Andrea Vitali's Essays

The Madman (The Fool)


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, November 2015


(Translator’s note. In current English, a ‘fool’, in its primary sense, is someone who exercises poor judgment; a ‘crazy person’ is someone who is of unsound mind, mentally ill; and a ‘madman’ is someone who acts in a crazy manner. Also, ‘crazy’ has a secondary sense of agitation or anger, and ‘mad’ one of frenzy, unlike ‘fool’, The word ‘stupid’ is different still, meaning primarily ‘dull-witted’ or ‘of subnormal intelligence’. There is much overlap in meaning as well, in secondary meanings (1). In modern Italian, the words ‘folle’, ‘pazzo’ and ‘matto’, are all roughly synonymous (2). Whether the same was true in Renaissance Italian I do not know. Another essay of Vitali’s suggests that at least in the 18th century, distinctions did exist (see the entries for ‘matto’, ‘folle’, and ‘pazzo’ in the lengthy quote about word-meanings near the end of  his essay  The meaning of the word 'Tarocco'. No doubt there is much overlap in meaning. But so as not to lose in translation what might have been distinct, ‘Matto’ and similar will be translated here as ‘Madman’, etc, and ‘Folle’ and similar as ‘Fool’, etc.; other words will be indicated in brackets after my best guess as to their English translation in that particular context. In the case of Bible quotes, the King James Version uses ‘fool’ where the Italian has ‘stolto’ and the Latin Vulgate ‘insipiens’ or ‘stultus’. Here the Vulgate’s word is put after the translation to make clear what Latin word, meaning ‘fool’ or ‘folly’, the Vulgate uses).


Madness [Pazzia], according to a common opinion, means acting without reason. Cesare Ripa has this to say in his Iconologia: “Non è altro l’esser pazzo, secondo il nostro modo di parlare, che far le cose senza decoro, & fuor dal comune uso de gli uomini per privatione di discorso senza ragione verisimile, ò stimolo di Religione”  (Madness [pazzo], according to our way of speaking, means nothing other than  doing things without dignity, and outside of the common custom of men, due to lack of discourse without likely reason or the stimulus of Religion) (3). In the Gospel, he who does not believe is considered foolish, and often figures of fools appear in the Bibles of the 15th and 16th Centuries, illustrating Psalm 52 “The fool [stultus] hath said in his heart, There is no God!” (4). 


In a 16th century Bible, I found the same depiction of the Fool as in the Florentine minchiate (figure 1): a man dressed in rags, with feathers stuck in his hair, who walks riding a stick; in his hand, he holds a pinwheel, and children appear around him (figure 2).


Again Ripa provides an identical description: “Un’ huomo di età virile,…. starà ridente, & à cavallo sopra una canna, nella destra mano terrà una girella di carta istromento piacevole, & trastullo de fanciulli, li quali con gran studio lo fanno girare al vento” (A man of adult age will be laughing, and riding a cane; in his right hand, he will hold a paper pinwheel, a pleasant instrument and an amusement for children, who make him turn it in the wind with great care (5). The same author also tells us that “reputandosi saviezza nella Città ad un huomo di età matura, trattare de reggimenti della famiglia, & della Repubblica; Pazzia si dirà ragionevolmente alienarsi da queste attioni, per essercitare giuochi puerile, & di nessun momento” (In the city, it is held to be wisdom for a man of mature age to engage in matters of the family and of the Republic, hence it will be reasonably called Madness [Pazzia] to abstain oneself from these actions, in order to play childish games, of no import) (6) .


The Fool’s laughter, which we find on the card of the so-called Charles VI Tarot and that of Ercole I d’ Este, is “facilmente indicio di pazzia, secondo il detto di Salomone; però si vede che gli uomini reputati savij, poco ridono, & Christo N.S. che fù la vera saviezza, & sapienza, non si legge, chi ridesse giamai” (easily evidence of madness [pazzia], according to the words of Solomon; however, one can see that men considered wise rarely laugh, and of Christ Our Lord, who was true wisdom and knowledge, we never read that he laughed) (7). An anonymous engraving of the 16th century shows a fool laughing before an angel, who covers his eyes with his hands in order not to see such an unconscionable deed (figure 3).


 On the illuminated card of the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, the Fool carries feathers on his head and a stick on his shoulder (figure 4). A similar figure was painted by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova, as an image of 'Stultitia' (figure 5). In this fresco, the Fool holds an object between his lips which virtually prevents him from speaking. The notion of folly that we find in this allegory is further increased by the presence of feathers on the figure’s head. 


