Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Bagatto (Magician)


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1995


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, September 2018


Directly related to this article is the essay El Bagatella which is the symbol of sin, to which we refer for complete information.


Poi ch’io sento chiarlare le persone

qual dicon ch’io non vaglio un bagatino

e ch’io non son un barbaro, ma un cozzone.


I hear people speaking of me

saying that I am not worth a bagatino (1)

and that I am not a barbarian, but a goat.


(1) bagatino = Venetian coin of little value.                              


                                              Giulio Cesare Croce (1550-1609)



[Translator’s note: The word “Bagatto”, unlike the English “Magician”, is a word that does not apply to anything but the tarot card. “Magician” does not quite capture the historical meaning of the card, unless he is understood as a street performer who does sleight of hand tricks. In English other names for this card are “The Juggler” and “The Mountebank”, both in archaic senses discussed briefly below].


The anonymous monk who authored the Sermones de Ludo calls this triumph “El Bagatella”, defining it with the words “est omnium inferior” (it is the lowest of all),  meaning it is of the  lowest value in the game, a judgment that coincided with the personage depicted, a bagattegliere, considered of very small status, a base person


In its Italian and foreign diffusion there are distinguishable three main currents regarding the word bagatella: in the first it means “small thing of little value”; in the second, “game [or entertainment] of sleight of hand or skill”, of which bussolotti, the game with cups and balls, is and was the most famous of the time; and in the third, “fraudulent actions, fraud”.


The word was used in these senses by many Italian authors, such as Aretino, Ariosto, and Vasari.


Aretino writes in his Astolfeida, Opera delettevole da leggere che contiene la Vita e Fatti de tutti li Paladini di Francia e di dove nacque la casa di Maganza e chi fu Gano e di che genti condizione fu la sua Genologia cosa bellissima d'Amore e gran Bataglie di Orlando e di Rinaldo (delightful work to read, containing the life and deeds of  all the French paladins, and of the birth of the House of Maganza, of who Gano was and of the noble condition of his genealogy, wonderful deeds of love, and the great battles of Orlando and Rinaldo”):


“Vivian vivachiava a scrocco in corte, / con tutti alzando il fianco a corpo sciolto; / Guicciardo, Alardo mai uscir le porte / di Montalban, che no li fussi tolto; mastro di spirti e bagatelle a sorte (1) fu Malagigi, e cangiò forma e volto, / come fean mastro Iaco e mastro Muccio / in Roma trarre ' ognun fino al cappuccio” (1).


(Vivian lived scrounging off the court, making bows to everyone; / Guicciardino and Alardo never leaving / from Montalbano Castle,  for fear of being taken by enemies; Malagigi was a  master of spirits [i.e. a necromancer] and of bagatelle [cheating] at chance (1) who changed his features and face / like master Iaco and master Muccio [also masters of cheating] did in Rome,/ stripping everyone from head to foot, including their hoods).


(1)    at chance = at random, that is, sometimes he chose to be a necromancer and sometimes a swindler.


La Cassaria was first written by Ariosto in prose, then in verse, between 1528 and 1529. Its title comes from a box that is at the center of the plot. The action develops in the Greek town of Metellino, and is nourished by the gags of two cunning servants, Volpino and Fulcio.


Volpino [from volpe, fox] is a servant to the miser Chrisobolo, whose son Erofilio (i.e. friend of Love) is in love with a girl held in slavery by the avaricious Lucrano [i.e. lucre]. To free her they accuse the usurer of having stolen a valuable box of gold yarn from Chrisobolo, which in reality had been transported there by another conspirator, disguised as Chrisobolo, as a pledge to free her. Unfortunately for the plan, the real Chrisobolo returns home unexpectedly, and Volpino has to devise one new deception after another.


The verses with the word 'bagatelle' are at a moment when Volpino sees his master Chrisobolo coming from afar. The servant knows that his 'patron' will get angry with him for not having completed a job assigned to him. The moment, however, becomes favorable for devising the trick at its best (as he thinks).


Volpino, to himself:


“Anzi l’hora è senza dubbio

Più presta che ’l bisogno e il desiderio

Nostro non era: anzi non potea giungere

Più a tempo. Venga, venga pur, che acconciomi

Son con la tasca (1), et un giuoco apparecchioli

Di bagatelle (2), il più bello e mirabile

Che si vedesse mai” (2)


(Indeed, the hour is, without doubt / Earlier than our need and desire / was [set for doing it]; But there could not be / A better time. Come, it happens that I’m organized/ It is with the pocket, and a game prepared (1) / Of bagatelle (2), the most beautiful and admirable / that was ever seen)


(1)  I am ready, it is with the pocket, = I am prepared

(2)  a game prepared of bagatelle = I have prepared deceits


Vasari, referring to the painter Giovanni Antonio  (known as “Il Soddoma da Verzelli” [The Sodom of Verzelli): “Ma egli ebbe sempre l'animo alle baie e lavorò a capricci, di niuna cosa maggiormente curandosi che di vestire pomposamente, portando giuboni di brocato, cappe tutte fregiate di tela d'oro, cuffioni ricchissimi, collane, et altre simili bagattelle e cose da buffoni e cantanbanchi” (3).


