Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Tower


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1986


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, June 2018


During the Renaissance, the Tower card was called by various names: in the Sermones de Ludo it appears as ‘Sagitta’ [Arrow, but here, Lightning]; other authors, including Garzoni, Piscina, Pomeran and Teofilo Folengo call it “II fuoco” [The Fire]. But it was also called “La casa del diavolo” [The house of the devil’ and ”La casa di Plutone” [The house of Pluto] and, by Aretino, “La casa” [The house[. It came to be called also “La casa del dannato” [The house of the damned], “Inferno” [Hell] and Cieli’ [Heavens].


Around the middle of the 17th century in France it began to be called Maison-Dieu and Maison de Dieu , i.e. “House of God”, while in Italy in the mid-19th century it was called “La Torre”, a term with which it is still known.


First of all, it should be pointed out that by “House of God” should be understood the physical Church and other places where divine grace reigns, and by “House of the Devil”, Hell in the strict sense and places of impurity where one lives in sin. In this regard St. Bernardino writes about the house of God in his Vernacular Sermons, where he warns women not to gather in churches to deal with their personal concerns: "Women, I do not know what you call it when you meet in church, if you call it assembly or meeting. I tell you, and I admonish you, that it is never lawful to do this in church, that the church is the house of God: Such vanities should never be done at any time. Domum tuam, domine, decet sanctitudo: your house My Lord, says David, is a house of holiness. And yet I tell you, do not have such meetings in church; if you want to have them, have them in another place, because the place of the church is ordained for services and prayer"(1)


The same Bernardino expressed himself instead about Hell as the house of the Devil: "I saw the iwicked raised up like a cedar in Lebanon, and a short time later I did not see him again, he had disappeared; he is looked for, he is not in the world, he has been cut to pieces, because he was partial [this passage occurs in a sermon on partiality]. Will he have gone to heaven? I look for him,  I still do not see him. Or maybe he is in purgatory?  I go there, I still cannot find him. Where will this person be? In the world he is not, in paradise he is not, in purgatory he is not: oh where can this person be ? Do you know where you will find him? At the devil's house, in hell, and with them [the damned and the devils] he will rest eternally!" (2).


The Jesuit Carlo Ambrogio Cattaneo (born in 1645) in his Lezioni Sacre [Sacred Lessons] talking about those who damned themselves by accumulating money, working from morning to night without ever taking a rest,  much less thinking only of observing divine law, not finding or not wanting to find the time; he urges them not to wear themselves out getting “the house of the Devil” when they could have acquired “the house of God”: "The Great God, although in his work did not stint, rested on the seventh day. For you there is no holiday or festival, day or night, that gives you peace. A little less greed would it not be your life, even a temporal one? For less money you do not earn so many years in this, and so much more capital of glory in the other world? Even if you become weakened, delirious, crazed, because one of your heirs has a lot to spend, because the tax officer has perhaps to get fat. I would never finish it if I wanted to question all the sinners one by one, and to get this truthful confession out of them, that they suffer more in the way of perdition than in the path of health. And will they then say that they violate God's law, because they suffer too much to observe it? What a meager excuse! They will confess it once, but in vain, with those fools guided by Wisdom; Ambulavimus vias difficiles, & lassati sumus in via iniquitatis: [Wisdom 5:7: “We walked in difficult ways and were filled in the way of iniquity and destruction”]: Look! we have made so much expense to buy the house of the devil; and with less expense we could buy the house of God, and take our place, either among the confessors, or among the penitents. Lassati sumus, lassati sumus" [We are filled, we are filled (with iniquity)] (3).


To understand the concept of the house of God and the house of the Devil as places where grace or sin reigns, we can refer to the vast hagiography composed on the life of José de Calasanz, in English Joseph Calasanz (1557-1648), to whom is owed the foundation of the Society of the Pauline Congregation of the poor clerics of the Mother of God, chosen as a regular order (Piarists) in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV; he would later be proclaimed a saint by Clement XIII in 1767.


