as its culture reflected the fortunes of its merchants and bankers, experienced a certain ambivalence in its attitude toward Fortune, resolved in what Aby Warburg, in an essay focusing on a Florentine merchant, characterized as "an iconic formula of reconciliation between the 'medieval' trust in God and the Renaissance trust in self" (1).


The late 15th-early 16th century documents and numbers on surviving cards mostly put the Wheel in the 10th position (not counting the Fool, which was unnumbered). Otherwise, in a very few cases, it was either 9th or 11th (2). Such a central position assumes a value of extraordinary importance because, as we know, the tarot order was constructed to emphasize the route of mystical ascent that every good Christian had to accept. The Wheel card, with its endless round of ascent and descent, teaches the necessity to leave behind every earthly passion, such as we see in the Love and Chariot cards, and aim instead for that Quies (rest, calm, peace which makes man free from troubles) which alone can give serenity to men once they have distanced themselves from every terrestrial impulse. That it is an arduous route, not without sacrifices and dangers, is allegorically represented in the Allegory of the Mountain of Wisdom by Bernardino da Betto, known as Pinturicchio, in Siena Cathedral.


Here a Fortune of the classical type is shown as the guide of a ship that has brought to the foot of the Mountain of Wisdom, through a dark and rough sea, the philosophers who intend to reach its top (figure 2). Fortune appears as a nude maiden who holds in her right hand a cornucopia and with her left hand wields the sail inflated by the wind. Her equilibrium is unstable: her right foot rests on a sphere, while the left is placed on an ungovernable boat, whose mainmast is broken (figure 3) (3).


Such depiction is in tune with what Ripa describes in regard to Unhappy Fortune, emphasizing well the contrast “fortune/quies”, as highlighted in the marble mosaic of the Cathedral in reference to the Mountain of Wisdom:


“Donna, sopra una nave, senza timone, e con l’albero, e vela, rotte dal vento. La nave, è la vita nostra mortale, la quale ogni huomo cerca di condurre a qualche porto tranquillo di riposo. La vela, e l’albero spezzato, e gli altri arnesi rotti, mostrano la privazione delle cose necessarie per arrivare in luogo di salute, e di quiete, essendo la mala Fortuna un successo infelice fuor dell’intendimento di colui che opera per elettione” (Woman, above a ship without a rudder, and with mast and sail broken by the wind. The ship is our mortal life, which every man tries to steer to some calm port of calm. The sail, broken mast and other broken objects show the things that are necessary to   forego in order to arrive at a place of health and quiet, since bad Fortune is an unhappy outcome, outside of the understanding of one who works for election) (4).


If we take as our reference the order of triumphs in the Sermones de Ludo (c. 1500) we will see already present in the list of the first nine triumphs those hierarchical values that govern men from the temporal and spiritual points of view, as well as the vices to which men succumb and the virtues necessary to govern them (5).


Fortune is put in the middle of this triumphal order as a Memento Mori (Reminder of Death) of great importance. The order of triumphs as expressed in the Sermones suggests to men the necessity of the search for higher thinking (the Hermit) so that they know how to value the vanity of the world, and warns them not to betray (The Traitor = The Hanged Man) their own Creator before Death comes, making them consider the destiny of those people who deny God (the Devil card), finally bringing a vision of the afterlife and the moment of the Universal Judgment, when Divine Justice will separate the souls of the elect from those of the wicked.


The symbol of the Wheel of Fortune, as we find it illustrated in the tarot, is first described in the De Consolatione Philosophiae of Severinus Boethius, in which the wheel with its circular movement expresses the continual going up and coming down of human fortune. He writes, “Having entrusted yourself to Fortune's dominion, you must conform to your mistress's ways. What, are you trying to halt the motion of her whirling wheel? Dimmest of fools that you are, you must realize that if the wheel stops turning, it ceases to be the course of chance” (6).  Although Boethius died in 524 c.e., his work was widely read and admired in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.


In the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, the card of Fortune is denoted by the presence of a blindfolded woman who makes the wheel turn, while around it are four human figures (figure 4) indeed, it is the same personage shown in different phases of life. Each of these figures is accompanied by as many scrolls in which are displayed the followings inscriptions: “Regno” (I reign) for the one whois on top of the wheel; “Regnavi” (I have reigned) referring to the figure on the right; “Sum sine regno” (I am without reign) for the person at the bottom of the wheel and finally “Regnabo” (I will reign) for the one who rises up on the wheel. In the original iconography of this depiction we find instead a King who in turning loses his crown, as appears  in the Wheel of Fortune that illustrates the frontispiece of the Carmina Burana (figure 5).


