Andrea Vitali's Essays

The Wheel of Fortune


Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit umiles

Est rota fortunae variabilis ut rota lunae:
Crescit, decrescit, in eodem sistere nescit.
Latin motto

“O Fortuna levis! Cui vis das numera que vis, / Et cui vis que vis auferet hora brevis./ Passibus ambiguis Fortuna volubilis errat / Et manet in nullo certa tenaxque loco; / Sed modo leta manet, modo vultus sumit acerbos, / Et tantum constans in levitate manet. / Dat Fortuna bonum, sed non durabile donum ; / Attollit pronum, faciens de rege colonum. / Quos vult Sors ditat, quos non vult, sub pede tritat. / Qui petit alta nimis, retro lapsus ponitur imis” (Oh inconstant Fortune! You give presents to whom you want to, and to whom you decide you will take away everything in an instant. With ambiguous footsteps the inconstant Fortune errs and stays in any place, certain and unchangeable. It sometimes appears pleased, sometimes embittered, and it is constant only in the betrayed faith. Fortune gives good, but never durable gifts, lifts whoever is prone, makes a king a farmer.  If it wants, it takes care of Fate, if not; it   grinds it under foot. Who goes too high, slips back and falls down).

                                     Ruota Bergamo

                                                                                Wheel of Fortune
                                     Fresco, thirteenth century. Bergamo, Curia's Hall or Aula Picta
In this way in the Carmina Burana, an anonymous student of the XIII century, complained about the instability and the tyranny of Fortune, while contrasting to it his own Virtus, the state of the things getting worse in the same way.
A similar destiny is expressed in the verses of the same Carmina in reference to the justice that Fortune doesn't hold in consideration: “Bulla fulminante / sub iudice tonante, / reo appelante, / sententia gravante / veritas opprimitur / distrahitur / et venditur / iusticia prostrante” (When the bead strikes as lightning, sent forth by an enraged judge, when the accused appeals, overpowered by the sentence, then truth is oppressed, distorted and sold, justice is prostrate), underlining in another song the unfair character of the Fortune: “O varium fortune lubricum / dans dubium tribunal iudicium / non modicum parans huic premium / quem colere tua vult gratia / et petere rote sublimia / dans dubia tandem prepotere / de stercore pauperem erigens / de rethore consulem eligens” (Oh Fortune, inconstant and dicey, what an inconstant judge you are. You bestow excessive rewards to those who have decided to prefer with your grace and to set on the summit of your wheel. But your gifts are uncertain, and without any notice you lift the poor man from the dung and you elect the orator to consul.)
The image of the Fortune Imperatrix, with feet set above the earth, defined by those negative elements which made it merciless and insane, incapable of rewarding virtue and  punishing vice, is found in the World of the Parisian Tarot card by Anonymous of the XVI century.
A sword hammered into the earth characterizes the negative aspect of the Goddess, as bringer of bad luck (figure 1). The object is symbolically connected to the same sword that we find again in the figures of Christ in some images of the Final Judgment. In these images, a naked Christ under an ample mantle sits on a rainbow and puts his feet on the terrestrial circle. The sword that he holds between his lips represents, in fact, the punitive aspect connected to His Judgment (for this purpose, see the iconological essay The World).
The negative idea that the classical world had about Fortune, can be found in the illustrations of the Goddess whose foot, set above a sphere, allegorically expresses its state of instability, as the wings, with which it is sometimes represented, change direction according to the wind.
In its left hand it holds a cornucopia, an ancient attribute of the Greek goddess Tyche, giver of abundance and fertility, or a cup that it supports on the fingers of its hand (as we find in the famous incision The great Fortune: Nemesis by Albrecht Dürer), or while it grasps it, to symbolize the instability of the gifts of fate. The leather strings that it holds in its right hand represent the yoke of  fate on human life, as underlined in a woodcutting of the XVI century, where, at the feet of the goddess, two groups of people appear, that fate has divided in rich and poor (Anonymous, Fortune, woodcutting from Lexicon Graecolatinum, 1548). (figure 2)
Such attributes connect it to Nemesis, the Greek goddess of Destiny, a goddess without scruples, that represented the blind distribution of fortune with intentions that were neither good nor bad, but simply in proportion to its desires.
In The Rebirth of the Ancient Paganism Warburg says that its representation on the Renaissance man had the task of "figurative wording in the compromise between the medieval faith in God and confidence in himself"
