Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Il Torracchione Desolato

A card-reading sorceress in a poem of the XVIIth century


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, April 2014 


Il Torracchione Desolato [The Desolate Ruined Tower] is a mock-heroic poem in octaves and twenty cantos by Bartolomeo Corsini (Barberino del Mugello, 1606-1673), whose fame is mainly due to this poem written around 1660 when, one time abandoning the life of society, he retired to his birthplace, which he called 'Domus quietis' (house of peace), located in the countryside of Mugello around Barberino.


Corsini, having studied literature and philosophy in his native town, at the behest of his father moved to Pisa to study medicine. In trouble with his parent for not graduating at the canonical time, he returned to his native Barberino where, reconnecting with his father, he devoted himself to literature - writing plays and translating the Anacreon - and music - composing five hymns to be sung at Holy Week in the church of San Silvestro - in addition to assuming social responsibilities, including the inspectorate for the manufacture of bread, the Secretariat of Arms for Mugello on the appointment of Grand Duke Ferdinand of Tuscany, and the governorship of the ancient fraternity of Saints Sebastian and Roch in Barberino. In 1638 he began the writing of the Annals of Barberino that went on for eleven years, until 1646.


The inspiration for Il Torracchione Desolato came to Corsini from a ruin of a medieval castle, probably built by Cattani, standing near his house. But beyond that are what is considered the inspirations of folkloric character of the poem, some episodes of magic or the reprising of wonderful references to mythology or festivals and popular rites.


In this work, published posthumously in Paris in 1768, the poet intended to give life to those ancient stones by making them performers of an imaginary feat of arms. More than a mock-heroic poem, we could define the work as a folkloric description of a a burlesque war, which saw, one armed against the other, Alcidamante, Count of Mangone and Lazzeraccio, Emperor of Ortaglia, contending for the possession of Elisea, kidnapped by a giant named Giuntone.


More detail in the work: "It is narrated that during a rustic feast in honor of Ceres in Cirignano, the Knight Bruno, son of Lazzeraccio, lord of Torracchione, and the giant Giuntone kidnap the beautiful Elisea, daughter of Banchella (who is actually the fugitive King Radicofani). The two kidnappers meet at night in a forest a young woman who is desperate to throw herself off a cliff. Bruno saves Margherita, but the giant takes advantage of his companion’s distraction to escape with Elisea to a castle on Mount Falterona where the sorceress Sirmalia welcoms men and women who practice the most vile lust. Bruno leaves Margherita with her father and then goes in search of the giant. When the messengers of Alcidamante, Count of Mangone, who is in love with Elisea, come to Torracchione and ask that the girl be returned, the unsuspecting Lazzeraccio surrenders Margherita. Believing that the exchange [of Margherita for Elisea] was on purpose, Alcidamante vows to punish Lazzeraccio and destroy Torracchione. So war breaks out, and even the gods gather in council, deciding to take the side of the Count of Mangone. After ups and downs Alcidamante destroys various castles of Lazzeraccio, and instructed by Mercury on ways to resist the lure of Sirmalia, also dissolves the enchanted palace and finds Elisea herself, who during her long imprisonment has been able to resist the lure of the place. At the wedding of the Count and Elisea following the final phase of the war, with the death of Bruno and Giuntone and with the ruin of besieged Torracchione, a terrified Lazzeraccio hides in a basement, but the earth opens up under his feet and swallows him, while a great flame surrounds the castle and destroys it" (1).


If in the work the epic element resonates in the skirmishes and battles among the lords of the territory, deliberately made momentous, and the comic aspect is linked to the narrative of everyday life in Barberino. The fantasy does not shine if it does not, particularly when dealing with episodes of a certain sensuality featuring an obvious misogyny, due to anger at being abandoned by a wife thirty years younger. A foul mood that emerges with comic playfulness that sometimes transforms into forms of turbid obscenity (2), playing up an aspect that we find in other writings of the poet (3).


