Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Matti de Trionfi

Carnival and Folly


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, June 2013

From Tomaso Garzoni da Bagnacavallo (1549-1589) we have examined different compositions, from Hospidale de' Pazzi incurabile [The Hospital of Incurable Madmen] (1586) to a Il Theatro de' vari, e diversi cervelli mondani [The Theatre of various worldly brains] (1583) as well as reporting some passages from La Piazza Universale di tutte le professioni del mondo [The Universal Plaza of all the professions in the world] (1585), perhaps his greatest work. It is in this that we find listed, in Discourse LXIX entitled "Of Players Universally & in Particular", one of the orders of Tarot in vogue in the XVIth century: "Some others are tavern games like la mora [the Moor], le piastrelle [tiles], le chiavi [keys], le carte [cards] or communi, or Tarot [tarocchi], a new invention, according to Volterrano (1), where you see coins, cups, swords, staves, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, the Ace, the King, the Queen, the Horse, the Page, the World, Justice, the Angel, the Sun, the Moon, the Star , the Fire, the Devil, Death, the Hanged, the Old Man, the Wheel, Fortitude, Love, the Chariot, Temperance, the Pope, the Popess the Emperor, the Empress, the Bagatella, the Madman [Matto]" (2).


One of the topics dear to Garzoni was ' ‘Folly’ [in English, also Madness, Craziness; in Italian Follia, Pazzia; also Matto = Crazy, Mad] which, besides being in Hospidale, is also in his other works, including The Universal Plaza. Of interest to our discussion is a comment that he makes in  'Discourse CII entitled De’ Maestri delle Scienze, et Costumi, & de’ Putti, che vanno a scuola, & de’ Dottori in studio, & Scolari di Studio [Of the Masters of Sciences, and Customs, & of Little Children who go to school, & of Doctors in the studio, & Scholars of the Studio], in which, by an ironic take on the character of ‘depraved' students, i.e. those who had no real interest in their studies, but only in spending time in blunders, he highlights that this type of student was congenial to the organization of this Carnival that was much pleasing to the people who would have been present at the "più bei matti de trionfi [most beautiful crazies of  triumphs]" that could be seen. In practice, the people who knew the Triumph card of the Matto [Fool, Madman] could admire extraordinary matti, worthy of being considered among the most beautiful matti of the tarot. (3).


Their madness [pazzia] could in fact express in this case "a ridiculous festival, & marvelous fun", because to these students of empty brain, unlike all the similar others in identical conditions, it is pleasing to give so (that is, speaking in public). In the Annotatione sopra il CII Discorso [Annotations on DiscourseCII], Garzoni, citing Garges, writes that "the vacuous was not given in nature, except commonly in Scholars of the studio, because three things were supremely vacuous in them, brain, purse, & knowledge". But let us get to what Garzoni writes, the beginning of which is addresses to emphasizing how serious students, i.e. those who have judgment and wisdom, not belonging to the breed of crazies [matti] mentioned above, considered these to be little or nothing:


“But if one is fair with everyone, modest, affable, courteous, literate, judicious, and wise, this person is considered of little value in modern studies, not being of the horde of the careless and misled. And if others with beautiful speech, & happy judgment try to make an honored conference of some Comedy, Tragedy, song, sound, Rhetoric, Poetry, civic spectacles (although such were seen) few are seen circling around, because true glory is obfuscated before the judgment of depraved students, for whom nothing is good but putting them almost like Bulls in a fence and blowing dandelions at their horns, to remove, in their way, the desire to be mad". But we advise their most noble Rector, and all the excellent Rectors of the studio, sending a janitor to each, that they act so that these unleashed devils come cheerfully at one time in the streets, because with their abilities all the common people expect to see a ridiculous festival, & marvelous fun, hoping that the Buratini, the Gratiani, the Magnifici, the Zani (4), and all kinds of clowns will not be lacking, so as to make a pleasing show in the plaza. Meanwhile each will prepare a place, because there have to be seen the most beautiful crazies of triumphs [i più bei matti de trionfi] seen yet, because by this brotherly correction, carnival will not cease in them, indeed, the brain will become so soft, that they (the students) will be more solemn in the octave (hour) than in the fest" (5).


If Carnival in this case is organized by madmen [matti], craziness [pazzia] is in every way the main aspect that characterizes Carnival. It is not, however, of the madness that can generate, after all, also brilliance, 'marvelous' entertainment, but a madness that possesses mystical and philosophical implications.


To understand it, you must know the profound meaning of Carnival, which was illustrated by the Assyriologist, orientalist and archaeologist Hugo Winckler (1863-1913), professor at the University of Berlin, in his work Die Babylonische Geisteskultur [The spiritual culture of Babylon] (6).