(But he had his mind always set on his amusements, and he worked by caprice, caring for nothing so earnestly as for dressing in pompous fashion, wearing doublets of brocade, cloaks all adorned with cloth of gold, the richest caps, necklaces, and other suchlike fripperies [bagatelle] only fit for clowns and charlatans [cantanbanchi, in English, “mountebanks”, literally those who mount platforms, that is, unlicensed people selling unapproved medicines or entertainers hired to attract a crowd for such a purpose])


In the Milanese dialect the word bàgát means “chatterbox” and the expression scart bàgát means “to make a long speech”, like those who undertook the medieval sleight of hand [prestigio] (and also those of today), to enchant their audience.


The figure of the Bagatto, sleight of hand artist par excellence, or clever charlatan, is represented in the Visconti-Sforza Tarot as a richly dressed personage sitting at a table on which appear a straw hat, a glass, a knife and two other small objects;; in his hand he holds a wand, a typical instrument of this profession (figure 1). In the d’Este Tarot (figure 2) our personage is depicted maneuvering in his profession in front of two youngsters.


People in the Middle Ages seem to have had an ambivalent attitude towards the “bagattelieri” (the term prestigiatore, i.e. prestidigitator or sleight of hand artist, is of the Renaissance era). Their shows ware generally well accepted, but their methods were often condemned, especially by Church people and magistrates, who sometimes banned them from performing in some cities. In 1250, Louis IX, for example, forbade the entrance of acrobats and bagattelieri into various French cities.


It was a very confused period, full of superstitions and fears of the occult,  witches and demons, and a man able to cut and restore a cloth handkerchief could easily be accused of being in league with the devil.


The disbelief that could be aroused, for example, by the game of bussolotti, the deception with balls and cups, the most well known sleight of hand trick practiced in Europe, can be deduced from the expression of amazement painted on the face of a bystander (figure 3) in the work attributed to the workshop of Hieronymus Bosch today called The conjurer (figure 4).  It is interesting to observe how, behind the character who appears stupefied, another is taking his money bag. In short, two deceivers at work. The painter is thus deriding the stupidity of the spectators who let them selves be cheated by the able prestidigitator (4).


A giocoliere [i.e. entertainer; the French equivalent, jongleur, became the English “juggler”, with the meaning not restricted to keeping balls in the air] with a typical jester’s hat is found on the card of the Rosenwald deck (figure 5), while it is possible to find a connection between the low value attributed to the work of the Bagatto with that of the “Artixan” or Artisan, which we find in the third card of the Tarot of Mantegna  (figure 6).


Finally, we have to remember that the activity of the sleight of hand artists  [giocolieri] was considered amongst those protected by the Moon, as we find in a miniature of the Codex De Sphaera (figure 7 - Children of the Moon, cod. est, lat. 209, 15th century) in the Estense Library in Modena, and in an engraving of the series of the Planets in the Mittelalterliches Hausbuch (The Book of the House) from the same century (figure 8 - Children of the Moon).


Anticipating what is written in a more expansive and detailed way in our essay El Bagatella which is the symbol of sin, the Bagatto in the tarot is to represent the man who, unlike the Fool, believes in God, but does not consider it necessary to keep the commandments to the letter. From this attitude comes the 'bagatella sin', one of the most execrable for the Catholic Church: "We are, in certain times, in which the gravest sins are esteemed bagatelle, galanterie, jokes, and pranks" (6).


The bagatello (as the name expressed) was considered a character of little value, a nothing [nonnulla], who used tricks and illusions to make money at the expense of the participants, given that at the time of their performance the prestidigitators performng in the streets urged those present to bet money on determining under which cup a little ball ended up, all the while knowing that through their tricks they would win.


In his "marvels" what seemed to be true in reality was only appearance and falsehood. A game of skill and dexterity that meant mischief and deceit. To demonstrate being able to turn in an instant into a whole piece of fabric that which was first divided into many parts, betrayed something magical. The bagatello was a magician [mago] of skill, but as we know, the Church condemned all forms of magic, including those utilizing tricks, because the enemy of God, namely the Devil, as the Cistercian Isaac de l'Etoile (ca. 1110-1167/69) expressed in one of his sermons, was the "author of a thousand tricks" (7).