Under the linguistic aspect, the work owes much to the traditional Tuscan literary language, and in this it much approaches the Malmantile Racquistato of Lippi.


Beyond its literary aspects, certainly of some significance, the work provides a starting point for a discussion of the history of cartomancy and magic rituals in the Baroque period, given the presence of a sorceress named Dianora, mentioned several times in the poem, described as using cards for magical purposes and divination. We do not know if the author had in mind the triumphs or the numeral cards and courts, but certainly attested here is a practice carried out with the numeral cards present since the fifteenth century, as the discoveries made by Ross S. Caldwell have documented (4).


Tarot reading for divination is reflected in the Renaissance by a single document dated 1527, the Chaos del Tri per uno of Theophilus Folengo (1491-1544), a famous master of the genre known as "macaronic", who signed his works with the pseudonym Merlin Cocai (5).


One passage of the work tells about a meeting of Triperuno with his friend Liberto, who speaks of being invited the day before by other acquaintances of his named Giuberto, Focilla, Falcone and Mirella in a room stanza “ove, trovati c’ hebbero le carte lusorie de trionphi, quelli a sorte fra di loro si divisero e, volto a me, ciascuno di loro la sorte propria m’espose, pregandomi che sopra quelli un sonetto gli componessi” [where, having found luxurious Triumph cards, they divided them by lot among them and, in front of me, each of them revealed to me their lots, begging me to compose a sonnet on them]. Triperuno explained in verse the lot of each by means of interpreting the cards. In this work, to the four divinations follow a sonnet always focused on the tarot cards. The sonnet that Triperuno composed for Giuberto, based on the cards that he extracted, Justice, the Angel, the Devil, Fire, and Love, is thus explained: the fire of love, even if it is apparently an angel, is actually a devil, so where there is evil there can be no justice. Professor Dummett believed that the above description should be considered only as a literary device used by Folengo, and therefore that the sonnet could not be interpreted as evidence of the existence of cartomancy in the Renaissance (6). But even if it was just a device, the author, to gain inspiration, must have been inspired by something that at that time was present, even in embryonic form. Beyond this, the fact is that even if we had the certainty of a literary device, the document in question is the first known that is similar in all respects to modern cartomancy with tarot cards. Which demonstrates that the practice of divination was already present in the sixteenth century. In our opinion, in the previous century (7). (See Addenda by Michael R. Howard)


Returning to the poem, the stories about the witch Dianora are reported by Corsini in several sonnets of Canto VIII, and in particular in XLVII where the practice of cartomancy by the sorceress is made explicit with the sentence "the serene air darkened in a single turn of the cards" (8).


Canto VIII - Sonnet XLVII


Molti restar confusi a tanta piena,

Ma tutti no: perché la maggior parte,

Sapeva che d’Ortaglia entro l’amena

Villa stava una donna, che nell’arte

Magica era eccellente e la serena

Aria oscurava a un sol voltar di carte,

E per via di figure e note inferne,

Facea parer le lucciole lanterne.


(Many are astonished in front of such a large expanse [of the River Lora], but not all, given that the majority knew that in Ortaglia in the beautiful villa lived a woman who excelled in the magic art so much as to darken the serenity with a single turn of the cards and by means of symbols and infernal words made the false appear true).


Who this sorceress was we learn from the following sonnet:




La nuova incantatrice era germana

Di Lazzeraccio, ed in Ortaglia avea

Fabbricato per via d’arte profana

Ricche stanze e giardini in cui splendea

Quanto cader di bello in mente umana

Mai potè, e quivi in nobile assemblea

Spesso gli spirti stigii in forma belle

Di garzoni adunava, e di donzelle.


(The new sorceress was the sister of Lazzeraccio, and in Ortaglia had built, through the magic arts, rich rooms and gardens in which triumphed much more beauty than the human mind could conceive, and here often gathered in noble assembly infernal spirits, turned into the beautiful shapes of youths and maidens,).