We must first of all consider that in ancient times wings, feathers and plumage were used as symbols of speed. Cartari in his work Imagini delli Dei de gl’Antichi (Images of the Gods of the Ancients) of 1674 repeatedly mentions the attributes of Apollo-Sun. These include wings and feathers, signifying the speed of Apollo’s intellect, and of the course of the Sun. Regarding the plumage on the head of Mercury, the author says this “Furono po date le penne à Mercurio,…., perche nel parlare, di ché egli era il Dio,…., le parole se ne volano per l'aria non altrimenti, & che se havessero l'ali. Onde Omero chiama sempre le parole veloci, alate e che hanno penne” (Feathers were given to Mercury, because, when speaking - as he was a god - his words flew through the air as if they had wings. This is why Homer always spoke of words as fast, winged, and feathered) (8). Sebastian Brant in his work Der Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools) of 1494, in sonnet LVII, “On Divine Providence”, has this to say about presumptuous fools: “One can even find fools who claim with their writings to gild their quills, and believe themselves to be wise...” (9).


The feathers on the head of the Fool thus represent the very elements in which the fool is lacking, besides suitable words, that is, speed and intellect. In fact, the padlock sealing the mouth of the fool, as painted by Giotto, takes on this function, since the Fool otherwise would only speak foolish words, as described in the words of the Bible, “The words of a wise man's mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool [insipientis] will swallow up himself. The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness [stultitia]; and the end of his talk is mischievous madness [Vulgate:“error”]” (10). 


A version virtually identical to that of the Fool of the Visconti-Sforza tarot is a copy from the previous original, also dating back to the 15th century (figure 6), from the collection formerly owned by Amedeo Cocchi.


In the Tarot of Ercole I d’Este, the Fool appears nearly naked. Concerning this, Ripa writes that “Stoltitia: il Pazzo palesa i suoi difetti ad ogn’uono, & il savio li cela, & perciò si dipinge ignuda, & senza vergogna” (Folly [Stoltitia]: the Fool [Pazzo] reveals his defects to everyone, & the wise conceals them, & that is why he  is depicted naked,  & without shame) (11). In the so-called Tarot of Charles VI, the Fool wears a cap with huge ass ears, thus showing his beastly nature, and wears underwear of an incredibly modern design  (figure 7). The image is very much like that of a fool shown in a codex from Bologna dating back to the second half of the 15th century  (figure 8) who carries the usual stick, but in such a way that it seems to cut through the palm of his hand (an allegorical relationship to the stigmata of Our Lord), as can be seen more clearly in a woodcut in the above-mentioned work by Brant. The presence of a cane, which has the same function as the stick, is justified in this way: “Chi mercede illimitata vuol godere, l’appoggio di una canna potrà avere fragile” (He who wishes to enjoy without limits, will have but the support of a fragile cane) (12). 


An iconographic variant concerns the representation of the Fool to be found in the so-called Tarot of Mantegna, where a dog attacks a poor man’s calf (figure 9). This figurative typology will remain stable throughout the later production of the tarot. A kind of bundle will also appear on the top of the stick, supported by a shoulder. The presence of a dog near a poor wanderer is typical of Renaissance art; it provides a touch of realism, since this animal would bark and often attack vagabonds who approached houses to beg for charity. A well-known example can be found in the Prodigal Son  (figure 10) and of the Path of Life in Bosch’s 'Hay Triptych'. In this regard there is an extremely interesting 15th century engraving by Israel van Meckenem (figure 11). The diabolical symbolism associated with wind instruments - pipe and bagpipe, in contrast to ‘celestial’ string instruments - shows the negative character of the engraving. There might also have been an association to the word “folle” in Latin, which meant “sack” or ”bellows” (13), so a “folle” might be a bag of air, nothing, nonsense. On the other hand, the presence of the dog relates the jester-fool with the poor man, thus creating a bridge between the two iconographic variants.


We must now consider another aspect of folly, this time associated with its mystical and sacred vision. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians was very much in favor during the Renaissance. Some of its words reflect the relationship that exists between Folly and the Divine: “For the word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness [stultitia]” (I Cor. 1:18.); “Let no man deceive himself. If any man thinks that he is wise among you in this world, let him become a fool [stultus], that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness [stultitia] with God” (I Cor. 3:18-19). It is only giving up material goods, according to Christian thought, that brings a man to God.