The falsity of those who worked bagatelle, whether a prestidigitator or a master of deceit, was therefore to be united to the untruth of the adversary of God, an enemy of virtue. Anton Francesco Doni, Academic of Peregrino, in Marmi (1552-1553), puts into the mouth of Ghioro, after reading a book of maxims and exhortations, the following words: “Ghioro: Lieva Signore via de la Corte tua primamente, tutti gli adulatori; perche chi ama l’adulazione è nimico della verità. Scaccia i buffoni, bandisci i Cerretani, & i Maestri di Bagatella, conciosia che son tutti gente da beffe, & un Signore che sta sempre involto nelle cose leggieri, malvolentieri spedisce gravi negotij. Tutti i vagabondi, & gli instabili, sien sempre lontano da te; perche questi son nemici della virtù” (Ghioro: Sir, first take from the Court all the flatterers, because those who love flattery are the enemy of truth. Drive away the clowns, banish the charlatans [cerretani], & the masters of bagatella, because they are all people who do pranks, & a Lord who is always occupied in frivolous things reluctantly attends to serious business. All the vagabonds & the unstable, always have far from you, because these are the enemies of virtue" (8).


In a passage of Salterio di Gesù e Maria, the Breton Dominican Beato Alano de la Roche (1428 -1475) tells of the meeting of Saint Dominic with some infernal beasts. Upon the questioning of these last manifested, they will say they are "the fifteen Queens of hell, the seductresses of the world", exercizing command "over the magicians [maghi] themselves and the prestidigitators similar to them", and also on astrologers, inasmuch as "the premonitions that they pretend to foretell, as truths from the stars, are invented by our deceptions" (9).


All the members of this  type of person were placed at the bottom of the social ladder because they not only led dishonest lives, but they induced others to do so. The danger was twofold, as their sin was double. But the condemnation of the Church was not only addressed to them; with equal intensity the sentence also fell on their audience. They form the "familia diaboli," the family of the devil, standing opposite to all other trades, all other "states" now admitted into the family of Christ, the "familia Christi" (10).


On the other hand it could not be otherwise, since, as Jacques Le Goff writes on the concept of work in the Middle Ages "Man must work in the image of God. The work of God is the creation. Every profession that is not creative is therefore inglorious or inferior. You have to do like the farmer, who creates the crops, or at least like the artisan, who transforms the raw material in question. Not being able to create, we must transform - "mutare" -, modify - "emendare" - improve - "meliorare”. So the merchant is condemned, because he does not create anything. This is an essential mental structure of Christian society, nourished by a theology and morality that flourished in pre-capitalist regimes. The medieval ideology is materialistic in the strict sense. Only material production has value [among the people, that is, as opposed to the nobles and clergy, who serve God differently]. The abstract value defined by capitalist economy escapes it, is repugnant to it, is condemned by it” (11).


Later, in the 16th century, when the plazas are full of bagatellieri, their condemnation will remain firm and constant, for the vain and deceitful character of their actions. So writes Thomas Garzoni of Bagnacavallo in his Chapter on Creatori di spettacoli in generale, e dei cerretani o ciurmatori in particolare (Creators of spectacles in general, and of charlatans [cerretani, purveyors of fake medicine] or illusionists [ciurmatori] in particular), in his Piazza Universale di tutte le professioni del mondo (Universal Plaza of all professions in the world), edited in  1585: "But there is a certain sort of modern spectacle conceived by various kinds of charlatans [ceretani], of which I intend, to satisfy the  curiosity of the world, in this present  particularly to discuss. The ceritani [charlatans],who are so named for having originated from a castle in Umbria not far from Spoleto, which is named Cereto,  among the vile rabble have now acquired such credit that they get a major share of the competition for the public, and more pleased applause than excellent speakers of the divine word and honored professors of the sciences and applied arts, who can boast a small crowd of the public in comparison to that surrounding the cerretani. There was still some memory of this profession in the ancient world, since the bagatellieri, in Latin called gesticolatores, and according to the Greeks chironomi, got some moment of fame, giving pleasure with bagatelle and stupidities [...]. But in our times, the number and kinds of these have grown like weeds, so that for every city, every land, every plaza, one sees nothing but ceritani [charlatans] or street entertainers [cantinbanchi], who one could more easily call earnings-eaters than any other name. And all with vain arts and deceit they delude the minds of the populace, and entice their ears to hear their nonsense, their eyes to see the bagatelle (actions they carry out), and all their senses attentive to the ridiculous actions that they do in the plazas” (12).