As far as the number of this card in the procession of Triumphs is concerned, the sixteenth-century documents puts in tenth place (the Sermones de Ludo by anonymous monk and the Pasquinata by Aretino), in eleventh (Speaking Cards by Aretino; the Chaos del Triperuno by  Folengo;  The Game of Tarots by Giovio;  the Invective by Lollio; the Discourse by Piscina;  the Discourse by Anonymous) and in twelfth (Triumphs by Troilo Pomeran; the Epigrams by Anonymous, Triumphs of Tarots also by Anonymous and the Universal Place by Garzoni).
Such a central position assumes a value of extraordinary importance because, as we know, the order of tarots was built to underline route of mystical elevation that every good Christian had to accept, with Wisdom and Virtue, to reach that Quies, that alone could give serenity to men, after they had distanced themselves from every terrestrial impulse. An arduous route, not without sacrifices and dangers as it is allegorically represented in the Allegory of the Mountain of the Wisdom by Bernardino of Betto, known as Pinturicchio, in the Cathedral in Siena.
Here a Fortune of classical type is represented as the guide of a ship that has brought to the feet of the Mountain of Wisdom, through a dark and rough sea, the philosophers who intend to reach its top (figure 3). Fortune appears as a naked young girl who holds in her right hand a cornucopia and with her left hand brandishes the sail inflated by the wind. Her equilibrium is unstable: her right foot leans on a sphere, while the left one is placed on an ungovernable boat, whose mainmast is broken (figure 4). Such representation is in tune with what Ripa describes with regards to the Unhappy Fortune, underlining well the contrast “fortune/quies”, as highlighted in the marmoreal tarsia of the Cathedral in reference to the Mountain of the Wisdom: “Donna, sopra una nave, senza timone, e con l’albero, e vela, rotte dal vento. La nave, è la vita nostra mortale, la quale ogni huomo cerca di condurre a qualche porto tranquillo di riposo. La vela, e l’albero spezzato, e gli altri arnesi rotti, mostrano la privazione delle cose necessarie per arrivare in luogo di salute, e di quiete, essendo la mala Fortuna un successo infelice fuor dell’intendimento di colui che opera per elettione” (Woman, above a ship, without rudder, and with tree and sail broken by the wind. The ship, is our deadly life, which every man tries to steer to some calm port of rest. The sail and the broken tree and the other broken objects, showing  the things that must necessarily be foregone in order to arrive at a place of health, and quiet, since bad Fortune is an unhappy success, outside of the understanding of he who works for election) (Iconology, 1593, page 94).
If we take as reference the order of the triumphs in the Sermones de Ludo we will see that those hierarchical values that govern men by temporal and spiritual point of view are already present in the list in the first nine triumphs, as well as the vices on which men depend and the virtues necessary for governing them (read “The Celestial Harmony”, link History of Tarots in the Essays of Andrea Vitali).
Fortune is set in the middle of this triumphal order as a “Memento Mori” of great importance. The order of triumphs as expressed in the Sermones suggests to men the necessity of the search of a superior thought (the Hermit) so that they know how to value the Vanity of the world, and warns them not to betray (The Traitor = The Hanged Man) their own Creator before Death comes, making them evaluate the destiny of those people who had denied God (the Devil card), finally bringing a vision of after death and the moment of the Universal Judgment, when the divine Justice will separate the souls elected from the wicked ones.
The symbol of the Wheel of the Fortune, as we find it illustrated in tarots, it first described in the De Consolatione Philosophiae by Boezio, in which the wheel with its circular movement created by a bandaged woman, expresses the continuous going up and down and of human fates. In the Visconti Tarots, the card of Fortune, besides the presence of the bandaged woman, symbolo of the blind luck, represents four human figures (figure 5), indeed it is the same character represented in the different phases of life. Each one of these figures is outlined by many scrolls in which tower the followings writings: “Regno” (I am reigning) the one who stays above the wheel; “Regnavi” (I have reigned) referring to the figure on the right; “Sum sine regno” (I have no kingdom) for the person under the wheel and finally “Regnabo” (I will reign) for the one who goes up on the wheel. In the original iconography of this representation we find four kings: they appear in the Wheel of Fortune that illustrates the frontispiece of the Carmina Burana (figure 6).