According to his research, the etymology of the word Carnival is derived from Carrus Navalis, the Latin translation of that wagon ship, i.e. a ship on wheels, that in Babylon at the time of the vernal equinox traveled the route of the festival, ruled by the Savior god Marduk in the fight against the Dragon, or the goddess Tiamat. The ship on wheels went through the main street of Babylon to come to the temple of the god Marduk. During the journey, the people on the ship wore masks as a sign of the undiscoverable symbolic representation of the Chaos before the Creation of the Universe. Once in the Temple of the God, at the time of the descenta figure personifying Death removed each one’s mask, representing on one side the death of each in the Chaos and on the other, their birth in the formed universe, where people and forms acquired their identity.


The fight between the two Deities then ended with the victory of the Savior God, so that the old year (the hostile force of darkness beaten by the stars of the spring), considered an enemy and oppressor, gave way to the new world order, re-established by the victorious god who, after having fallen into hell, rose again by being victorious over the Chaos.


The abandon or madness [follia] that the Festival connoted was the representation of the transition from the old to the new year. One raised the anchor, one metaphorically sailed, one faced the open sea. As Alfredo Cattabiani writes, "Each step in the water is disturbing, ambiguous, distressing. The journey is not easy: in the crossing the fear of the perilous passage makes fools of those who embark. For this reason the Naval Car was also called in the Middle Ages stultifera navis, the Ship of Fools [as we find in the work Der Narrenschiff by Sebastian Brant, 1494]. But the madness is not senseless, it has a direction which is the other side where the Naval Car must arrive. During the navigation, the body of the old year shatters formlessly: everyone loses his identity through the use of the mask, the roles are reversed, as well as the sexes, while the dance collectively becomes a Dionysian orgy, to obey the divine Game that rules the universe, and in fact games are typical of this period of transition" (7).


If the metaphor that characterizes the role and purpose of the guests of the Carrus Navalis is that of a madness [follia] that underlies the regeneration, the Ship of Fools (Der Narrenschiff) by Sebastian Brant, an intolerant Catholic, carries fools who are actually already dead. For Brant there is no possibility of self-regeneration through madness [follia]: the latter is blind to death, both physically and of the soul. The analysis of Brant is aimed at those who cannot and do not want to be saved, by promoting an action of communication on the need to avoid, for the salvation of his soul, the 'senseless madness’ [insensata follia].


                                                               Nave dei Folli                                                      

                                                            The Ship of Fools, anonymous woodcut in the work

Francesco Saba Sardi writes: "Brant takes issue with everything in so far as it can appear to him as pagan, first with Carnival, in which he sees the irruption of the 'countryside', priapic, phallic, asinine (and the donkey is in Brant a symbol, other than of folly, also and always lust), and permanence in the heart of the City, the demonic, the chthonic, the nocturnal darkness ... The earth is a 'madhouse' [casa di matti], a place of destruction, a tunnel, at the end of which, by the grace of God, a beam of light can flash.... The sinner, of course, is the one who wanders aimlessly, like the ship on which he embarked .... The navigation takes place on earth ... therefore 'without purpose or reason' and, despite the reckless gaiety of the madmen [matti] on board, 'burdensome'; and no one has consulted cards, no one is entrusted with the compass ... In 'true' Christianity, ‘reasonable’ ‘prudent’, 'wise' Christianity, Madness is not established and has no place. It goes away with the ship, banished" (8).


In the Ship, Brant urges, solicits, aims to teach the reader to avoid senseless folly, an attitude that is anticipated already in the Preface:


Al bene e alla salute destinato

per esortare a seguir la saggezza

e a evitare e punir l’insensatezza

la cecità, l’errore e la mania

in ogni luogo sia

la razza umana: con gran lavoro e zelo

compilato in Basilea:

per Sebastiano Brant

dottore in utroque


Intended for benefit and health

To exhort and follow wisdom

and to prevent and punish senselessness,

blindness, error and mania (1)

everywhere the human race

may be: with hard work and zeal

completed in Basel:

by Sebastian Brant

doctor of utroque (2)


(1) mania = being possessed by folly/madness

(2) utroque = in civil and canon law


The Fools of Brant’s Ship embody the Fool of the Tarot, the one who does not believe, against all reason and a prudent attitude, in the Christian God. But there is a substantial difference between the ship and the journey of the Tarot: the Fools there will not ever earn higher consciousness, since they are adverse to any form of goal (the madman is vacuous, like his journey); here the Fool, although initially immersed in the world of 'Vanity' (Vanitas vanitatum), tends to search for a knowledge that can only come about if he is able to grasp the meaning of the "wise" madness [“sapiente” follia] that is identification with the Divine (9).


