Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

An enigma in 'Orlando Furioso'

From the poem an hypothesis on the existence of cartomancy in the XVth century


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


In the Italian language are found different expressions or locutions, used in a figurative sense, derived from games of cards. For example, "put your cards on the table" is derived from the language of the players, who in many games are required to lay their cards on the table to put into effect the counting of points. Because in general the players do not have to see the cards of others or show theirs, not knowing in advance the moves and having freedom of play, "to play with uncovered cards" and "to uncover one’s own cards " in a figurative sense means to reveal clearly one’s plans, one’s intentions, without "cheating" and therefore without misleading.


Below we list the most common expressions (1) used in a figurative sense, arising from card playing:


mettere le carte in tavola [put one’s cards on the table] = state clearly and truthfully a situation, without hiding anything; disclose one’s intentions, plans or similar; act openly, without subterfuge.

avere buone carte [to hold a good hand] = have a good chance of success.

giocare a carte scoperte [play fairly; literally, “play with uncovered cards”] = not hide anything.

giocare una carta [play a card ] = make recourse to something expedient, make an attempt, more or less risky.

giocare una buona carta [play one’s cards right/well, literally, “play a good card”] = resort to an expedient that is considered a winner.

giocare l’ultima carta [play one’s last card] = play everything out, resort to the last expedient.

giocare tutte le proprie carte [play all one’s cards] = do everything in one’s means.

imbrogliare le carte [literally: “confuse the cards”] = purposely create confusion, uncertainty and misunderstanding.

arrischiare una carta [risk a card] = make a risky endeavor.

cambiare le carte in tavola [similar to “move the goalposts”; literally, “exchange the cards on the table”; also, with the same meaning, exchange the cards in your hand with someone]  =  modify in a sly and not very correct way their positions. Give a new meaning to what has been said, interpret the words of another in a different sense from the right one, change the terms of a question, to pretend to ignore what's was promised. .

giocare la propria carta [play the right cards] = use all available resources to succeed in the enterprise.

scoprire le proprie carte [give the game away; literally, “uncover one’s cards”] = reveal one’s strategies and intentions.

giocare l’ultima carta [play one’s last card] = make a last-ditch effort.

tenere la carta bassa [hold/keep one’s cards close to one’s chest; literally, “keep the low card”] = hide their intentions.


We have introduced these idioms for a careful evaluation of an expression that Ariosto uses in a verse of his Orlando Furioso, where he describes the events that happened to the pagan knights Ruggero and Astolfo following their meeting with Alcina, a fairy who together with her sisters Morgana and Logistilla lived in an enchanted palace beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Like the sorceress Circe, Alcina also turned the lovers in whom she felt less interest into animals or plants, as happened to Astolfo who found himself transformed into a myrtle.


Alcina, thanks to her powers, appeared to unwary strangers as a beautiful woman with extraordinary charm. Here is how Ariosto describes the moment she welcomes Ruggero into her splendid palace, surrounded by people of youth and great beauty (2):


Canto VII




La bella Alcina venne un pezzo inante,

Verso Ruggier fuor de le prime porte,

E lo raccolse in signoril sembiante,

In mezo bella e onorata corte.

Da tutti gli altri tanto onore, e tante

Riverentie fur fatte al guerrier forte,

Che non ne potrian far più, se tra loro

Fosse Dio sceso dal superno coro.


(The beautiful Alcina came forward, a little way out from the first entrance doors of the palace, toward Ruggiero, and received him with stately ways, in the midst of a fine and estimable court. All the others made to the strong warrior so many honors and so much reverence that they could not have done more if in their midst were God descended directly from Heaven)




Non tanto il bel palazzo era eccellente,

Perchè vincesse ogn’altro di ricchezza,

Quanto ch' havea la più piacevol gente,

Che fosse al mondo, e di più gentilezza.

Poco era l' un dal' altro differente

E di fiorita etade, e di bellezza.

Sola di tutti Alcina era più bella;

Sì come è bello il Sol più d' ogni stella.


(The beautiful palace was so much superior to others not because it had no equal in wealth, but because it was inhabited by the most pleasant people, with the kindest of ways that there could be in the world. Each was little different from the others in youth and beauty: only Alcina surpassed the others in beauty, just as the sun is more beautiful than any other star)




Di persona era tanto ben formata,

Quanto me' finger san pittori industri,

Con bionda chioma, lunga, e annodata;

Oro non è, che più risplenda e lustri.