This the original text:


“Ma ci è una certa sorte di spettacol moderno trovato da varie specie di Ceretani, del qual inten­do, per curiosità del mondo, in questo presente discorso particolarmente ragionare. I Ceretani adunque che così addimandati sono per haver tratto l’origine loro da un castello dell’Umbria poco lontano da Spoleto, il qual si nomina Cereto, fra la vilissima plebe s'hanno acquistato ormai credito tale che molto maggior concorso con più lieto applauso si fa loro, ch'a gl’eccellenti oratori del verbo divino, e agli honorati Catedranti delle Scienze, et arti ingenue, di picciola corona rispetto a loro circondati intorno. Fu di questa professione e qualche memoria an­cora presso a gl’antichi; essendo che i bagatellieri, latinamente detti Gesticolatores, et, secondo i Greci, chironomi, ottennero qualche nome fra loro, dando piacere con le bagatelle e frascherie […]. Ma a' tempi nostri, il numero et le specie di co­storo son cresciute a guisa della mal' erba, in modo, che per ogni città, per ogni terra, per ogni piazza, non si vede altro che Ceretani, o Cantinbanchi, che più pre­sto Mangiaguadagni puon dimandarsi che altramente. E tutti con vane arti et in­ganni illudono le menti del popolazzo, et allettano l'orecchia à sentir le frottole raccontate da loro, gli occhi à veder le bagatelle, i sensi tutti à stare attenti alle prove ridicolose, che in piazza fanno”.


The Abbé de Feller commenting on the work of Louis François Gauthier (1696-1780) in Traité contre l'amour des parures et de luxe des habits (Treatise against love of ornaments and luxury in clothes) (13) writes that "The title recalls the excellent treatise by the same author on Les mauvaises chansons [The bad songs] (14), a matter that the spirits of the century treat as bagatelle, and which is a major source of corruption of morals and unbridled libertinism, which throws into restlessness and desolation all levels of society" (Le titre de l'ouvrage rappelle l'excellent traité sur les mauvaises chansons, matière que le esprits dù siècle traitent de bagatelle et qui est une des grandes sources de la corruption des mœurs et du libertinage effréné qui inquiète et désole tous les états de la société) (15). Feller writes that Gauthier “wants, with St Paul, that women who profess Godliness (and the same goes for men) be dressed in decent clothes, and be adorned modestly". He adds that men who occupy themselves too much with their ornaments pass for effeminate, and women, for vain and easy. For, he says, if those women are chaste, their chastity at least does not appear in these bagatelles. They say that those ornaments give no reason to think the worst, but I reply that the Devil always thinks evil" (Il veut, avec S. Paul, que les femmes qui font profession de Piété, - & il en faut, dit-il, dire autant des hommes - soient vêtus d' Habits bienséans, & qu'elles soient modestement parées. Il ajoûte que les hommes qui s'occupent trop de leurs Parures, passent avec raison pour des efféminés, & les femmes pour être vaines & faciles. Car, dit-il, si elles ont de la chasteté; elle ne paroît pas au moins dans ces bagatelles. On dit qu'on n'y pense pas de mal; mais je réponds que le Diable en pense toujours).


Below, considering the work of Abbé Maydieu, Histoire de la vertueuse Portugaise, ou le modèle des femmes chrétiennes, on the education of the people (16), Feller writes: "On verra dans cet ouvrage des tableaux alarmans de tous les genres de vices, et sur-tout de que la dégradation celui des moeurs distinguishes par le nom bagatelle" (One will see in this work alarming reports of all kinds of vices, and especially those that the degradation of morals indicates by the name bagatelle), explaining in the following, in a note,  what this type of sin consists in: "The sin that degrades human nature the most, which enervates it, which blinds it, which deprives it of its nobility and legitimate pride, enslaves it to the most humiliating feelings, is called a bagatelle [bagatella in Italian]. It is indeed with reason that the Sage warns us, that the foolish man commits his crime in the manner of a joke. Quasi per risum stultus operatur scelus. Prov. X. 23. [A fool worketh mischief as it were for sport]" (17). (On appelle la bagatelle le péché qui degrade plus la nature humaine, qui l'énerve, qui l'aveugle, qui la depouillant de sa noblesse et d'une fierté legitime, l'asservit aux plus humiliantes sensations. C'est bien avec raison que le Sage nous avertit, que l'homme insensé commet le crime, par manière de badinage: Quasi per risum stultus operatur scelus. Prov. X. 23). 


The Church borrowed the term by which certain languages identified a sin of little importance, all in all a peccadillo, on the contrary elevating it, as the name and symbol of great guilt. Examples, as we reported in the essay El Bagatella which is the symbol of sin, are countless.


Among these, not caring much or not at all for his own soul, he spends the good time given by God in taking excessive care of his own body, in fun, in fighting, coming to regard as a mere bagatella even the Mass and the Eucharist.


The Dominican philosopher, theologian and poet Tommaso Campanella, born Giovanni Domenico Campanella (1568-1639), for his religious beliefs underwent five trials. One of the accusations concerned something that Campanella would have said to a friar, namely that the sacrament of the Eucharist was a bagatella and it was folly to believe that the body of Christ was present in the consecrated host (18).