At the conclusion of this brief discussion, among the 112 subjects considered by Brant on madness, we have chosen to report the text Of the Instability of Fortune, a central 'memento mori' in the procession of the Triumphs of the Tarot

                                                                Ruota di Fortuna

                                                             Wheel of Fortune, woodcut attributed to Durer

                                                                                       from 'The Ship of Fools'



Chi sulla ruota di Fortuna siede,
Attento stia che non gli manchi il piede
E non abbia dei matti la mercede.
Matto è chi troppo in alto vuol salire,
Pel mondo intero spregio ad esibire,
E  vuol montare ad ulteriore quota
Senza pensar di Fortuna alla ruota.
     Chi troppo in alto sal cade sovente
Nessuno sale tanto, tra gli umani,
Che possa essere certo del domani.
E  aver sol di fortuna vita carca -
Ché mai arresta di Cloto la Parca
La ruota - e preservare oro e potenza
Di morte dall'implacabile sentenza.
     Inquieto giàce chi ha testa coronata:
Dal potere la vita fu falciata
A molti. Mai non dura la potenza
Che sia sorretta sol dalla violenza.
Ove manchi del popolo il favore,
Poche le gioie, ma molto il dolore.
Assai dovrà temere chi ha voluto,
Oltre che governare, esser temuto.
Chè la paura è un malo servitore,
Che non difende a lungo il suo signore.
Chi detenga il potere dunque impari
Di Dio i comandi ad aver sempre cari.
Chi la giustizia tenga in pugno salda,
Avrà un poter che dura e non si sfalda;
Quando muore un monarca beneamato,
Dai suoi sudditi a lungo è lacrimato.
Guai al sovrano, dopo il cui decesso
Si dica: "Grazie a Dio, sotterra è messo!"
     Chi la sua pietra in alto getterà,
Mal gli farà se in testa gli cadrà,
E  chi vuol tutto a Fortuna affidare,
In ogni istante a terra può cascare.


Who sits on the wheel of Fortuna,

Must watch that he not lose his footing

And has not the reward of fools.

Foolish is he 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.

     Who climbs too high often falls


Nobody climbs so far, among humans,

That he can be sure 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 one whose head is crowned.

From power the life of many

Was cut down. Power never lasts

That is supported only by violence.

In the absence of the people's favor,

Few joys, but much pain.

They must have much to fear, those who have wanted

Besides governing, to be feared.

Which fear is a bad servant,

Which does not defend for long its lord.

Who holds power gained therefore

From God’s commands always to be loved,

Who keeps Justice in firm grip,

Will have power that lasts and does not crumble;

When dying a beloved monarch

By his subjects is grieved long.

Woe to the king, after whose death

It is said, "Thank God he is put underground!"

     Who will throw his stone to the top,

Will do ill if it falls on his head,

And one who wants to entrust all to Fortune,

At any time can fall to the ground.




1 - Garzoni makes reference here to Raffaele Maffei (1451-1522), called Volterrano (or Volaterrano) from his birthplace, i.e. Volterra. We report here what Maffei writes in this regard in his Commentariorum Urbanorum XXXVIII libri (1506) through the composition of another author, namely, Andreas Senftleben, who in his work De Alea Veterum (Leipzig, 1667) in Chapter. XVIII writes: “De nova etiam Chartarum invenzione Volateranus ait, quod in illis scriptae sint Monetae, Scyphi, Gladii, Caducei, X, IX, VIII, VII, VI, V, IV, III, [II missing], I, Rex, Regina, Eques, Viator pedestris, Mundus, Justitia, Angelus, Sol, Luna, Stella, Ignis, Diabolus, Mors, Patibulum, Senex, Rotae Fortunae, Propugnaculum, Amor, Currus, Temperantia, Summus Pontifex, Papissa, Imperator, Imperatrix, Minimus & denique Stultus”, pp. 237-238. It should be known that the expression "new invention" in the Renaissance could refer to something conceived even 20-25 years before. See the essay The Prince.
2 - The order described by Garzoni corresponds, in our opinion, to that of the original at the time when the Tarot became 22. Read on this the essay The Order of the Triumphs, and, for their meaning together, the section “The Celestial Harmony” in the essay The History of the Tarot.
3 - Edition of reference:: Tomaso Garzoni da Bagnacavallo, La Piazza Universale di tutte le professioni del Mondo [The Universal Plaza of all the professions in the World], Venezia, Pietro Maria Bertano, 1638, pp. 316v-317r.
4 - ‘The Gratiani, the Magnifici, the Zani’ are personages in the Commedia dell’Arte.
5 - That is to say, those students would have given the best of themselves over the course of time.
6 - Italian translation (La cultura spirituale di Babilonia), Milano, 1982, pp. 83-88 / 101-102.
7 - Alfredo Cattabiani, Calendario. Le Feste, i miti, le leggende e i riti dell’anno [Calendar: the Festivals, myths, legends and rites of the year], Milano, 1988, p. 153.
8 - Sebastian Brant, The Ship of Fools, ‘Introduction’, Italian translation, Milano, 1984.
9 - Read in this regard the iconographic essay The Fool and the essay Folly and ‘Melancholia’