Such iconographical conformation abounds in medieval art. Sometimes the wheels are moved by a blindfolded woman, who symbolizes the blindness of Fortune, usually put in the middle of the wheel, or sideways while operating a crank handle. Sometimes we find seven personages around the wheel, to symbolize the seven ages of man (figure 6 - xylography, XVI century), in consideration of the fact that Fortune appears to dominate every phase of human life. And it is also possible to find just a wheel, without any figure.


An interesting detail is found in the Wheel of Fortune of the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, where the personage in the high position, and the man who is about to rise up have asinine ears, while the personage that falls possesses a long tail (figure 7). These elements are representative of the animal nature of the man whose Vanitas does not allow him to recognize and accept the sense of fate, as he is still tied to a purely material world.


The same donkey ears are on two personages of the Wheel in the Brera-Brambilla Tarot (7), in the one who “reigns” and in that one who “will reign” (figure 8), as a demonstration of the foolishness that strikes people who are fortunate and who know they are going to be so. They are also present in the regal character sitting on the wheel of the Book of Fortune by Lorenzo Spirito of the 15th century (figure 9).


No less a figure than Ariosto was interested in the asinine figures on the Wheel, He writes in his Satires (VII, 46-54): “Quella ruota dipinta mi sgomenta / ch’ogni mastro di carte a un modo finge: / tanta concordia non credo io che menta. / Quel che le siede in cima si dipinge / uno asinello: ognun lo enigma intende, / senza che chiami a interpretarlo Sfinge. / Vi si vede anco che ciascun che ascende / comincia a inasinir, le prime membre, e resta umano quel che a dietro pende” (That painted wheel dismays me / that every card maker paints in the same way: /And such concord I believe is not a lie. / For that which sits on top they paint / A little ass: everyone understands the riddle, / without calling on the Sphinx to interpret. / We also see that each one that ascends / begins to assify his upper members, / and the one who hangs below stays human).


A relationship to the Wheel of Fortune, in the work Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools) by Sebastian Brant (8), governed by the divine hand and composed solely of asinine figures (figure 10, attributed to Dürer).


Here are the related verses: (One who on the wheel of Fortune sits, / Be careful that the foot does not fail/ And have not the reward of fools ./ Crazy is the one who wants to climb too high, /To the whole world showing defiance And wants to mount to a greater share, / Without thinking of Fortune’s wheel ./ One who climbs too high often falls / Precipitously. / Nobody climbs so high, among humans, / That he can be certain of tomorrow. / And  have only a luck-laden life - /One  never stops the Fate Clotho / The wheel - or preserves gold and power / From death of implacable judgment / Uneasy lies the one whose head is crowned:  / From power many lives / Have been cut down. Power never lasts / That is supported only by violence. / In the absence of the people’s favor, / Few the joys, but many the pains. / Much must fear, one who wanted / Besides governing, to be feared./ Which fear is a bad servant, / Who does not defend his lord for long . / Who holds power thus must learn / To always have care of God’s commands. / Whoever holds justice in firm grip, / Will have a power that lasts and doesn't crumble; / When a beloved monarch dies, / his subjects will be long in weeping / Woe to the sovereign, after whose death / They say:  “Thank God, he’s buried!” / Who throws his stone up, / Bad will do if it falls on his head, / And one who wants to entrust all to Fortune, / At any time can fall to the ground) (9).


In these verses, as in ones that follow, the influence of scholastic thought, which depicted and defended the truth of faith through the use of reason, is evident. In fact, complete devotion to God was not the prerogative of fools, meaning those people incapable of reasoning about the mysteries of faith.