The misogynist attitude of the poet is found in the two final lines of the following sonnet:


Sonnet XLIX


E al mormorio di fresche, e limpide onde

E alla grat’ombra di sublimi piante,

Ch’auree le poma, argentee avean le fronde,

Or questa dama, or quel guerriero errante

Ivi trattenev’ella in fra gioconde

Musiche e danze; e se talor amante

Diveniva d’alcuno o tardi o presto

Con lui veniva all’amoroso innesto.


(And in the sweet sound of the cool, clear waters and the cool shade of wonderful plants, which had golden fruit and silver leaves, now this lady, now that knight who passed entertained here with joyous music and dance, and if she [the sorceress] sometimes became lover of someone, sooner or later the relationship was carnally consumed).


Here is revealed the name of the sorceress and from whom she received her powers:


Sonnet C


Dianora nominata era tal maga,

E fra molti avev’ella un de’ folletti

Che più d’ogni altro la rendea presaga,

Spiando i fatti altrui fin sotto i letti;

Quinci istrutta da lui la donna allaga

Di Lora il letto in modo tal, che astretti,

Sono a dir molti, e cavalieri e fanti,

Qui d’Abila e di Calpe è il non più avanti.


(This sorceress was called Dianora, and among her many little devils, there was one who more than any other made her able to prophesy the future, spying on other people right under their beds. Thus educated by this devil, she had flooded the bed of river Lora in such a way that confined between those territories, many cavalry and infantry could no longer continue through Abila and Calpe).


Doubt about the worth of the sorceress on the part of the wise [who believe in the power of the sorceress but know it is only a spell] is here expressed, together with the attempt to convince the doubting ones [the fearful, hesitant ones experiencing the spell] not to be afraid of her enchantments.


Sonnet CI


Ma il conte, e altri saggi a cui già noto

Della maga d’Ortaglia era il valore,

Non solo a piena tal col core immoto

Stetter: ma dieder anco animo e core

Ai dubbiosi con dirgli: Oggi l’ignoto

Caso, soldati, a voi non dia terrore;

Quest’è un incanto e ben che grande e’ paia

Forse il vedrem fra poco un cenciaia.


(But the Count and other sages who had known the worth of the sorceress of Ortaglia, not only were not surprised in the face of this flood of the river, but urged on the doubters, saying to them, "Today, O soldiers, do not be terrorized by this dark situation. This is a spell, and although it appears so great, perhaps soon it will turn into a thing of no worth).


An evaluation of the powers of the sorceress that will yet be affirmed in Canto XII:


Canto XII - Sonnet XLVIII


Ben si credero allora, e il ver credero,

L’un oste e l’altro il tutto essere seguito

Per opra di colei, che al regno nero

Imperar sa dell’infernal Cocito,

di Dianora dich’io. Per tanto al fiero

Caso del conte, il popol suo rapito

Da giusto sdegno, a guerreggiar si getta

Per farne su i nemici aspra vendetta.


(The one and the other army then believed, and believed truly, that the whole thing happened through the work of one who knows how to govern in the black kingdom of the infernal Cocytus [one of the five rivers of hell], and I speak of Dianora. So thinking about the ferocious case that happened to the Count [he had been thrown by a stranger knight, "he was brought up into the air to his great peril"], his people, taken in righteous indignation, throw themselves into combat against the enemies to get strong revenge).


From a sonnet of the same Canto we are informed about a magical practice used by Dianora consisting of making a circle and reciting inside it terrible words, then sprinkling the circle with the pulverized bones of those hanged and hiding it all in the grass:


Sonnet III


Ma Dianora d’Ortaglia intanto scende,

E ratta va da Valianesi prati

Quasi in mezzo a quel luogo il qual s’estende

Per ampio spazio in fra i due campi armati;

Ivi giunta, fa un cerchio e note orrende

Su vi sussurra: d’ossa d’impiccati

Ridotte in polve lo cosparge e poi

Tra l’erbe il cela, e torna agli orti suoi.