The Church considered as bagatella sins even those behaviors that, at first glance, would give the impression of being light, venial peccadilloes. Below we report a piece by a cleric whose considerations can also be extended to conjurers when they won using tricks by betting with the public. A behavior that, even if apparently procuring a gain of little amount, derived from work considered sinful.


In fact, the theologian and abbot Michele Piano writes in one of his works on morality: "Quantunque io rubi non ho paura di dannarmi, non ho paura di fare peccato morte, perchè io rubo sempre picciole cose, bagatelle, che non sono di più di peccato veniale. Quella serva, per esempio, quel domestico, quel cuoco, sui denari, che li dà il padrone per la spesa, si tiene addietro tutti i giorni un soldo, un mezzo soldo per lui. Quel negoziante fa sempre la misura, il peso un poco scarso, un'oncia, una mezz'oncia per volta. Sono tutte bagatelle, materia leggiera, peccato veniale, che si scancella con l’acqua benedetta. Adagio, la mia cara gente, adagio. Ed io vi dico, che con queste bagatelle potete anche fare peccato mortale, […]; vi dico, che con queste bagatelle potete incaricarvi notabilmente la coscienza, e mettervi a pericolo di andare a casa del diavolo. A forza di bagatelle, oggi un soldo, domani un mezzo soldo, finalmente si fanno delle lire, dei testoni, dei scudi, e delle somme anche più grosse, di maniera che si è trovato chi a forza di quattrini ha rubato al Re dei milliaja, e milliaja di lire” (Even though I steal, I am not afraid of damnation, I am not afraid of sin, because I always steal little things, bagatelle, which are no more than venial sins. That servant, for example, that domestic, that cook, of the money that the master gives them for expenses, keeps every day a penny, half a penny for himself [or herself]. That shopkeeper always makes the measure, the weight a little less, an ounce, a half-ounce at a time. These are all bagatelle, light matter, venial sin, which is removed with holy water. Adagio, my dear people, slowly. And I tell you, that with these bagatelle you can also do a mortal sin, [...]; I tell you, that with these bagatelle you can conscientiously charge your conscience, and put yourself in danger of going to the devil's house. By dint of bagatelle, today a penny, tomorrow half a penny, finally make themselves lire, big coins, ducats, and even larger sums, in such a way that one is found who by force of quarter-pennies has stolen from the King millions and millions of lire) (19).


Commenting on the passage in Proverbs 52 we say, as already written elsewhere (20), that its fool is the Fool of the Tarot, who needs to come out of his position of non-believer to reach, even to become, following in the footsteps of the Saint of Assisi, the fool of God. The Bagatto believes in God, but believes he can overlook a lot of things imposed by the Church, considering them bagatelle, trivial things and of little value at the end in the Last Judgment.






Even if not expressly concerning this Triumph from the iconographic point of view, I think it might be of interest to know the following writings that I report from the work Il Serraglio de gli stupori del mondo [The Managerie of the amazements of the world] by Thomaso Garzoni da Bagnacavallo (21), a work of 1585, for three reasons: 


the first is  to understand the attitude that the people of the Renaissance took toward the games of the prestidigitators; 


the second is because  the word bagatteglieri appears in reference to those people who  conducted such activity, people considered base;


and third is for its examples that the author reports about Renaissance sleight of hand tricks [giochi di prestigio] done with cards and otherwise.






(Original text at the end of this Addenda)


“Most curious certainly, amazing, & without doubt desired by everyone is the matter of sleight of hand tricks; because everyone wants to satisfy their intellect in understanding the manner in which endless appearances are made to their eyes by this & of the other so many marvels, that their minds are amazed in certain way, & in gazing; however now I am going to make an effort to show diligently the truth of  things with as much brevity as  distinction, to the extent possible in this  particular (22).


Whence it is of note, that there are various kinds of conjuring tricks [prestigii];  there is a strong one that is called illusion or Performer of conjuring tricks [prestigio Giocolatiero], done in the form of comedy by base people, such as  Cerretani (1) and bagatteglieri [those who entertain with conjuring tricks], on the squares, & in taverns, and even for noble persons. without reward or compensation, but only for kindness, (and this they received) in the presence of Gentlemen, Lords, Princes and Princesses, as today is done for fun and leisure (23).


(1) Cerretani = In modern usage Cerretani, or the inhabitants of Cerreto, a town in Umbria, in the Middle Ages a traditional home of folk-doctors and wandering unlicensed specialists, consequently designating  quacks, swindlers, charlatans.


Only Cardano, a not ignoble Author of our time, has discovered something about the inventions of these people in his book De Mirabilibus & in various other books, for he has been a man curious about all kinds of professions. In the book just named he mentions Francesco Somma Napolitano, a noble young man 22 years old, very skillful, & handsome, and expert at the “juggling” of appearances [apparenze giocolatorie] practiced in this manner, is that (he [Cardano] says), among many entertainments with cards that he did, only before noble people, [in which] he scattered the cards on the table, & spread them out, piled them together, and told someone to take one, &  hide it, & then he took the pack of  cards, shuffled it, & he guessed exactly which one  it was, the one hidden: and besides (the  greatest wonder), he put the card in the pack, and after having put it down, he ordered one or another person to choose one of them, and it happened, that lifting the card it was again the same, almost as if he had forced the extraction from the pack of just that one (24).