Among the numerous testimonies of the era in which he lived, we report the following, where the expressions “House of God” and “House of the Devil” underline the choice of some men to change their lives, denying the Devil to embrace God. Briefly, here is the story: when Joseph came to Naples, he realized that a theater then used for public comedies, because of its position, would be the ideal place to harbor poor children. Obviously the owners clashed with this resolution and met with Joseph in order to denigrate and oppose him. But the founder of the Piarists knew how to persuade them with sweet and gentle words, so that they renounced the theater, considered by the religious the servant of the Devil, and the school of the vices. Thanks to his words, Joseph not only succeeded in changing what was considered a house of the Devil into a house of God, but obtained more because his opponents renounced their sinful life to dedicate themselves to works of piety (4).


In the Italian popular tradition both expressions maintain equivalent meanings: to  live “in the house of God” or “in the house of the Devil” means exactly the same thing, that is, to live in a distant and uncomfortable place, at the end of the world (5).


As mentioned, the expression Maison-Dieu was first attributed to the card in seventeenth-century France. Equivalent to Hotel-Dieu, its meaning is that of 'Hospital' and 'Hospice' (6).


In that country the assignment of unreachable place, far away, is indicated by the expression "au diable Vauvert". There is a Château Vauvert outside of Paris (Valle Viridis, i.e. Verdent Valley) which in the Middle Ages was considered frequented by the devil because it was a place of blasphemers. In the 13th century, Saint Louis purified it and installed a convent there. In view of the difficulty of transport at the time and the exotic appearance of the place, the expression implied a journey in a faraway place, out of the ordinary, since the place was then outside the gate of Paris farthest from the center (7).


“Maison du Diable” is an expression that can still be found today in various districts of France linked to local stories or legends that refer to buildings inhabited by evil spirits.


All the terms above indicating atrributes of this card, of fire, lightnng, house, house of the devil, are not contradictory; rather, they all represent an allegory, that of the destruction of a house struck by fire or lightning which, according to the cosmological notions of the age, were held to come from the ‘Sphaera Ignis’, the sphere or circle of fire located above the Earth. Still further, as one rose up through the spheres, were those of  the Moon, of various Stars [in the generic sense of “heavenly bodies other than the moon that appear as fixed luminous points in the sky at night”] , and of the Sun, all of which are represented in the tarot after the Tower card  (figure 1 - The Seventh Day of Creation, woodcut formerly attributed to A. Dürer,  in the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel, Nuremberg, 1493).


This destruction could be the work of a divine hand, but also that of the Devil, if God allowed it. In the Tarot of Charles VI, a tower seems to break up under the action of a lightning bolt coming from above, while tongues of fire break off pieces of its walls (figure 2). In the Bible, the wrath of God against fools who do not believe in Him, and against sinners, manifests itself as ‘fire and lightning’. Many passages of the Bible refer to this: “Thou woundest the head out of the house of the wicked” (Habakkuk 3:13); “but I will send a fire into the house of Hazael, and it shall devour the palaces of Benhadad” (Amos 1:4); “And the Lord shall be seen over them; and his arrow shall go forth as the lightning” (Zechariah 9:14); “The sun and moon stood still in their habitation, At the light of thine arrows as they went, At the shining of thy glittering spear” (Habakkuk 3:11); “And I will pour out mine indignation upon thee; I will blow upon thee with the fire of my wrath; and I will deliver thee into the hand of brutish men, skillful to destroy” (Ezekiel 21:31); “The house of the wicked shall be overthrown; But the tent of the upright shall flourish” (Proverbs 14:11); “Thus saith the Lord: Behold, I am against thee, and will draw forth my sword out of its sheath, and will cut off from thee the righteous and the wicked. Seeing then that I will cut off from thee the righteous and the wicked, therefore shall my sword go forth out of its sheath against all flesh from the south to the north” (Ezekiel 21:3-5) (8).