(But in the meantime Dianora of Ortaglia quickly descends from the meadows of Valian and comes to that place that extends amply between the two armies: she comes here and makes a circle and over it recites horrendous words: she rubs it with the bones of hanged ones reduced to ash and then hides all in the grass and goes back to her gardens).


The circle, the bones of dead hanged ones, and infernal words are common components of ritual magic. About the circle should be recalled, in reference to the use of the cards for divination, that a verse of Canto XX of the poem Storied Spain, a chivalric romance composed in the fourteenth century but only printed in Milan in 1519, makes reference to the sortilege with which Rolando sought to discover the enemies of Charlemagne: "He made a circle and afterwards threw the cards", which means, as Lozzi pointedly suggests in his article of 1899, that "he threw the cards as is done in a game, or in the throwing of dice, but threw them within the circle, to discover from their arrangement, as determined by magic power (sortilege) who were the enemies of the Emperor and where they were to be found" (9). We do not know exactly what technique the author of the poem meant in writing these verses, that is, if it refers to a reading of cards used as knucklebones, in which the response issued was an intuitive observation of the overall design that the bones created once thrown to the ground or whether it was an actual reading as we know it today (10).





by Michael S. Howard



Dummett in The Game of Tarot makes much of the paucity of evidence suggesting cartomancy before 1750 apart from simple sortilege, concluding that since we would expect to find such evidence, therefore cartomancy of Etteilla’s variety did not exist. Actually, Mary Greer ( has a series of quotations from before Etteilla's 1770 book, of a 3 card reading in 1620, perhaps 25 (5x5) cards in 1730, and a 5-card spread in 1738, all England or Holland). In any case, I attach other significance to the paucity of evidence from Catholic countries (except for vague admonishments against the practice, 1556 Italy, quoted by Greer). It may have to do with an upsurge in the political power of literal-minded religiosity in that period. The combination of prophecy about the future, with the exercise of imagination, spoken as though coming from outside of oneself and perhaps with an invocation of divine aid, smacked to the Church of chicanery at best and black magic at worst.


All you have to do is read the New Advent Encyclopedia's article on divination at link: 

to see that the Catholic Church considered and still considers divinatory card-reading and all divination to be fraud, not merely human but also the "fraud of the Father of Lies". The latter would require strong methods. As for the period of the early tarot, it says


                     Sixtus IV, Sixtus V, and the Fifth Council of Lateran likewise condemned  divination.

                     Governments have at times acted with great severity...


It gives no modern examples of governments, but I have no doubt that they did so, erratically but often enough. The Church, too, wasn't afraid to use its power.


So before we make definite statements about what lack of documentation shows, we have to take into account laws and other sanctions regarding fortune-telling, the suspicions of further misdeeds if one admitted knowing anything, and the threat of new laws pertaining to games with the pack. There was also the confessional. One never knew who was going to name names and give details to the priest. Then there would be hell to pay. So going to a fortune-teller would be a secret affair. I doubt if even a fiction writer would write about details not part of common rumor. If would be as if a fiction writer today wrote a story that tallied in key details with details of a terrorist crime that were known only to the police; except that in those days there were fewer safeguards against demonizing abuse of power.


Dummett says nothing about the effect of such sanctions on documentation. He quotes laws showing that the game of tarot was not prohibited, but that is not the point. What is relevant are laws and other negative consequences regarding fortune telling with cards. Dummett does not mention Etteilla's tale of the three individuals who were arrested and put in prison for fortune telling with cards in 1751-53 Paris (if he missed it in Etteilla, Wilshire tells the story, too). Caldwell Origine della Cartomanzia, “Il Castello dei Tarocchi”, ed Andrea Vitali. pp. 163-176) cites the arrest in Strasbourg in 1759 of 2 women and 8 men on charges of card-reading. Before 1750, Etteilla said, the practice of card-reading in France was unknown. That part certainly agrees with Dummett! But what did the average person know? Prohibitions do not only dissuade practices; they also dissuade the revealing of practices.