The same image of the Wheel of Fortune was used by Brant to illustrate the 56th paragraph, entitled On the end of Empires: “Nabucodonosor, the great king, / such Fortune he had in his fate that he was able / to overwhelm and finish Arphaxad, / whose dominion was so large as to cover/ The earth up to the edge of the sea; / but later he wanted to reign as God, / And he became a beast, and it was a great portent;  /.../ Few have died, today, tomorrow and yesterday, / Quietly in their bed. / Of the great who also had the pleasure / Of power, and ended up killed.. / Be careful therefore, crowned sovereigns:  / You are tied by Fate to the wheel! / And God may move it just a jot, / To make your fall certain. / Serve God and be afraid of / His tremendous ire, which can / Ignite at any moment, and collapse / Your empire, and you will be overwhelmed. /  On Ixion’s wheel you will never stop, / Since it moves at every puff of wind. / Blessed is one who heeds the will of God”.


Animal figures will characterize various subsequent cards of the Wheel of Fortune, as are found in some Lombard, Piedmont, French, etc., tarot decks, (figure 11 - Suzanne Tarot of Marseille, 1840), as well as the esoteric one by Etteilla, where the presence on top of a monkey, complementing a rodent and a man on the sides, links this Wheel  closely to the concept of Vanitas, as expressed in the Sun card of the 16th century Anonymous Parisian Tarot (10).


Among others, monkeys and donkeys were put together by the Ancients, as we find in the expression by Menander “A donkey among monkeys”, meaning “A fool among scoundrels”.


The added presence of a rat in Etteilla’s Wheel card expresses a demonic value, as it is an animal that lives in rottenness and darkness like a demon, and is associated with those people who have dirtied their own soul by living in the darkness of their own ignorance (figure 12 - Grand Etteilla I, 19th century; first printed 1789). Etteilla placed a crown on the monkey at the top, perhaps to express his disdain for the royalty of his time. A firm supporter of the French Revolution (11), he died in December 1791, well before the government executed the King (January 1793), instituted the Terror (September 1793), and executed the Queen (October 1793).


In conclusion, to underline further characteristics attributed to Fortuna, we report a panegyric oration by a seventeenth-century monk:


“Non è Fortuna questa, ma infortunio; colmando di ricchezze gli erari, vuoteranno di senno la mente, di quiete l'animo. Mida, che sopra tutti vanta aurea Fortuna, vive lo più sfortunato; ed il chiaro balenar dell'oro è un riso derivato dal vedersi cotanto stimato, quando è cagion d'ogni male.  No, nō v’è ſelice Fortuna nel Mondo: porta questa la ruota, per essere con tutti tiranna: è cieca, per non mirar con guardo pietoso chi mendico la sospira: stringe con la destra una vela, per animar gli audaci a seguirla, ma poi nel borrascoso golſo de’ travagli pazzamente capricciosa li abbandona: vitrea si chiama, perchè fragile nel favorire ben tosto si rōpe: chimera volante, che appena veduta dispare, sogno lusinghiero, che a Timoteo dormēdo presenta i Regni: fantastica Pantera, che allettando atterrisce: fascino dell’intelletto; vanìa de’ sensi, magìa dell’animo, calamita, non già, calamità degli affetti: Sirena delle Reggie, che mentre canta con finte adulazioni, le incanta con la stupidità di tragici spettacoli; cruda sfinge ne’ suoi enigmi sempre imbrogliata, senza trovarsi edipo, che li sciolga: mentitrice Armida, con ch’invaghito la siegue: solleva un Seiano per sbalzarlo, come il detto di Seneca, Quidquid in altum Fortuna tulit, ruttura levat: sublima un Demetrio per opprimerlo, Tu me extulisti, tu ipsa rursus deijecies, come dir solea l’istesso Eroe: non felicita, che l’ insidie di Sinone, non funesta, che la lealtà de’ Marij: a Cesari permette la tirannide di Roma, per fargli poi provare la barbarie de’ congiurati: sboccata per fine nelle promesse, spergiura nell’attenderle: Aquila a gl'inganni, Testudine al soccorso: più baccāte nella rabbia, quando con mascherata pietà di Cocodrilo mostra di compiangere le nostre sventure: e preme col piè fugace un globo, per mostrare, che a giuoco si prende la palla di questo Mondo” .