Taking upon himself the sins of men, Christ broke the lightning of God’s wrath, a prerogative belonging also to the Blessed Virgin, with her intercessions, and to all the saints  (figure 3 - Benozzo Gozzoli, Saint Sebastian with devotees, fresco, completed July 28, 1464. At the top, God the Father is depicted in the act of hurling a thunderbolt, one of many that the angels will break thanks to the virtuous and holy life of Sebastian / figure 4 - Detail, Saint Augustine Church, San Gimignano, Siena).


Careful observation of the figure of the Tower on the Cary Sheet, together with the image of the Foudre (Lightning) in the Vieville Tarot gave me the opportunity to understand the original meaning of this card. On the Cary Sheet, at the bottom, we see the head of a cow at the base of a tower  (figure 5); in the Vieville Tarot, the tower has been replaced by a tree with a shepherd and his flock  (figure 6), while balls fall from the sky as in the Cary sheet: these represent stylized fire and stones of destruction, as we can see in the work of Lucas van Leyden Lot and his daughters (figure 7).


To explain these images we can refer to the destruction of the house of Job at the hands of the Devil, who had permission from God to tempt Job’s faith in his Lord, by destroying his house and animals. In fact, the Bible says: “The fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them” (Job 1: 16); “Thy sons and thy daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother's house; and, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead” (Job 1: 18). This verse of the Bible was painted by Bartolo di Fredi in 1367 in the Collegiata of San Gimignano (figure 8). The fresco shows us a house with battlements, and the roof falling in and killing those inside. One of these is shown fleeing outdoors, according to an iconography which can be found in the Florentine minchiate (figure 9). A devil appears above the house, sounding a trumpet. To the right of the house appear the words of verse Job 1:17 “The Chaldeans made three bands, and fell upon the camels, and have taken them away, yea, and slain the servants with the edge of the sword”. Under the fresco appears the following description: “Come el demonio nabissò casamenti ne quali erano phigliuoli et phigliuole et li beni di Giobbe” (How the devil crushed the houses where the sons and daughters and the goods of Job were).  


In this verse of the Bible, the inspirer of evil is Satan. The sense of the pain that emerges from this test is that it is holy, since its existence is necessary to prove the faithfulness of man to God: in all these things, Job did not sin, nor did he accuse God of foolishness “Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1: 21-22). God had allowed the test suggested by Satan, sure as He was that Job would pass it. The Biblical story tries to teach us that God can allow any man to be struck and oppressed. With the words of the Pater Noster [Our Father] “Do not lead us into temptation”, we ask God not to make us undergo temptations, which can be of two kinds: those which drive us to commit evil because they appear as something pleasant, and those which can lead us to doubt God because they cause pain. Even in tragedy and temptation, man has the opportunity to choose. The terms attributed to this card, that is, ‘House of the Devil’ and later, ‘House of God’, can be understood in light of the above. The house of those who keep the faith will be protected by God, the house of those who deny the Creator will fall into the hands of the Devil, as expressed in the Book of Proverbs “The house of the wicked shall be overthrown; But the tent of the upright shall flourish”. “When Job kept his faith despite calamity, God restored all that he had allowed the Devil to destroy and more. That was understood as applying to everyone, if not in this world then in the world to come”. 


The Tower card in the Anonymous Parisian Tarot of the 17th Century called ‘La fouldre’, shows us a devil playing a drum, and other demons in a more confused manner  (figure 10). This figure is based on a variant meaning of “House of the Devil”, as a “noisy place, din, pandemonium, confusion”. The great Italian poet Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907), in his autobiography, says: “as far as I remember, I would say they simply made a house of the devil. Actually, in my time, I never played or sang or danced except as a joke” (9). 