Such iconographical conformation abounds in medieval art. Sometimes the wheels are moved by a bandaged woman, who symbolizes the blindness of Fortune, usually set in the middle of the wheel, or sideways while operating a crank handle. Sometimes we find seven characters around the wheel to symbolize the seven ages of men and this in consideration of the fact that Fortune appeared to dominate every phase of human life. And it is also possible to find just a wheel without any figure.
An interesting detail is found in the Wheel of Fortune of the Visconti Tarots where the character, sat in superior position, and the man who is about to go up again, have asinine ears, while the character that falls possesses a long tail (figure 7). These elements are representative of the animal nature of the man whose Vanitas doesn’t allow him to recognize and accept the sense of fate as he’s still tied to a purely material world.
The same donkey ears are found in two characters of the Wheel in the Brambilla Tarot (Brera Picture Gallery), in the one who “reigns” and in that one who “will reign” (figure 8), as a demonstration of the foolishness that strikes the people who are fortunate and those who know they are going to be. They are also present in the regal character sat in the wheel of the Book of Fortune by Lorenzo Spirito of the XV century. The relationship with the Wheel of Fortune attributed to Dürer, in the work Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools) by Sebastian Brant (Basle, 1494) governed by the divine hand and composed just by asinine figures (figure 9) is evident.
These are the verses that refer to it: «Chi sulla ruota di Fortuna siede, / Attento stia che non manchi il piede / E non abbia dei matti la mercede./ Matto é 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 / Precipitevolissimevolmente. / Nessuno sale tanto, tra gli umani, / Che possa essere certo del domani. / E aver sol di fortuna vita carca - Che mai arresta di Cloto la Parca / La ruota - e preservare oro e potenza / Di morte dall'implacabile sentenza. / Inquieto giace 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./ Ché 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 genera, / Mal gli fora se in testa gli cadrà, / E chi vuol tutto a Fortuna affidare, / In ogni istante a terra può cascare» (Who on the wheel of Fortune sits, / Be careful that the foot does not fail/ And do not have any fools payment./ Crazy is the one who wants to climb too high, / And wants to go higher, / Without thinking about the wheel of Fortune./ The one who goes too high often fails / Very precipitously / In the human race nobody goes so  high, / To be certain of tomorrow. / And just have life plenty of fortune - that never arrests the Parca of Cloto / The wheel - and preserve gold and power / Of death from the implacable sentence. / Uneasy lies the one who has a crowned head:  / Many lives have been killed by power / Power never lasts / If it is supported only by violence. / Where there is favour for people, / Few are the joys, but the pain is great. / He who wanted must fear greatly / besides governing, be feared./ Fear to a bad servant, / Who doesn't defend his gentleman for a long time. / Who holds the power has to learn / To always take care of God’s commands. / Whoever holds justice strongly in his fist, / Will have a power that lasts and doesn't crumble; / When a beloved monarch dies, / his subjects will cry for a long time. / Troubled is the sovereign, after whose death / they say:  “Thank God, he’s buried!” / Who throws his stone up, / Will be bad if it falls over his head, / And who wants everything submit to Fortune, / In every instant can fall to earth) (The Ship of Fools, "Of the instability of Fortune", Paragraph 37).