Here a quote from Folengo is relevant, in his discussion of his third sonnet

(I get this from


    TRIPERUNO: Dear master, in this sonnet you often play the mute.

    LIMERNO: It was always valuable.

    TRIPERUNO: What?

    LIMERNO: Truth...

    TRIPERUNO: To confess?

    LIMERNO: On the contrary: to be silent.


    LIMERNO: To avoid hate.

    TRIPERUNO: Hate would not be important, if it was not followed by      persecution.

    LIMERNO: So a bit for the mouth was invented.


This interchange relates to the previous sonnet, which is critical of the Emperor and the Pope. But how could Limerno “often play the mute” in it?


Marco Ponzi (  says that in the first edition of Triperuno, 1626, Folengo left out the names of some of the cards. No doubt these included the Emperor and the Pope. In the 1527 edition, this second sonnet is left out entirely. It is not safe to criticize the Pope and the Emperor, apparently. He is testifying to an atmosphere of fear which, by implication, applies to this part of the book generally.


Dummett could find no reports in literature or other documents of "cartomancy" before Etteilla, meaning exclusive of simple sortilege. Without holding him to that precise date, as opposed to a couple of decades earlier, what interests me is when even cases of sortilege show up in documents during that period between 1440 and 1700. In 1554 Spain it is reported in a letter by a Spanish jurist. Then there is nothing until 1616, a witch's trial. Then nothing until another witch's trial, 1631. In 1632 sortilege with cards is mentioned in a Spanish work of encyclopedic nature. After that, Caldwell says, it continues to appear in similar trials until the beginning of the 19th century. One of Caldwell's examples, from 1648-49, is of a reading based on the significance of particular court cards to determine whether a man was being unfaithful. The spread was five lines ("mischio le carte e le dispose scoperte formando cinque file...", Caldwell p. 167). I do not know if this means five cards, five rows, or five columns. But the later practice with a five cards was to use the top row first, and then if you didn't get what you wanted, go to the next row, etc.

(see my blog at, on the method of  "Julia Orsini").

If five cards, it is also the same as in Triperuno. I do not know how public these details were. But at some point it apparently was part of general Spanish culture, since this type of sortilege even appears in a mid-17th century Spanish play.


The 78 year gap in Spain, 1554-1632 (or 94, from a philosophical dialogue in 1538, if we don't count a private letter) suggests to me a time of repression rather than of disinterest. And if more complex fortune-telling is not reported, is that because it did not exist or because it wasn't practiced by illiterate women within reach of the Inquisition, and reporting it in a public way would be revealing too much? Or it may be that the more complex type simply didn't get to Spain. Folengo was in Italy.


In Italy poems are published about a famous witches' spell, the "hammer". But only an Inquisition record then secret mentions an important prop of such spells, a certain tarot card

(see Andrea's essay at Did these poets really not know about the role of the tarot card, or were they sticking to what it was safe to say, and unthreatening to their favorite game?


In such an atmosphere, “inspired”, i.e. non-mechanical, divination with cards would be associated with witchcraft, such that not only would such practices not be publicized, but past evidence of it would likely be destroyed by families seeking to avoid the shame of non-conforming ancestors. An example might be the numerous PMB-style (Sforza) hand-painted decks of the 15th and 16th centuries, all similar and all lacking their Devil and Tower cards. Then when it is safe - sporadically in Britain and Holland at first, more consistently by the early 18th century, and later also in France - ancient practices are revived and published, precisely when it proves safe to do so.