The image of the Tower in the Catelin Geofroy Tarot of 1557 shows Orpheus playing a viella, a 16th century violin, while behind him a devil drags to the underworld a crying and despairing Eurydice (figure 11), according to a pictorial representation of the myth Orpheus, uncertain that Hermes had kept the pact to free Eurydice on the condition that he trust him, turned to make sure his beloved followed him. This loss of faith in the God became his tragedyas Eurydice was brought back to the underworld (10). This myth recalls, with the same meaning of loss of faith, Lot’s wife when, while Sodom was destroyed by divine power, she turned in disbelief that such a tragedy could occur, thus disobeying Lot who had advised her not to do so just as Yahweh had ordered. For this reason she was turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 13:10).


Also in these two myths, therefore, temptation plays a fundamental role, since both Orpheus and Lot's wife were tempted not to believe what their God had promised them, being then destroyed, Orpheus in soul and the woman in body.


In the Rosenwald Sheet of the 16th Century, a building is struck by the tip of a lightning bolt, while tongues of fire coming from the Sun strike it (figure 12). I found the same figure in the Triompho di Fortuna (Triumph of Fortune) of 1527 (11), a book of fortunes composed by Sigismondo Fanti of Ferrara. In this book, the same meaning is given to House of the Devil and to House of God, and they are explained with two contrary interpretations regarding the question LII on how to know “in che luogo daranno quest’anno i fulgori: dimostra L’Auttore in questo luogo, che Dio acciochè gli huomini si r’avvedano de loro errori, lassa alcuna volta incorrere, che i folgori diano in alchuni luoghi. Onde il Fanti minaccia molto ogni generatione di persone, ma sopratutti coloro che tengon poco conto del colto divino” (12) (where lightning will strike this year; in this place, the Author shows that God, in order to make men repent of their errors, sometimes allows lightning to hit certain places. Therefore, Fanti greatly threatens every generation of people, but especially those who take little heed of divine worship.


First of all, we should notice that the first term which defines the Tower is ‘La Sagitta’ (The Lightning-Bolt) which we find again in the Sermones de ludo cum aliis. The sagitta, arrow or lightning bolt, with its ‘fire’, strikes, in one of these figures inserted in the Triompho di Fortuna, women’s monasteries, because of the great disorder in them, provoking the wrath of the ‘heavens’ (‘cieli’, in the last line), another old term used in defining the Tower (figure 13). 


Marte furioso se ben fisso miri 

Le saette dimostra a cascar hanno

Ne i feminili monestier quest’anno

Pel disordine: che fa i ciel se adiri


If you look carefully at furious Mars

The lightning-bolts show that they fall

This year in female monasteries

Because of the disorder that makes the heavens angry (13).


In another image, the lightning bolts fall into the beds of great lords, punishing them for their tyranny. Houses of the damned, therefore, and dwellings where the devil reigns supreme (figure 14). 


Nanti che s’empia della Luna i corni

Da dieci fiate i celesti fulgori

Ne i letti caderan di gran Signori

Se tirannia non scaccia in brieve giorni.


Before the Moon fills its horns (i.e., becomes full)

From ten points in the sky the celestial lightning

Will fall into the beds of the great Lords

If in a few days they will not break out of tyranny [i.e. cease to be tyrants] (14).


In a third picture, we find a positive variant of the same image: the bolt this time does not destroy, but leaves a Holy Stone in the dwelling - the tip of the lightning bolt which, according to popular belief, due to its celestial origin, appears as a divine gift. The quatrain that illustrates this figure has the following lines: (figure 15).


Non ti curar gia per te far redire

In casa liè caduta Pietra Santa

Che di tal Sacrilegio niun si vanta

Puoterlo in gaudio gran tempo fruire.


Do not worry about telling people

That the Holy Stone has fallen into your house,

Although nobody usually boasts of such a divine manifestation,

In order to enjoy it as long as possible (15).


In Fanti’s case, the configuration of astrological signs surrounding the image of the lightning-struck tower is auspicious in the third horoscope but inauspicious in the other two. The different horoscopes predict different consequences from God for different actions by humans.