Spargeasi per la guancia delicata

Misto color di rose, e di ligustri.

Di terso avorio era la fronte lieta,

Che lo spazio finia con giusta meta.


(Her person was so well formed, so much more than the most skilled painters can make, with long, knotted blonde hair: there is no gold that is more resplendant and shining. Along her delicate cheek spread a mixed color of roses and lilies; like limpid ivory was her happy face, which filled the space within fitting bounds)




Sotto due negri, e sottilissimi archi

Son due negri occhj, anzi due chiari Soli,

Pietosi à riguardare, à mover parchi,

Intorno à cui par ch' Amor scherzi, e voli,

E ch' indi tutta la faretra scarchi,

E che visibilmente i cori involi.

Quindi il naso per mezo il viso scende,

Che non trova l'invidia ove l'emende.


(Under two black, thin arches were two black eyes, or rather two radiant suns, benevolent in regard, slow in movement, around which it seems that the god Amor flies and plays, because of which he has cast all his arrows and so openly steals hearts; then from here at the nose the face descends, on which not even envy could find a defect)




Sotto quel sta, quasi fra due vallette,

La bocca, sparsa di natio cinabro.

Quivi due filze son di perle elette,

Che chiude e apre un bello e dolce labro:

Quindi escon le cortesi parolette,

Da render molle ogni cor rozo e scabro.

Quivi si forma quel soave riso,

Ch' apre a sua posta in terra il Paradiso.


(Under the nose is found, between two small dimples, the mouth sprinkled with a natural red; here are found two rows of rare pearls, that a beautiful and gentle lip opens and closes, from which leave sweet and kind words such as to soften every churl, every crude and rough heart; here forms that sweet smile, which opens, at her pleasure, paradise on earth)




Bianca nieve è il bel collo; e ‘l petto latte;

Il collo è tondo, il petto è colmo e largo,

Due pome acerbe, e pur d’avorio fatte,

Vengono e van, come onda al primo margo

Quando piacevol aura il mar combatte.

Non potria l’altre parti veder’ Argo:

Ben si può giudicar, che corrisponde

A quel ch’appar di fuor, quel che s’asconde.


(Snow white is the beautiful neck, the bosom is milk, the neck is round, the bosom is broad and full, with two breasts small and firm, hard as ivory, that come and go with her breath like waves on the extreme edge of the beach, when a nice breeze strikes the sea. Nor could Argus, with his hundred eyes, see the other parts of her body; one can with good reason believe that what remains hidden matches what can be admired from outside)




Mostran le braccia sue misura giusta.

E la candida man spesso si vede,

Lunghetta alquanto, e di larghezza angusta,

Dove nè nodo appar, nè vena eccede.

Si vede al fin de la persona augusta

Il breve, asciutto, e ritondetto piede.

Gli angelici sembianti nati in cielo

Non si ponno celar sotto alcun velo.


(The arms show their just proportions, and the white hand often appears somewhat long and tapered, on which cannot be seen any gnarl, nor any protruding vein. To finish the majestic person is seen the little foot, dry but well-rounded. They, born in heaven, who have an angelic look cannot be hidden under any veil)




Havea in ogni sua parte un laccio teso,

O parli, ò rida, ò canti, ò passo mova.

Nè meraviglia è se Ruggier n' è preso,

Poi che tanto benigna se la trova.

Quel, che di lei già havea dal mirto inteso, (1)

Com' è perfida e ria, poco li giova.

Ch' inganno ò tradimento non gli è aviso,

Che possa star con sì soave riso.


(1)  Astolfo, transformed by the sorceress into a myrtle tree, had told Ruggero to beware of Alcina.


(Every part of her body was a snare to catch lovers, whether speaking or laughing or singing or moving in steps: it is no wonder, then, if Ruggiero was caught in a trap, finding so much good against it. What in this regard the myrtle (into which Astolfo has been transformed) had understood of her, of how she was wicked and cruel, he needs little, since it does not seem possible that deception and betrayal can live with such a joyful smile).


Ruggero is so enthralled by the radiant beauty of the woman that he will not succeed in seeing the evil nature of the beloved, the nature of which Astolfo had previously warned. After a sumptuous banquet, the sorceress proposes a game: "in which each one asks, in  the ear of the other - that is the manner they like best - some secret" [i.e. something that can’t be talked about in public] (Canto VII, XXI). The game ends with a night of love between Ruggero and Alcina.