The which Entertainment considered by Cardano as human conjuring tricks [i.e. sleight of hand], & not Diabolical, was also done in my presence by the […] most gentle Messer Abraham Colorni, with countless others of no less than complete marvel; such as when out of German cards he gave a Gentleman a card of clubs, and raising his hand made it appear as a card of Spades.


I will not talk about the many other entertainments with cards, in truth wonderful, described by me in the annotations to my book La Piazza, and another prestidigitation that he did in the presence of a prelate in Ferrara, indeed directly to him, with whom he dexterously made it appear that an egg was of carbone(1), as it appeared to me and to all the surrounding.


(1) carbone = Here for ‘carbonetto’, a certain type of red coral.


And another time a young Spaniard, who was in the company of another prelate, made it appear that an egg placed by itself under a hat, had disappeared; as also when on that occasion he made a ring dance in a glass to the sound of a Cittern [a guitar-like instrument] and many other gallant actions;


Memorable also is the time he had some walnuts brought on a plate without having previously agreed (with someone) and asked those present, to express in words what kind of jewel they wanted to find in one of those nuts, according to the credit they gave to to him [trust of his skills], so that with the possession of that [jewel] they would become rich. Thus for one he wished a ruby, another a pearl, some, red coral, and even a cut diamond. Furthermore, he said they could take one walnut from the plate and could exchange that walnut with another among those remaining if they had second thoughts about their choice; and then, opening the last walnut on the plate, he made all the desired things mentioned above appear inside it, while the other walnuts were empty, and the trick filled the participants with laughter and astonishment so much that it had been a long time since they were so amused and all these apparitions were seen by me without the intervention of the Devil, and I can make faith of that to the whole world, because he graciously deigned to share in the ways he used to create these curious fantasies, so that I could testify in writing not only to have seen, but also to know (the ways in which he did it). And since I gave him my word to be silent about these ways, I can only say in general that almost all of these are enterprises done with the hands, mixed with wise talent and boldness of mind, and with words and of deceptively prepared deeds, which appear admirable because they ignore how they are performed and not for anything else" (25).


It is interesting to observe how Garzoni wrote that "almost all these enterprises" and not "all these enterprises" were carried out through hand skills. In fact, other situations, much more 'marvelous' than those listed here, which seemed really impossible to be carried out through some brilliant trick, were accused of demonic influence. It is no coincidence that many conjurers, on some occasions, had to explain the tricks used to avoid incurring the accusation of being in league with the devil.


 Original text


Incomincia l'Appartamento prestigioso del Serraglio Stuporoso

Diviso in Varie Stanze






"Curiosissima certo, stuporosa, & senza dubbio desiderata da ogniuno è la materia de' prestigij; imperoche tutti bramano di satiar l'intelletto loro intendendo il modo, col quale si fanno infinite apparenze à gli occhi di questi, & di quell'altro tanto meravigliose, che gli animi restano attoniti à un certo modo, & rimirarle, però hora sono per affaticarmi per mostrar diligentemente la verità delle cose tanto con brevità, quanto con distinzione nel modo più possibile in questo particolare.


Il suo inventore [del prestigio] (dice l'istesso [Pico della Mirandola]) fù Mercurio, et questo a mio credere intende egli quanto al prestigio cattivo. Onde notisi, che varie sono le specie de prestigij; ci è una forte, che vien chiamata apparenza, over prestigio Giocolatorio, il qual s'esercita a guisa della Comedia et da persone vili, come da Ceratani et bagatteglieri, su le piazze, & su l'hosterie, et anco da persone nobili senza premio, ò mercede, ma per sola gentilezza alla presenza di Gentilhuomini, Signori, Prencipi, e Principesse come oggidì per trastullo, e diporto s’usa […].


Solo il Cardano de' tempi nostri Autore non ignobile ha scoperto qualche cosa delle invenzioni di costoro nel lib. De Mirabilibus & in diversi altri libri per essere stato huomo curioso di tutte le sorti di professioni. Nomina egli nel predetto lib. Francesco Somma Napolitano nobile giovanetto di 22. anni molto virtuoso, & di tali apparenze giocolatorie prattico fuor di modo: come quello (dice egli) che frà l'altre cose né giuochi di carte usati da esso alla presenza solo di persone nobili, spargeva le carte sopra la tavola, & l'allargava, ò difendeva in mucchio, et comandava che fuor dal mucchio se ne prendesse una, & s'ascondesse, & indi preso il mazzo delle carte, le meschiava, & indovinava precisamente qual era quella, ch'era restata ascosa: oltra diciò (ch'è maggior meraviglia) posta la carta nel mazzo, et deposto il mazzo da banda, comandava, che questi et quello ne levasse una fuori, et questo ne succedeva, che nel levar la carta levava sempre l'istessa, quasi che fosse sforzato a estrahere fuor dal mazzo quella dove soggiunge.