The idea that lightning could be of two kinds, one destructive, the other benevolent, is already in Pliny, who divides lightning stones into black and red in his Naturalis Historiae (XXXVII, 134). The round black ones were sacred and called Bethels, and could be used to conquer enemy towns and fleets, while the red ones were normally called simply lightning bolts. In popular tradition, any stone coming from the heavens was called a Bethel (the term comes from the Hebrew Beth-el = House of God). 


In  light of the above, one should consider the 16th century astrological text Le plaisant jeu du dodechedron de fortune [The pleasant game of the dodecahedron of fortune] of Jean de Meung (16), where the ninth astrological house, called the ‘Maison de dieu’, includes aspects of various kinds, some in opposition to each other, including “punitions divines, qui souvent mettent en foucy (divine punishments which often cause suffering).


From the Maison-Dieu of the Marseilles Tarot, as from the Tower of the Rothschild Sheet (figure 16), two human figures are thrown to the ground by the destructive force of the lightning bolt that strikes the top of the building, according to an iconography which can also be found in a fifteenth century print of Virgil’s Aeneid (figure 17).




1 - St. Bernardino of Siena, Prediche Volgari. Per la prima volta messe in luce[Vernacular Sermons: For the first time brought to light], Ch. I, “Of divisions and partiality: of the extermination of sins”, Siena, Printed by G. Landi and N. Alessandri, at the sign of the Anchor, 1853, p. 312

2Ibid, p. 34.

3 - Opere Del Padre Carl’Ambrogio Cattaneo Della Compagnia di Gesù. Tomo Primo, Nel quale si contengono Le Lezioni Sacre [Works of Father Carl’ Ambrogio Cattaneo, of the Society of Jesus, Vol. One, in which are contained The Sacred Lessons, Venice, published by Niccolò Pezzana, MDCCLI [1751], pp. 268-269. First published in Milan in 1713.

4 - See Innocenzo di S. Giuseppe, Della Storia, della Vita, Virtù, e Fatti del Venerabile P. Giuseppe della Madre di Dio, Libri Cinque [Of the History of the Life, Virtue, and Deeds of the Venerable Fa. Joseph of the Mother of God, Five Books], Book Three, Chapter XI, Rome, From the press of S. Michele a Ripa Grande, MDCCXXXIV [1734], p. 176. For the original of the whole passage, see Casa di Dio - Casa del Diavolo [House of God, House of the Devil].

5 - See 'Diavolo' and 'Casa' in Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana UTET [Large Dictionary of the Italian Language], 1962, and ‘Casa’ in Dizionario dei modi di dire della lingua italiana {Dictionary of the modes of the Italian language], Hoepli, 2010.

6 - Grand Robert Dictionnaire de la Langue Francaise, Paris: Robert, 1986, s.v. “Maison-Dieu”, "Hôtel-Dieu".

7 - Les expressions francaises décortiquées: explications sur l'origine, signification, exemples, tradutions [French expressions dissected: explanations on their origin, meaning, examples, translations], s.v. “Au diable vauvert”, online at

8 - From the King James Version.

9 - UTET Dictionary, op. cit., p. 337.

10 - Thanks to Michael Howard for this illuminating information.

11 - Sigismondo Fanti, Triompho di Fortuna, Printed in the celebrated city of Venice: by Agostin da Portese: at the instance of Florentine merchant Iacomo Giunta, 1526 in month of January 1527. [In Tuscany the year started March 25, the anniversary of the conception of Jesus].

12 - Ibid, unnumbered page.

13 - Ibid, p. XCIIIIr, fig. VII.   (r = recto)

14 - Ibid., p. XCVr, fig. VIII.

15 - Ibid., p. XCVIr, fig. VI.

16 - Jean de Meung, Le plaisant jeu du Dodechehedron de Fortune [The pleasant game of the Dodechehedron of Fortune], Paris, For Ian Longis & Robert le Mangnier, 1560. 


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 1986 and 2018