We do not summarize here the events that see Ruggero live his days happily in the company of the sorceress Alcina. We only remember that Bradamante, a champion [paladina] of France in love with Roger, who will marry him at the end - after Ruggero’s inevitable conversion to Christianity - and from whose union Ariosto will have the house of Este descend, as before him Boiardo had invented as well, will deliver to Melissa the sorceress a magic ring that once belonged to Angelica (3), with which the fairy might open the eyes of foolish Ruggero. Melissa therefore assumes the guise of the magician Atlante who, fearing for Ruggero’s life, had operated so as to remove him from the snares of the world to make him live happily in the court of Alcina. She catches with a spell the witch's heart for love of the knight, with a snare so strong that he could never turn elsewhere. Now in the presence of Ruggero Atlante rebukes him for having forgotten all his teachings; they would have brought him to do glorious deeds and not spend an idle life. Ruggiero, who had been raised by the magician Atlante and subject to his authority, mute and full of shame, agrees to put the ring on his finger so as to realize the true likeness of Alcina.


It should be remembered that the topos of the ring equipped with special functions is widely present in all cultures since ancient times, without mentioning the medieval poems that stage a magic ring, such as those that made Angelica and Argalia nvisible in the Orlando Innamorato of Boiardo.


The magic ring has a double meaning: if put on the finger, it has an antinomian function, as it overrides all other spells: "against the evil of a spell it has medicine" (III - 79); but put in the mouth it renders one invisible. Its most important action will be that of ‘interpretar le carte’ and uncovering the truth hidden under the beautiful appearance of Alcina’s island.


Here are the sonnets in which Ariosto describes the image that Ruggiro had of Alcina after he put the ring on his finger:




Come fanciullo, che maturo frutto

Ripone, e poi si scorda, ove è riposto;

E dopo molti giorni è ricondutto

Là, dove trova à caso il suo deposto;

Si meraviglia di vederlo tutto

Putrido e guasto, e non come fu posto;

E, dove amarlo, e caro haver solia,

L'odia, sprezza, n' ha schivo, e’l getta via.


(Like a child who leaves around a ripe fruit and then forgets where he put it, after many days searching in that place and by chance finding that which he had lost and is surprised to see ir completely rotteb and broken, not in the condition in which he had left it, and whereas before he used to love it and hold it dear, now he despises it, finds it disgusting, and throws it away)




Così Ruggier, poi che Melissa fece,

Ch'a riveder se ne tornò la Fata,

Con quell'anello, innanzi à cui non lece,

Quando s'ha in dito, usare opra incantata.

Ritrova, contra ogni sua stima, in vece

De la bella, che dianzi havea lasciata,

Donna sì laida, che la terra tutta

Nè la più vecchia havea, nè la più brutta.


(In the same way Ruggiero, after Melissa advised in such fashion that he could come back to see the sorceress Alcina, with that ring before which it is not possible, when the finger is inserted, to employ spells, finds, against every expectation, instead of the beautiful woman he had left a little earlier, a woman so horrible that on all the earth there does not exist one uglier and older than she)




Pallido, crespo e macilento havea

Alcina il viso, il crin raro, e canuto.

Sua statura à sei palmi non giungea.

Ogni dente di bocca era caduto;

Che più d' Ecuba, e più de la Cumea,

Et havea più d'ogn' altra mai vivuto.

Ma sì l'arti usa, al nostro tempo ignote,

Che bella e giovenetta parer puote.


(Pale, wrinkled and haggard was the face of Alcina, meager and white her hair, who did not reach the stature of six palms in height: each tooth in her mouth was already gone; for longer than Hecuba, longer than the Cumean Sibyl and longer than anyone else she had lived, she had no equal in age, but so skillfully knew how to use the magic arts, unknown to our time, as to be able to look beautiful and young)




Giovane, e bella ella si fa con arte,

Sì, che molti ingannò, come Ruggiero.

Ma l’anel venne à interpretar le carte,

Che già molti anni havean celato il vero.

Miracol non è dunque, se si parte

De l'animo à Ruggiero ogni pensiero,

Ch' havea d' amor’ Alcina, or che la trova

In guisa, che sua fraude non le giova.