“This is not Fortune, but misfortune; filling the treasuries with riches, they will empty their minds of sense, of stillness of spirit. Midas, who above all praises Fortune in gold, lived as the most unfortunate of men [when everything he touched, no matter what, turned to gold]; and the shining flash of gold is a laugh that comes from seeing oneself so esteemed, when [in reality] it is the cause of all evil. No, happy Fortune in the World does not exist: she brings this wheel, so as to be with all tyranny: she is blind, not to look with compassionate regard at whoever sighs for her: she squeezes a sail  skillfully, to stir up the audacious to follow her, but then in the stormy gulf of madly capricious travails abandons them: vitreous [made of glass] she is called, because fragile in favoring, she soon breaks: a flying chimera, who just disappears, a flattering dream, which to Timothy, while sleeping, presents Kingdoms: fantastic Panther, who while alluring, terrifies: fascination of the intellect; vanity of the senses, magic of the soul, magnet [calimita], not calamity [calamità], of the affections: Siren of the Royal Palaces, who while singing with fake adulations, enchants them with the stupidity of tragic spectacles; cruel Sphinx who with her enigmas always cheats, unless you can find Oedipus to interpret them: false mistress Armida [a character of Tasso’s], with those who follow her in love with her: she raises a Seiano and then throws it down, like the saying of Seneca, Quidquid in altum Fortuna tulit, ruitura levat [Whoever she raised up, did so only to ruin him]: she exalts a Demetrius to oppress him, Tu me extulisti, tu ipsa rursus deijecies [You raised me up, and you the selfsame again send me to the depths], as Hero used to say:  not happiness, since she made Sinone's false words [inducing the Trojans to take in the wooden horse] woeful, as well the loyalty of [Gaius] Mario: to Caesar she allows the tyranny of Rome, to let him then prove the barbarity of the conspirators: shameless even in promises, perjury in realizing them: Eagle [i.e. fast] in deception, Tortoise [i.e. slow] in succor; more frenzied than a bacchante, when with false pity of the Crocodile she makes a show of mourning our misfortunes: and presses with fleeting feet a globe, to show that she makes into a game the ball of this World” (12).


In an anonymous Parisian Tarot of the 16th century (figure 13), the World card presents Fortuna Imperatrix with her feet placed on a globe toopped with a cross, meaning that Fortune also directs the empires of the powerful, without looking at anyone in the face (in fact she looks mercilessly straight ahead) going on her way without bothering with what collapses under her feet, depending on how the wind turns the sail. The form of the cross is not original, but continues the typology already present in medieval jewelery, which exalts with gems the ends of the arms of the cross and its center (13).



1 - Aby Warburg, Francesco Sassetti’s Last Injunction to his Heirs, in "The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity", Ed. Kurt Forster, trans. David Britt, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 1999, p. 242. Originally Francesco Sassettis letztwillige Verfügung, in "Die Erneuerung Der Heidnischen Antike", Band I, Leipzig, 1932, p. 151.

2 - Michael Dummett, Game of Tarot (London, Duckworth, 1980), Chapter 20, “The Order of the Tarot Trumps”, especially the charts on pp. 399-401 Online at See also the essay by the writer The Order of the Triumphs.

3 - For a more detailed examination of this allegory, read the essay The Mystical Staircase.

4 - Cesare Ripa, Iconologia [Iconology], Rome, by the Heirs of Gio. Gigliotti, M.D.XCIII. [1593], p. 94.

5 - See ‘The Celestial Harmony’, in the essay The History of the Tarot.

6 - Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 19 -20.

7 - These cards are kept at the Pinacoteca di Brera [Brera Picture Gallery].

8 - Sebastian Brant, Das Narrenschiff [Ship of Fools], Basle, 1494.

9 - Ibid, "Of the instability of Fortune", Paragraph 37.

10 - See the iconological essay The Sun.

11 - R. Decker, T. Depaulis, M. Dummett, A Wicked Pack of Cards, Duckworth, London, 1996, pp. 95-96.

12 - Prose degli Accademici della Fucina, Libro Secondo, Nel quale si contendono varij Discorsi, Raccolti dal Sicuro [Prose of the Academicians of the Forge, Book Second, in which various Discourses contend, Collected from the Secure] Andrea Colicchia, Naples, 1669, pp. 126-127. This is a passage from a panegyric oration entitled La Vera Fortuna di Messina [The True Fortune of Messina], recited in the Cathedral of that city on the occasion of the solemnity of June 3 of the year 1668, by the "P. Master Br. Giovanni Reitano of the Ord. of PP. Conventuals of St. Francis, in the Academy of the Forge, known as the Renowned".

13 - See the iconological essay The World.


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 1997