In these verses as in the following ones the influence of the scholastic thought, that illustrated and defended the truth of faith by using reason is evident. In fact, the complete devotion to God was not the prerogative of fools, meaning those people incapable of thinking logically about the mysteries of faith.
The same image of the Wheel of Fortune was used by Brant to illustrate the 56th paragraph whose title is About the end of the Empires:  “Nabucodonosor, il grande re, / Fortuna tale ebbe in sorte che poté /  Arpacsàde travolgere e finire, / Il cui dominio era tale da coprire / La terra fino al confine del mare; / ma dopo volle come Dio regnare, / E in bestia si mutò, e fu gran portento; /……./ Pochi son morti, oggi, domani e ieri, / Tranquillamente sopra il proprio letto / Dei grandi che pur ebbero il diletto / Del potere, e finirono ammazzati. / Attenti dunque, sovrani coronati: / Legati siete di Sorte alla ruota! / E che la sposti Dio basta d’un iota, / Perché sia certa la vostra caduta. / Iddio servite, e sia da voi temuta / La Sua ira tremenda, che potrà / Accendersi a ogni istante, e crollerà /  Il vostro impero, e travolti sarete. / D’Ission la ruota mai ferma vedrete, / Ché ad ogni soffio si muove di vento. / Beato chi al volere è di Dio attento! /…” (Nabucodonosor, the great king, / such Fortune he had in fate that he was able / to overwhelm and end Arphaxad, / whose dominion was so large to cover/ The earth up to the border of the sea; / but later he wanted to reign as God, / And he became a beast, and it was a great portent;  /.../ Few are dead, today, tomorrow and yesterday, / Quietly on their bed / Men of power who enjoyed / Have been killed by power. / Careful therefore, crowned sovereigns:  / You are tied up to the Fate of the wheel! / An iota is enough for God to move it, / To make your fall certain. / Serve God and be scared of / His awful anger, that will be able / To ignite every instant, and your empire /will collapse, and you will be overwhelmed. / You will never see the wheel stop, / Since it moves at every puff of wind. / Blessed is the one who takes care of the will of God).
Even Ariosto was interested in the asinine figures of the Wheel, and he wrote in the Satires (VII, 46-54): “Quella ruota dipinta mi sgomenta / ch’ogni mastro di carte a un modo finge: / tanta concordia non credo io che menta. / Quel che le siede in cima si dipinge / uno asinello: ognun lo enigma intende, / senza che chiami a interpretarlo Sfinge. / Vi si vede anco che ciascun che ascende / comincia a inasinir, le prime membre, e resta umano quel che a dietro pende”  (That painted wheel dismays me / that every card maker paints in the same way: / I don’t think I lie seeing so much harmony. / What is set painted on its top / is a little donkey: everyone understands the enigma, / without calling a Sphinx to interpret it. / We can also see that everyone who ascends / starts to become a donkey, and what stays back and leans it is the human side).
Animal figures will characterize subsequently different cards of the Wheel of Fortune, as in some Lombard, Piedmonts, French tarots, (figure 10 - Tarot of Marseille Suzanne, 1840) etc, but above all the  esoteric ones by Etteilla, where the presence, among the other animals, of a monkey link it in narrow form to the concept of Vanitas, as it is expressed in the card of the Sun of the Parisian Tarot by anonymous of the XVI century (see the iconographic essay The Sun). Monkeys and donkeys were well united by the Ancient ones, as we find in the expression by Menander “A donkey among the monkeys” to mean “A scoundrel among scoundrels”.
The further presence of a mouse in the card of the Wheel of Etteilla expresses a demoniac value as it is an animal that lives in the rottenness and in the darkness as the demon, and is associated with those people who have dirtied their own soul by living in the obscurity of their unawareness (figure 11 - Grand’Etteilla I, XIX century).


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  - © All rights reserved 1997