(She looked beautiful and young thanks to the spells, and had deceived many other men as she had Ruggiero, but the ring came now to reveal the truth, her true appearance, which for many years had been hidden behind a spell. So it is no miracle that from his soul left every possible thought that Ruggiero had of loving Alcina, now that he found her before him in a condition in which none of her deception could come to her aid)


For lovers of happy endings, we will say that Ruggiero was able to escape on the back of Rabican, the horse that belonged to Astolfo, and then to leave the island permanently by mounting the Hippogriff, the winged horse that had brought him to that island on command of the magician Atlante. Astolfo, who had been transformed into a myrtle by Alcina, came to be liberated by Rurggiero.


The passage of our interest concerns the manner in which the ring uncovered the appearnance of Alcina, revealing the true nature of the sorceress, described by Ariosto in sonnet 74 as follows:


“Ma l’anel venne à interpretar le carte

Che già molti anni havean celato il vero”:


(But the ring came to interpret the carte [cards or pages]

Which already for many years had hidden the truth)


The term interpretar [to interpret] leaves perplexities, since it is possible that Ariosto has chosen this verb having in mind the interpretative attitude that in the cards is put into effect when it changes to a cartomantic practice. In fact, in cartomancy, the cards are to be interpreted and not disclosed or uncovered; these terms refer to the figures placed in plain sight. Carte that for many years, writes Ariosto, had hidden the truth to all. As we pointed out at the beginning of this essay, there are many expressions in our spoken language derived from the game of cards. Interpretar le carte means, figuratively, "to interpret the truth” and not “to put the record straight" or "to uncover the truth" which is a logical consequence of the interpretation. This last suggests intellectual, rational action, aimed precisely to discover the truth and not to reveal it sic et simpliciter [thus and simply] (4).


So writes Laura Giannetti Ruggiero about the ring: "His most important action will be to ‘interpretare le carte’ (VII -74) and discover the 'vero' [true] that lurks beneath the beautiful appearance of the island of Alcina. The ring thus has to do with reason and with the all-human act of interpretation. The apparent antinomy in the representation of the ring, which contains in itself magic and rationality, does it allude to the creativity of the human mind, the power of the Renaissance magus, who can marry the earth to the sky? It should not be forgotten that at the time of Ariosto the distinction, which operates in modern times, between magic and science, or magic and rational knowledge, was not so obvious. The two intersected and mingled, as in the figures of the alchemists-wizards-writers-astrologers who were Agrippa and Paracelsus or Cardan. In the Renaissance 'magic is nothing more than the practical part of natural science' " (5).


Ariosto copied almost verbatim two lines of Petrarch’s Sonnet IV, when, speaking of Christ, who came to earth to reveal the truth of Moses and other Prophets who had hitherto concealed the truth about the coming of the Messiah, he writes:


Venendo in terra a ‘lluminar le carte

Ch’avean molt’anni già celato vero.


(Coming to earth to illuminate the carte [here, pages]

Which had for many years concealed the truth.)


The complete sonnet follows:


Que' ch'infinita providentia et arte

      mostro nel suo mirabil magistero,

      che crio questo et quell'altro hemispero,

      et mansueto piu Giove che Marte,

      vegnendo in terra a 'lluminar le carte

      ch'avean molt'anni gia celato il vero,

      tolse Giovanni da la rete et Piero,

      et nel regno del ciel fece lor parte.

      Di se nascendo a Roma non fe' gratia,

      a Giudea si, tanto sovr'ogni stato

      humiltate exaltar sempre gli piacque;

      ed or di picciol borgo un sol n'a dato,

      tal che natura e 'l luogo si ringratia

      onde si bella donna al mondo nacque.


He who showed infinite providence and art

       in his marvelous workmanship,

       who created this and the other hemisphere

       and Jove more gentle than Mars,

       who, coming to earth to illuminate the pages [carte]

       that for many years had hidden the truth,

       took John from the nets and Peter,

       and gave them their portion in the kingdom of heaven.

       He, when he was born, did not bestow himself on Rome,

       But rather on Judea, so beyond all other states

       It pleased him always to exalt humility;

       And now from a small village He has given us a sun,

       Such that Nature is thanked and the place

       Where such a beautiful woman was born to the world.


[Translator’s note: this translation is that of Robert R. Durling, ed. and trans.,  Petrarch's Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Lyrics, p. 38, in Google Books]


Petrarch uses the verb illuminare [to illuminate], that is, bring to light, to understand, and not interpretar, which suggests another action. We must point out that “carte” should be here understood as documents (since we are talking, among other things of the Holy Scriptures), and that the term “carta “is used in this sense today in our [Italian] language, giving rise to a series of expressions to decipher figuratively (6). It is an expression of Petrarch’s which cannot be put in relation with the verses of Ariosto, because the ring does not bring to light any documents, but puts his cards on the table, reveals the truth thanks to the interpretation.