The Fool, because he possesses this prerogative, was at times seen as someone inspired, just a step away from the Divine. It is again Brant who satirizes vainglorious fools: “They believe that God has benefited them, and has left them His gifts forever” (14).


Concerning the divine nature of folly in relation to the tarot, there is an enlightening manuscript by an anonymous 16th century author that I discovered at the Estense Library in Modena and later submitted to the attention of Pietro Marsilli on the occasion of our exhibition in Ferrara (15). To conquer the heart of a lady of the court, a certain Mamma Riminaldi, the anonymous author found no better method than that of pulling a card out a tarot pack, the Fool, "ch'e cervel divino" (who is divine brain) (16). This is why the oldest known list of tarot cards, the Sermones de ludo cum aliis, places “El matto” (The Madman, i.e. Fool) next to “El mondo” (The World), which is ”God the Father”.


The thought of Scholasticism, which aimed to confirm the truths of faith through the use of reason, included in this category, as we wrote above, everyone who didn’t believe in God. In the tarot the presence of the Madman/Fool has therefore a further and deeper sense: the Fool, in so far as he possessed the power to reason but did not believe through reason, had to become, through the teachings expressed by the Mystical Staircase, the ‘Fool of God’, as happened to Francis, the most popular saint, who was called “The Holy Minstrel of God” and ‘”The Holy Fool [Folle] of God”. (Never was there more beautiful pleasure, / More joyful or more great, / Than through zeal and through love, / Of Jesus to become crazy [pazzo!] / .... / Let everyone cry out, as I cry out, / Always crazy, crazy, crazy! [pazzo] (17) (18).




1 Webster’s New World Dictionary, New York 1967. Most  online English dictionaries, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, show the same contrast in meaning, at least in the primary senses of the various words.

2 - Grande dizionario italiano dell'uso, UTET, Torino, 1999..

- Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, Roma, Appresso Lepido Faeij, 1603, p. 381.

4 - King James Version, Psalm 53.

- Cesare Ripa, op. cit., p. 381.

6 - Ibid, p. 382.

7 - Ibid.

8 - Vincenzo Cartari, Imagini delli Dei de gl’Antichi (Images of the Gods of the Ancients), In Venetia, Appresso Nicolò Pezzana, 1674 edition, pp. 160-161.

9 - Sonnet LVII, in Francesco Saba Sardi (ed. and trans.), La nave dei folli, Spirali Edition, Milano, 1984, p. 140.

10Ecclesiastes 10:12-13, King James Version [and Vulgate]. [Translator's note: the Vulgate for Eccl. 10:13 reads "initium verborum eius stultitia et novissimum oris illius error pessimus", i.e. "The beginning of his words is folly, and the end of his talk is mischievous error". The Hebrew word here is hō·w·lê·lūṯ (, which all authorities today agree means "madness". Current Roman Catholic Bibles have made the correction].

11 - Cesare Ripa, op. cit., p. 478.

12 -  Sonnet LVII, in Francesco Saba Sardi, op. cit., p. 139.

13 -

14 - Sonnet LVII in Francesco Saba Sardi, op. cit., p. 140.

15 - See the exhibition catalog I Tarocchi: le Carte di Corte, Gioco e Magia alla Corte degli Estensi  (The Tarot: Cards of the Court, Games, and Magic at the d’ Este Court), G. Berti - A. Vitali (edited by), Nuova Alfa, Bologna 1987.

16 - Due sonetti amorosi (two love sonnets), in Gaspare Sardi, Adversaria…., cod. lat. 228=  α. W. 2, II, in one of two small sheets  inserted among the folio pages. Estense Library, Modena. See  the essay Tarot in Literature I.

17 - Laude dello amore di Iesù Cristo chiamata La Savia Pazzerella (Lauda on the Love of Jesus Christ, called The Wise Crazy One), dance song by Girolamo Benivieni (1453-1542), a fervent follower of Savonarola, in Patrick Macey (ed. and trans.), Savonarolan Laude, Motets and Anthems, Recent Researches in the Music of the Renaissance, vol. 116; A-R. Editions, Madison, Wisconsin, 1999, pp. xxxvi-xxxviii.

18 -  On the role and figure of the Fool with regard to its aspect of melancholia and the sensible and senseless folly that characterizes the procession of  the Triumphs, see the essay Folly and Melancholia.


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  - © All rights reserved 1995