Il qual Gioco reputato dal Cardano per prestigio humano, & non Diabolico, è stato fatto anco alla mia presenza dal gentilissimo Messer Abramo Colorni predetto, con infiniti altri di non minor meraviglia pieni; come quando fuor delle carte Tedesche diede in mano ad un Gentilhuomo una carta di fiore, & levando la mano la fece apparire una carta di Picche. Taccio di molti altri giochi di carti simili in vero stupendi toccati da me nell'annotationi sopra la mia Piazza, & di quell'altro, che fece alla presenza d'un Prelato in Ferrara, anzi nelle mani dell'istesso Prelato, al qual destramente fece apparire, che un' uovo fosse un carbone, come apparse anco a tutti i Circostanti. E un'altra volta a un giovine Spagnuolo, ch'era in compagnia d'un altro Prelato fece apparire, che un' uovo, che era sotto un capello da se stesso fosse sparito: come anco in tale occasione fece ballare in un bicchiero un' anello a suono di Cithara con molte altre galantarie; frà le quali e’ memorabile quella, che facendo portare certe noci in un piatto senza nissuno previo accordo, chiese a’ circonstanti, che secondo la forza dell'affetto loro verso di lui, con parole esprimessero qual sorte di Gioia ciascun bramase ritrovarsi in una sola di quelle noci, acciò egli col possesso di quella restasse ricco, & augurandoli ogn'uno, chi un Rubino, chi una Perla, chi un Carbone, & chi fino a un Diamante quadrato, data l'eletta a chi voleva levarne una del piatto, e fattoli animo anco a levarne un'altra in luogo della prima, se per sorte era pentito, & fattala spartire; fece apparire in quella sola tutte le sopradette cose bramate, essendo l' altre noci senza queste gioie con tanta maraviglia, &  riso d'ogn'uno, che molto tempo innanzi non s'havea ricevuto un spasso tale, & queste apparenze tutte da me viste sono indubitatamente senza operatione del Demonio, & io ne posso far fede a tutto il Mondo, perche egli per gratia sua s'è degnato farmi partecipe de’ modi, co’ quali opera in molte di queste sue fantasie curiose, accioche io potessi testificare in scritto non solamente d'haver visto, ma anco di sapere. Et perche io gli hò dato la parola di tacere i modi, sol posso dire in generale, che quasi tutte queste sono industrie di mani meschiate con accortezza d'ingegno, & con audacia di animo, & di parole e inganni supposititij destramenti operati, i quali son mirabili, perche s'ignorano i modi, & non per altro".




1 - Danilo Romei (ed.), Pietro Aretino, Poemi cavallereschi [Poems of chivalry], Second volume of the National Edition of the Works of Pietro Aretino, Rome, Salerno Editrice, 1995. Astolfeida, Canto One, 24. Online edition: Database ‘Nuovo Rinascimento’ [New Renaissance]

2 - Ludovico Ariosto, La Cassaria, Comedia [The Coffer, Comedy], Act IV, Scene 2, Vinegia [Venice], printed by Gabriel Giolito de Ferrari, MDXLVI [1546], p. 33r.

3 - Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects. From the unabridged 1568 edition, Vol. 7 of English trans. by Gaston du C. De Vere. Philip Lee Warner, Publ, London, 1914, pp. 243-258 (entry for “Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, called Sodoma”), online at entry for “Sodoma”.

4 - Kurt Volkmann, Das Becherspiel. Darstellung des Zauberers in der bildenden Kunst. Das 15. und 16. Jahrhunderte, Magischer Zirkel von Deutschland [The Cups- game. Representations of the Magician in Fine Art. The 15th and 16th centuries. Magic Circle of Germany,] Düsseldorf, 1954 [Translated by Barrows Massey as The Oldest Deception: Cups and Balls in the 15th and 16th Centuries, Jones, Minneapolis, 1956]. For the attribution of the painting to a follower rather than to Bosch himself, see Matthijs Ilsink and Jos Koldeweij, Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius, Mercatorfonds, Brussels, distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven/London, 2016, pp. 64-65.

5 - See in this regard the essay El Bagatella which is the symbol of sin.

6 - Father Paolo Botti, Il parlar alle grate [Speaking through the grates, i.e. the grilles separating the nuns from all their visitors]. Speeches to the R. R. moral and spiritual Nuns on the Sunday Gospels throughout the year, Homily for the 6th Sunday after Easter, “Il Male non Male stimato” [“The Evil not esteemed Evil”]. Venice, Pietr'Antonio Brigonci, MDCLXXXVIII [1688], p. 130.