Ariosto, writing interpretar le carte. obviously does not intend to emphasize a cartomantic action, but essentially a divinatory one in so far as the ring, by its magic prerogative, was able to understand the truth. Inserting this specific verb and knowing at the same time that it expresses a concept in the figurative sense derived from cards, most likely it is possible that Ariosto may have been inspired by the interpretative action that the magicians adopted in using the cards themselves. This confirms our theory of the existence of this art in Italy during the fifteenth century (7). When you consider the fact that Ariosto began writing the work between 1504 and 1507 and that the editio princeps appeared in print in 1516, a hypothetical date of onset of cartomancy must be identified, keeping as a reference this work, in about twenty years prior to the writing of the same.



by Michael S. Howard



Andrea's essay focuses on two lines in Furioso,


Ma l’anel venne à interpretar le carte
Che già molti anni havean celato il vero..


(But the ring came to interpret the carte
Which already for many years had hidden the truth)

The question is how to understand “interpretar le carte” - whether it is “interpretation” as one would figure out the meaning of pages in a book - “carte” in the sense of “pages” - or as interpreting a series of playing-cards - “carte” in a then relatively new sense, to designate what had previously been called “naibi” and “triumphi”. In the context of the poem, one or the other is a metaphor for how the ring reveals the sorceress’s true appearance.


In Ariosto’s day, as now, “carte” meant both “pages” - an established meaning - and “cards” - a new meaning. The metaphor of “interpretar le carte” could mean that the ring interprets the images of beauty that the sorceress has created by analogy to the way, for example, that Christian writers interpreted pagan writers on the gods to show their literal falsity, or that the birth of Christ interpreted the pages of the Old Testament. This last, as Andrea points out, is the same sense of “carte” as in Petrarch’s sonnet IV of Rime Sparse (translation from "Petrarch's Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Lyrics", Robert M. Durling, ed. and trans., p. 38).


Que' ch'infinita providentia et arte
mostro nel suo mirabil magistero,
che crio questo et quell'altro hemispero,
et mansueto piu Giove che Marte,
vegnendo in terra a 'lluminar le carte
ch'avean molt'anni gia celato il vero
tolse Giovanni da la rete et Piero,...


(He who showed infinite providence and art
in his marvelous workmanship,
who created this and the other hemisphere
and Jove more gentle than Mars,
who, coming to earth to illuminate the pages [carte]
that for many years had hidden the truth
took John from the nets and Peter..,)


Alternatively, “interpretar le carte” could mean that the ring interprets the images the sorceress created by analogy to the way in which a card-interpreter interprets playing cards, seeing behind the images on them to a hidden truth, different than what is literally depicted. And not just one card, but a series of them, as it is “le carte”. Such metaphors with playing-cards were and are common in everyday speech, both in Italian and in English, as Andrea reminds us: e.g. “he laid his cards on the table” meaning “he disclosed his ideas and plans”; or “he played his cards close to the chest”, meaning “he kept his plans and ideas to himself”. (In the poem, the ring does both: put on the finger, it reveals the truth; put in the mouth, it makes the bearer invisible).


With “interpretar”, either pages or cards could be meant, depending on the context. Which is it here? Looking at other translations of Furioso, I see that one in 1831 by William Stewart Rose, an English friend of the exiled poet and critic Ugo Foscolo (Guido Waldman, Orlando Furioso: an English prose translation, 1974, p. xv), says "interpreted the book":


By art she gave herself the lovely look,
Which had on many like Rogero wrought;
But now the ring interpreted the book,
Which secrets, hid for many ages, taught.

"Carte" of course does not mean "book"; this is a free translation, where faithfulness to rhyme and meter as well as meaning play a role. "Book" is merely another way of saying "the pages", but rhyming with "look", and its effect is being compared to that which gives the true meaning of a book misunderstood until then.


On the other hand, Waldman's 1974 prose translation (Oxford U. Press, p. 69) has "cards": "But now, with the ring, he could read the cards aright and see the truth which for so many years had been kept hidden".


