15 – THE JUDGMENT OF PHILEBUS – PART 1

With the figure of Mars Victor, the manuscript Reg. Lat. 1388 of the Vatican Library had given me an additional clue on the existence of a relationship between Felice Feliciano and the Tarot of Marseille (see episode 13).[1] However, another miniature by Felice Feliciano, from the same manuscript, previously had caught my attention. I had come across its reproduction in black and white on Dec. 16, 2005, as I was reading a book by the famous art historian Erwin Panofsky.[2] The rather little-known text, entitled Hercules at the Crossroads, had just been translated in French, almost 70 years after the original German edition. Panofsky had mentioned Feliciano’s miniature in a few lines only, judging it “of small interest.” However, it had been chosen to illustrate the frontispiece.[3]

Felice Feliciano, Hercules at the Crossroads, Ms. Reg. Lat. 1388, folio 17 verso, 1463.

The image depicts a naked man, seen from the front, bearded, leaning on a club and wearing a lion skin over the shoulder, standing between two women. The text written in capital letters under the main character’s feet indicates that he is Hercules, the legendary Greek hero. When I saw this image, I immediately realized that it had been used as a graphical model for the Tarot of Marseille’s Lovers card, and that it provided the key to understanding the meaning of this card.

 

Nicolas Conver, The Lovers, 1760.

The Lovers card in the Tarot of Marseille depicts a man standing in front of the observer. He is wearing the short dress typical of the fashionable young men in the cities of northern and central Italy in the second half of the 15th century. His head is turned toward a woman to his right. They exchange an intense look, directly into each other’s eyes. The woman’s left hand is on his shoulder, and she strokes his thigh with her right hand. On the other side, a young woman wearing a long, simple coat touches the chest of the man near his heart. She seems sad, with a slightly leaning head and falling eyes. The man pushes her away with the back of his hand. Cupid, poised to shoot his arrow, hovers over the scene. The picture can be read like a comic strip. The young man and the woman on his left form a married couple. She stands respectfully at her husband’s side, slightly set back. She still has her wedding garland of flowers on her head.

Nicolas Conver, The Lovers, detail of the garland of flowers, 1760.

In Renaissance Italy, traditionally, a young bride received this ornament at the end of the wedding ceremony. The gesture she makes in the direction of the man’s heart expresses a tender intimacy. The motion of his arm with which he pushes her away without looking at her likewise shows a certain familiarity. These exchanges between the two young people were caused most likely by the other woman’s advances. Her confident look and proud bearing give the impression that she is more experienced in life than the couple. Her sophisticated costume suggests she is a wealthy noble lady, or perhaps a courtesan. I would be inclined toward the second hypothesis given the way she puts her hands on the young man. He prudently refuses to open his right arm and keeps it in a defensive position. What does he have to fear? Does the image itself not offer the answer, in a cartoon-style balloon? Cupid would seem to be a representation of the man’s desire aroused in him by the sight of the courtesan, and the arrow that the archer points in the direction of the couple, precisely between the man and the woman, would signify how that desire threatens the conjugal bonds. If the man accedes to the courtesan’s advances, he risks putting an end to his holy matrimony. The wife recognizes the danger and, with a gesture directed at his heart, tries to restrain him. This reading may seem imaginative, but the iconographic study of the card shows that it is very close to its original signification.

The image inherited its general scheme from the illuminated tarot cards created in Milan at the beginning of the 15th century. The canonical model represents a couple shaking hands under a blindfolded Cupid.

Bonifacio Bembo (attr.), The Lovers, Cary-Yale tarot, circa 1445.

The handshake should not be interpreted as a simple greeting; it is the “joining of the right hands” (dextarum junctio), a rite practiced from Roman antiquity, which sealed the marriage union. From this composition, the Lovers card of the Tarot of Marseille preserves the triangular structure dominated by Cupid. Also preserved is the idea of marriage, but in a more discreet manner, insofar as the garland of flowers plays a role analogous to the dextarum junctio. But the inventor of the Tarot of Marseille adds a second woman to the scene. To make this modification, he uses Feliciano’s Hercules at the Crossroads as a model. The similarities between the two images are too numerous to be mere coincidences: 1) same structure, with a man flanked by two women; 2) same orientation of the bodies in space, with the man facing the viewer with the head three-quarters turned toward a woman in profile, and behind the man, another woman, with frontal body and face oriented three-quarters; 3) same exchange of glances; 4) same extravagant pointed headgear 5) same physical interaction between the man and the woman with the headdress, with the woman touching the man, who is in a defensive position. Hercules blocks her with his club planted on the ground, while the young man simply closes his arm.

