11 – WOE BETIDE THE DEFEATED

Florence’s most famous painter illustrating Florence’s most famous poet: Botticelli’s Lucifer is unquestionably deeply rooted in Florentine culture. Inheriting some of Lucifer’s characteristics, the Devil card in the Tarot of Marseille is also essentially Florentine. Remarkably, its other features also appear to be derived from Florentine sources.

Master of the Vienna Passion (attr.), The Triumph of Fame, c. 1465-1470.

The two prisoners in the Devil card probably were derived from a Florentine etching, dated from the end of the 1460s, which illustrates another famous Florentine poem: Petrarch’s Triumphs. The engraving represents The Triumph of Fame.[1] In the foreground, two men are standing naked with their arms tied in the back. Under their feet, inscriptions in capital letters, “SPENDIO” and “MATHIO,” tell us that they are two historic figures of Roman Antiquity. The great Greek historian Polybius (c. 208 – c. 126 B.C.) narrated the story of these two mercenaries in the service of the Carthaginians who turned against their masters, fought them ferociously, were ultimately defeated and captured, then were tortured and executed.[2] Thus, they exemplify those who rebelled against their masters, but failed to overthrow them and were vanquished.

The posture of these prisoners is quite similar to that of the prisoners on the Devil card. One notes in particular the way the arms are bent behind the men’s backs. As in the card, the captives are linked by a rope to a ring fixed to what looks like a pedestal or the base of a column.

 

The prisoners in the Triumph of Fame (left) compared to the prisoners in the Devil card (right).

Another graphical source for the card is also an illustration of a famous Florentine text. Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) was a humanist and historian. Born in a Tuscan village, he studied in Florence and was chancellor of the Florentine Republic. In May 1416, while Poggio was in the German city of Constance, he witnessed the execution for heresy of the theologian Jerome of Prague. In a letter to his friend Leonardo Bruni, Poggio gives a moving account of the burning of the condemned man, whose courage in the face of death he salutes. He compares Jerome’s fortitude at the stake to the courage demonstrated, in Antiquity, by the Roman Mucius Scaevola, who deliberately burned his own hand, and by the Greek philosopher Socrates, who drank the hemlock without flinching.[3] Copies of this letter circulated in Italy, one of which is illustrated by a miniature showing Jerome at the stake. A certain Felice Feliciano, of Verona, made both the copy and its illustration in 1460. We will deal with this interesting character in a subsequent episode.

Felice Feliciano, Jerome of Prague at the Stake, 1460.

In Feliciano’s illustration, Jerome, already engulfed in flames, remains stone-faced. He is standing on a column whose shaft is sunk into the ground. This detail is rather odd, as Bracciolini’s letter makes no mention of such a device. It could well be that in installing Jerome on top of an antique column, Feliciano wanted to suggest that the theologian of Prague was, by his courage, on par with the heroes of Antiquity, such as Mucius Scaevola and Socrates.

The miniature has some kinship with the Devil card in the Tarot of Marseille. At first, there is the general appearance of the almost-naked body seen in front view, with a well-marked waistline and rounded hips. The shape of the arms tied in the back of the burning man is quite similar to that of the prisoners in the card, especially in that their contours are curiously concave. Some features of the heretic’s face are reflected almost identically in those of the Devil: the finely arched eyebrows, the almond-shaped eyes with their heavy eyelids, and the falling lines at the corners of the lips.

Jerome of Prague’s face (left) compared to that of the Devil (right).

The folds of flesh around the man’s torso were transformed in the Devil card into a series of wavy lines that underline the chest.

Jerome of Prague’s torso (left) compared to that of the Devil (right).

The belt that underlines the demon’s hips follows the same curve as the heretic’s underpants, including the slight relief that makes a bump on top of the right hip.

Jerome of Prague’s hips and underpants lines (left) compared to those of the Devil (right).

Likewise, the man’s contracted feet resemble the Devil’s clawed paws. The column capital on which the heretic stands has probably inspired the base on which the Devil stands.

The capital in Feliciano’s miniature (left) compared to the capital in the Devil card (right).

Graphically, the Devil appears to be an assemblage of elements borrowing from three very different images, considering their technique as well as their subject: Botticelli’s Lucifer (borrowing its wings and front view), the Triumph of Fame engraving (borrowing its prisoners tied to a pedestal), and the burning-man miniature (borrowing its facial features and column). These sources, apparently heterogeneous, are all illustrations of Florentine texts, and they all present rather painful and violent situations. However, identifying the visual components of the card is not enough to understand the precise meaning it conveys. What do the two prisoners with their hands tied in the back signify?

[1] See Arthur M. Hind, Early Italian Engraving, London, Bernard Quarich, 1938, I, I, p. 35 and I, II, pl. 21.

[2] Polybius, Histories, I, 69-87.

[3] See Eugenio Garin, Prosatori latini del Quattrocento, Milan, Ricciardi, 1952, p. 228-240.

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