Likewise, a translation of this stanza in Claire Carroll, The Orlando Furioso: a Stoic Comedy, (Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, Tempe, Arizona, p. 227) has: "But the ring came to interpret the cards, which had already for many years hidden the truth".


Yet even Waldman translates every other occurrence of "carte" in Furioso - 13 of them - as "pages", "written accounts" etc. (I did a search of the text in Italian at and then compared each with his translation).


However, it is not only the context within the poem, which as far as I can tell does not choose between the two. We can also look to the context of the writer and his audience at the time and place in question.


We learn some of the circumstances of this composition from Alberto Cassadei (The History of the Furioso, pp. 55-70 of Ariosto Today, Toronto 2003, p. 57): "In all probability Ariosto began working on the Furioso around 1504-5. It is commonly accepted that he narrated a fair bit of the poem to Isabella d’Este, wife of Francesco Gonzaga, during the first part of 1507. It is noted that on 3 February of that year Isabella wrote from Mantua to her brother Ippolito, to whom Ariosto had dedicated the poem, to let him know that the narration of the new episodes of Orlando and the Paladins had given her great pleasure".


And in 1509, Duke Alfonso, writing to Cardinal Ippolito, is quoted as follows Ariosto Today p. 33, in an essay by Antonio Franceschetti): ”We would like you to send us that addition which messer Lucovico Ariosto made to the Orlando inamorato”. Of the three, according to Gioergio Masi (Ariosto Today p. 75) “the only one to demonstrate genuine attention and, dare I say, passion for Ariosto’s origins ... was certainly Isabella”.


I would expect that this appreciation, expressed first by Isabella and continued consistently by her thereafter, would have had an effect on what the poet wrote. I think there is abundant evidence of that in the poem, especially in the first third or so. Here is one example (out of many), from Canto I, that seems to be written with Isabella in mind. A knight, in this case Muslim, spying a lady alone in the forest, thinks that one way or another this is his chance to enjoy her charms. But just then another knight comes by, with his helmet closed, and the first knight cannot resist challenging him. The result is that the first knight's horse is killed colliding with the second knight's horse, and the second knight and horse resume their journey without a word. The lady tells the knight, pinned beneath his dead horse, that he was surely the winner, since the other would not stay; then she pulls him out from under his horse. At that point a messenger comes by, and the knight learns that the one who sent him to the ground was a Christian lady. He is so embarrassed that he gives up on his plan and simply helps the lady, riding with her on her horse.


We don’t, of course, know what changes in Furioso Ariosto made from 1507 to 1509, or even up to 1516, when it was first published, in 40 cantos. After that, Cassadei says, the revisions were mainly toward the end.


What was Isabella's attitude toward cartomancy?  She was reported by her contemporary Paolo Giovio, Bishop of Nocera, as having “Lotto cards with the mystic number XXVII” (Julia Cartwright, Isabella d’Este, Marchionesse of Mantua, 1474-1539; this book also has numerous references to the Estense passion for card-playing). “Lotto”, like “lot” in English, means “lot”, ambiguous between “chance” and “fate”, as in the “lot-books” of the day. A bundle of such cards or papers was a favorite device of Isabella’s, meaning “the vicissitudes of fortune”.

(see my essay here at


There is something else that seems to me relevant. In 1508 a minor poet just one year older than Ariosto was brutally murdered. The victim was Ercole Strozzi, son of Tito Vespasiano Strozzi; the elder Strozzi had written the epic Borsiade to memorialize Borso d'Este, and he was a first cousin of Matteo Boiardo, author of Orlando Inamorato. Ariosto’s mistress (or secret wife) was of the same family (on these Strozzi, see Wikipedia). Ercole Strozzi was found dead on a Ferrara street one morning with his hair pulled out and 22 stab wounds in his body.


Historians do not disagree as to the number of wounds, although they have about who had him killed. In 1904 Ferdinand Gregorovius (, p. 326) showed that Ercole Strozzi had served as the courier of secret letters between Ippolito’s brother Alfonso’s wife, Lucrezia Borgia, and Isabella’s husband, Francesco Gonzaga (quoted by "Huck" -Lothar Teikemeier- at Gregorovius theorized that Ercole had been charmed into this dangerous mission by Lucrezia (somewhat as Alcina had charmed Ruggiero in Ariosto’s story!). As to the culprit, he noted that Duke Alfonso, "who had always shown himself an unyielding supporter of the law, allowed the matter to drop". Sarah Bradford, in a 2004 biography of Lucrezia, endorses Gregorovius's suspicions and argues that the murder was likely committed by Masino del Forno, a thug employed by “the senior Este brothers” (Lucrezia Borgia p. 283; for lengthy quotes, see my posts on THF at: ff). 