It is perhaps a fact about the geography of Piedmont, full of mountain valleys that had been settled for hundreds of years by "heretics" fleeing the Church's sanctions, that Etteilla's Alexis, he said, claimed descent from the Alexis Piemontese of the 16th century, who history says was called that because he was from Piedmont. Even the two very mild analyses of the tarot deck that we happen to possess from the 16th century come from that region--one only in manuscript, the other in a very small run. There is also the question of an early connection between Piedmont and Bologna. The Piedmontese tarocchi has Bolognese features. Bologna is where Franco's 1750 evidence of cartomancy came from, of a type not dissimilar to Etteilla's.


In 1620 England, Mary Greer quotes a book describing 3 card sortilege with cards. Then there is a gap until 1690, when a deck based on lot-books is published. I think at once of the rise of the Puritans and the English Civil War. Finally, people ignorant of the unpublished past (whatever it was) started producing primitive fortune-telling decks without negative consequences, and there was political stability (in England at least). It seems not unreasonable to suppose that some people might, with guarantees of anonymity and appropriate recompense, or a desire that something valuable not be lost, have then started talking about the traditions they knew, especially the very old and/or people about to leave the country (like Etteilla's Alexis). In England the readings get increasingly sophisticated by the 1720s.


At, in a long essay on the Sola-Busca pips, I have tried to give what I think are Neopythagorean parallels between the SB images and Etteilla's system for the number cards, 300 years later. It seems to me highly suspect that Etteilla, whose books are mainly a rehash of 18th century occultism with very little justification of the keywords on the cards (especially the suit cards), should at the same time have come up with such an inventive system of card reading, combining appropriate stimulus-words with intuition, apparently out of nowhere, a system which immediately dominated the field and continues to do so. That he could have developed his system from esoteric meanings of the numbers alone is just too dubious a proposition, given his apparent ignorance of any system for so doing combined with his apparent willingness to share what he knows. I suspect that a version of it was already in place by the time of the Sola-Busca, 1491.




1 - Item: Corsini, Bartolomeo, in “Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani”, ["Biographical Dictionary of the Italians"], Volume 29 (1983), online  L’Enciclopedia Italiana.

2 - Read for example the episode of particular lascivious satisfaction and erotic rites in the castle of the sorceress Sirmalia in Canto VI.

 3 - See Scritti inediti [unpublished writings], collected by G. Bacchini, Firenze, 1883. in Giornale storico della letteratura italiana [Historical journal of Italian literature], II [1883], p. 225-227.

 4 - Ross Sinclair Caldwell, Origine della Cartomanzia [Origin of Cartomancy], in Andrea Vitali (ed.), “Il Castello dei Tarocchi” [The Castle of the Tarot], Torino, 2010, pp. 163-176. In particular, there was the discovery of an important document of the mid-fifteenth century and several others of the sixteenth century which show that divination cards with the numeral and court cards was practiced in Spain since the mid-fifteenth century.

 5 - Merlin Cocai (pseud. of Theophilus Folengo), Chaos del Tri per uno, overo dialogo delle Tre etadi [Chaos of the Three in One, or dialogue of the Three Ages] Venicia, 1527.

 6 - Michael Dummett, Il Mondo e l'Angelo. I Tarocchi e la loro storia [The World and the Angel. The Tarot and its history], Naples, 1993, p. 121. For Dummett cartomancy was not practiced in the sixteenth century, either with the numeral cards or with the Triumphs. It should be said in this connection that only subsquent to his research have documents been discovered that attest to that period.

 7 - Please read in this regard our essay The Castle of Malpaga.

 8 - Our edition: Venezia, Joseph Antonelli, 1842.

 9 - Carlo Lozzi, Ancora delle antiche carte da giuoco [Again on ancient playing cards], in «La Bibliofilia» [The Bibliophile], Vol 1, Dispense [Instalments] 8-9, 1899, p. 183.

 10 - On magic and tarot cards please read the essays The Conjuration of the Tarrocco and Tarot and Inquisitors.