7 - Isacco della Stella, I Sermoni, Volume Primo: Dalla Settuagesima alla Pentecoste, Sermone 32. Sermone Terzo per la prima domenica di Quaresima, [Volume One: From Septuagesima to Pentecost, Sermon 32. Third Sermon for the first Sunday of Lent]. Rome, Paoline, 2006, p. 249.

8 - Francesco Doni, I Marmi, Ragionamento Secondo [The Marbles, Second argument], Vinegia [Venice], Francesco Marcolini, 1552, p. 35.

9 - By Salterio must be meant the Rosary. Work published posthumously in 1478. Online link at of the site “Ecclesia Dei. Cattolici, Apostolici, Romani”.

10 - See: Anton Emanuel Schönbach, “Studien zur Geschichte des altdeutschen Predigt” [“Studies on the History of the Old German Sermon”] in Sitzungen und Berichte der philologisch-historischen Klasse der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften [Meetings and reports of the philological-historical Class of the Imperial Academy of Sciences], vol. 154, 1907, p. 44.

11 - Jacques le Goff, “Mestieri leciti e mestieri illeciti” [“Lawful trades and unlawful trades”], in Tempo della Chiesa, tempo del Mercante [Time of the Church, time of the Merchant], Turin, 1997, pp. 58-59.

12 - Tomaso Garzoni, La Piazza Universale di tutte le professioni del mondo, Discorso CIV. In Venetia, Appresso Gio. Battista Somasco [The Universal Plaza of all the professions in the world, Discourse CIV. In Venice, printed by Battista Somasco], MDCXXXVI [1586], pp. 757-758. 

13 - François Louis Gauthier, Traité contre l’amour des parures et de luxe des habits [Treatise against the love of finery and luxury in clothes] Second Édition, Paris, Chez [at the publishing house of] Augustin-Martin Lottin, 1780.

14 - François Louis Gauthier, Traité contre les danses et le mauvaises chansons, Paris, Chez [at the publishing house of] Antoine Boudet, 1769.

15 - In Mélanges de Politique, de Morale et de Littérature, extraits des Journaux de M. L’Abbé de Feller , Tome Premier [Mixes of Politics, Morals and Literature, excerpts from the Journals of M. Abbot de Feller, Volume One], Louvain, Vanlinthout et [and] Vandenzande, 1822, p. 307.

16 Histoire de la Vertueuse Portugaise; ou le modèle des femmes chrétiennes. Par Mr. L’abbé Maydieu, chanoine de l’église de Tryes, en Champagne [History of the Virtuous Portuguese Woman; or the model of Christian women. By Mr. Abbot Maydieu, canon of the church of Tryes, in Champagne]. Paris, Chez [at the publishing house of] Charles-Pierre Berton, 1779.

17 - Mélanges de Politique, etc., op. cit, p. 216. The English translation of the Vulgate is that the Douhy-Rheims Bible, as revised by Richard Challoner in 1750, of Proverbs 10, 23:

18 - Luigi Amabile, Fra Tommaso campanella. La sua congiura, i suoi processi e la sua pazzia [Brother Tommaso Campanella, His conspiracy, his trials, and his madness] , Volume III, Nino Aragno Editore, 2006, p. 243. Reprint of the anonymous title published in Naples in 1882.

19 - D. Michele Piano, Istruzioni Dogmatico - Morali - Parrocchiali, Tomo V,  Alba, Coi Tipi di Domenico Botto Tipografo vescovile ecc., [Instructions in Dogma – in Morals – of the Parish, Volume V, Alba, With type by Domenico Botto, Episcopal typographer, etc.] MDCCCXXIII [1823], pp. 140-141.

20 - See the iconological essay The Fool.

21 - Tomaso Garzoni da Bagnacavallo, Il serraglio de gli stupori del mondo [The Menagerie of the Wonders of the World], by Tomaso Garzoni da Bagnacavallo. Divided into ten apartments, according to the various, & admirable objects. That is, monsters, prodigies, sleight of hand, fates, oracles, sibyls, dreams, astrological curiosities, miracles in general, and marvelsin particular, narrated by the most famous writers, and described by the most famous historians and poets, which sometimes happen, considering their probability, or improbability, according to nature. Work no less learned, than curious, so for theologians ... as for philosophers ... enriched with various annotations from M.R.P.D. Bartolomeo Garzoni his brother ... With three copious tables.Our edition of reference: Venice, by Ambrosio and Bartolomeo Dei, brothers. At the bookshop of San Marco, MDCXIII [1613].

22 - Ibid, p. 224.

23 - Ibid. p. 225.

24 - Ibid.

25 - Ibid, p. 226.


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