The hair was a trademark of his; just the year before, he had grabbed one of Ippolito’s chamberlains by the hair while arresting him. Historians do not speculate on the significance of the number 22 here; but to me the murder would seem to be in the nature of a prediction of the fate to befall the pair - Lucrezia and Francesco, one or both - if they persisted in pursuing their affair. The body is like a tarot spread, which is not hard to interpret.  Francesco scrupulously avoided any compromising situation, secret or not, from then on. Pope Julius II later reached a similar conclusion, after interrogating the captured Masino, accusing “those brothers-in-law of his” of wanting to kill Francesco, as Bradford documents (p. 304; but Julius was hardly a disinterested party, wanting Francesco to command his army vigorously against Alfonso despite his affection for Lucrezia; fortunately for all three, Julius died in the nick of time).


Ariosto was writing for Ippolito, Isabella, posterity, and himself, in roughly reverse order. Considering these audiences, it seems to me that Ariosto probably intended an ambiguous reading for “interpretar le carte”, using “Aesopian language” and the principle of deniability. By that last I mean that he could deny any knowledge of cartomancy if questioned: “I only meant ‘pages’”, he could tell an Inquisitor if needed. To an educated priest, accustomed to interpreting texts for others, the word “carte” in fact would likely only mean “pages”, and the passage would be understood as a clever reference to Petrarch and perhaps a playful analogy with the magical birth of Christ in Petrarch's poem. But for the Estense and their ilk, familiar with card-playing and sortilege (literally, the “reading of fate”), it would also mean “cards”, interpreted by some mysterious means, in a way that the person concerned can feel to be true more powerfully and immediately than with mere logic. Such, precisely, is the effect of the ring. He was told it was a magic ring and was given it by an avowed enchantress; so he could just as well have decided that the ring, in order to make him fall under some other woman's spell, makes a genuinely beautiful and good woman appear ugly and malicious. But that is not what happens. Octave 65 tells the story from inside Ruggioero's head:


Ruggier si stava vergognoso e muto
mirando in terra, e mal sapea che dire;
a cui la maga nel dito minuto
pose l'annello, e lo fe' risentire.
Come Ruggiero in se fu rivenuto,
di tanto scorno si vide assalire,
ch'esser vorria sotterra mille braccia,
ch'alcun veder non lo potesse in faccia.


(Ruggiero stood shamefaced and mute,
Looking at the ground, not knowing what to say;
The ring the enchantress put 
On his little finger returned him to his senses ["returned him to reality", Waldman says].
As Ruggiero felt himself again ["Coming to himself" Waldman says]
He assailed himself with so much scorn,
He wished himself a thousand feet below [ground],
So that no one could look him in the face).


The ring frees him from illusion and restores him to "himself". It is like what Folengo's sonnets were intended to do, in his poem, for the people who had drawn the cards they did (on this see Andrea's essay Il Torracchione Desolato).


Wikipedia defines “Aesopian language” as “communications that convey an innocent meaning to outsiders but hold a concealed meaning to informed members of a conspiracy or underground movement”. This style of writing (which must be distinguished from the use of euphemisms, which Wikipedia's article falls into) is a common one. The most familiar example is rock song lyrics' allusions to drug-induced states. It doesn't take a signed statement by the author of the song to know what “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” means, in its less obvious implicit sense.People who gre up in Poland tell me that in the 1980s there, rock song lyrics had political double meanings, related to the underground Solidarity movement. Films under Communism frequently had double meanings, too; the authorities either didn’t know the subculture meanings or countered them with more acceptable interpretations (example: Feliks Falk’s satirical “Hero of the Year”, which won prizes in 1987 Moscow: If questioned, the people involved could say that nothing of the sort had occurred to them. The same would have been true in Ariosto’s day, but with different dominant culture and subcultures. The dominant culture was that of the Church, and the subcultures were those of card-playing and card-interpreting.


Just what this carte-interpreting claimed to do is unclear. In the poem, the ring does not make any predictions; it just restores the person to "himself". I suspect that among a certain elite that was the purpose of "interpreting the cards": to tell people what they already knew, or could easily find out, but also in some way did not want to know. That might be the case with Folengo's tarocchi sonnets. Whether that was true about "interpreting the cards" in general at that time is another matter. The throwing of cards into a ring, in the 14th century poem that Andrea writes about at the end of Il Torracchione Desolato, also makes no predictions; it simply tells one where the enemy troops are. But that is a bit more magical and mysterious; it is the foundation for advice from premises which the person advised did not know to be true.  From therapy to advice to prediction, in a culture where fortune-telling was rampant, is not a big couple of jumps.


Postscript: I find one other occurrence of "carte" in Furioso to be of interest. Canto 46 Octave 89, part of a panegyric to his patron Ippolito d'Este, done in the form of an ekphrasis, the literary device of telling a story by means of narrating a visual representation of it, in this case a fictional tapestry.  The poet-narrator says that it was woven by "a Trojan damsel with a prophetic gift" (i.e. Cassandra) for her brother Hector; however, what it portrays, he says, is none other than the life of Ariosto's patron Ippolito d'Este. Ippolito himself died in 1520. These octaves were probably among the additions first published in 1532 (Ariosto Today p. 59). (In my view the praise can be interpreted somewhat ironically, like many other passages in the poem, given what Ariosto, who in one poem called himself a "nightingale in a cage" [Satire 3.37, quoted in Ariosto Today p. 80ff], knew about Ippolito). The Octave I want to highlight celebrates Ippolito as a young pupil of his tutor Fusco:


Quivi si vede, come il fior dispensi
de' suoi primi anni in disciplina ed arte.
Fusco gli e appresso, che gli occulti sensi
chiari gli espone de l'antiche carte.
- Questo schivar, questo seguir conviensi,
se immortal brami e glorioso farte, -
par che gli dica: cosi avea ben finti
i gesti lor chi gia gli avea dipinti.


(Here he can be seen spending the flower
of his early years in discipline and art,
Below can be seen Fusco, who explains clearly
the hidden meanings of the ancient pages.[carte]
"This must be avoided, this followed,
if you yearn for immortality and glorious deeds,"
he appears to be saying: so well has
the artist depicted their gestures.

Here "l'antiche carte" has the primary meaning of "the old pages", which Waldman (p. 567) translates as "the classics". But "gli occulti sensi chiari gli espone"  - "explains clearly the hidden meanings" - has a very similar meaning to the "interpretar" of Octave 74, Canto VII. Moreover, guidance in what actions are to be followed or avoided is just what would be expected from the interpretation of cards. In that way, given the previous ambiguity of "carte", the same applies, less clearly, to "antiche carte": it might take the secondary meaning of "old cards". By 1532 the tarot was almost a century old at least, and even by 1516 its origin probably was already obscure. In any case, it is clear that from an early age, humanists and their pupils were accustomed to looking for "hidden meanings" in texts, pictures (e.g. the tapestry the poet is describing), and other things.




1 - See: La Dizionario italiano, online at link and The Enciclopedia Italiana. Vocabolario online at link

 2 - Our edition of reference: Orlando Furioso di M. Ludovico Ariosto, Revisto et Ristampato, sopra le correttioni di [Revised and Reprinted, with the corrections of] Ieronimo Ruscelli, In Lyone, Appresso  Gugliel. Rovillio, 1580.

3 - Angelica, Princess of Cathay, is one of the heroines recounted in the Orlando Innamorato of Boiardo. The magic ring was stolen by the Muslim thief Brunello, to arrive later in the Orlando Furioso in the hands of Bradamante who took it to Brunello.

4 - So the Vocabolario di Italiano Sabatini Coletti [Vocabulary of Italian Sabatini Coletti]: Interpret = Clarify, explain something obscure; often with specification of the way . Deriv: Interprete in the “Dizionario Etimologico Ottorino Pianigiani” connotes with the prerogatives of cognition and intelligence.

5 - Laura Giannetti Ruggiero, L’incanto delle parole e la magia del discorso nell’Orlando Furioso [The spell of words and the magic of speech in Orlando Furioso], Pennsylvania State University, Italica 2001. Update January 8th, 2013, p. 159.

Online at link

6 - A few examples will suffice in this regard: Fare carte false [Making false papers], to do anything to achieve a purpose / Pezzo di carta [piece of paper], act without official value; "that document is just a piece of paper" / Give carta bianca, give full freedom of action / sulla carta [on paper], in theory.

7 - Please read the essays Il Torracchione Desolato and The Castle of Malpaga.