Two details in particular lead me to think that the card was adapted directly from the miniature. The ground in both images is yellow and reaches the same level in relation to the legs of each male character, above the calf. Secondly, Hercules’ left hand makes the same gesture as the courtesan’s right hand in the card. Both hands rest on the upper part of the man’s thigh just under the hip.

Comparison between Feliciano’s Hercules (left) and the young man in the card (right), highlighting two similar details: the hand gesture and the ground level in relation to the main characters’ calves.

To draw his Hercules, Feliciano was inspired by a sculpture representing the same hero, likewise naked, with the hips swayed, and leaning on his legendary club. This relief, attributed to Nanni di Banco, could only be seen in Florence, as it decorated the Door of the Mandorla, situated on the north side of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, since the beginning of the 15th century.

Comparison between Nanni di Banco’s Hercules (left) and Feliciano’s Hercules (right)

In the manuscript, Felice Feliciano’s image illustrates a moral fable, narrated by Xenophon: Hercules at the Crossroads.[4] Hercules, at the crossroads between the way of vice and that of virtue, is approached by two women. One, presented as Virtue, is noble and decent. She offers him a difficult life, but one that’s also rewarded with sheer happiness. The other, called Pleasure or Vice, is well-dressed, with extravagant headgear, promising him an easy and pleasant life. The description of the two women by Xenophon seems to be faithfully reproduced in the Lovers card. Pleasure is described as:

plump and soft, with high feeding. Her face was made up to heighten its natural white and pink, her figure to exaggerate her height. Open-eyed was she; and dressed so as to disclose all her charms. Now she eyed herself; anon looked whether any noticed her; and often stole a glance at her own shadow.

The two women in the Lovers from the Tarot of Marseille.

The greater part of these traits is certainly found in the hat-wearing woman. Particularly noticeable are the folds of her neck, which betray a well-nourished body. The headdress makes her look taller, and the cut of her clothing, fitted to her waist by a belt, outlines her form. Likewise, the dignified portrait of Virtue seems to be reflected in the card’s other feminine figure, who:

was fair to see and of high bearing; and her limbs were adorned with purity, her eyes with modesty; sober was her figure […]

Indeed, the lowered eyes of the young wife and the slight inclining of her head contrast with the proud appearance and shameless gaze of her rival. Her sober dress, a simple tunic covered by a long, straight mantle, is in opposition, by its discretion, with the extravagant and garish one worn by the woman with the headdress. However, it is not possible to see in the card’s image a representation of Hercules at the Crossroads: The young man lacks all the attributes traditionally ascribed to the legendary hero: the club, the lion skin, the beard, and the heroic nudity. Who is the character occupying Hercules’ place between the two women?

The young man in the Lovers card, between the two women.

Again this time, research into Marsilio Ficino’s writings solves the mystery. Ficino dedicated his translation of the Platonic dialogue Philebus to Lorenzo de’ Medici. In the dedicatory letter, dated from 1490, Ficino recalls a famous episode in Greek mythology, the Judgment of Paris, according to which the shepherd Paris had been called by Zeus to award the prize of victory, an apple, to the most beautiful of the three goddesses: Minerva, Juno, or Venus.[5] Ficino identifies Minerva with wisdom, Juno with power, and Venus with pleasure. He then compares this story to that of the “Judgment of Hercules,” pointing out that Hercules had to make a choice between only two goddesses: Juno and Venus. Finally, he introduces a third scene, which he entitles “The Judgment of Philebus.” However, there is no such “judgment” in ancient literature. This fable was imagined by Ficino to illustrate his interpretation of Plato’s’ Philebus, a dialogue staging a debate about the Good.[6] The question consists of determining what – between pleasure and wisdom – is the highest Good. Philebus is represented as a young man stubbornly holding his own opinion, according to which the highest good is pleasure. Ficino summarizes this in one sentence:

There were also two divinities competing for victory on the path of a certain Philebus: Pleasure and Wisdom, and according to Philebus’ judgment, it seemed to him that Venus prevailed over Pallas [Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, identified as Minerva by the Romans].[7]

 Ficino thus depicts a Platonic debate in the form of a new judgment between Venus and Pallas/Minerva, with Philebus as the judge. While Hercules had chosen Juno, Philebus opts for Venus.

With his long, blond hair and the short outfit over the knee, typical of the elegant youths of the Italian Renaissance, the man on the card, summoned by two young women identified with Venus/Pleasure and Minerva/Wisdom, corresponds perfectly with the portrait of the hedonistic Philebus delineated by Ficino. In all likelihood, the miniature of the “Judgment of Hercules” was transformed, in the card, into the “Judgment of Philebus.”

The only two miniatures of a unique manuscript, signed by Felice Feliciano, thus served as models for two cards in the Tarot of Marseille. This naturally reinforced the feeling I had that Feliciano was part of the team that produced the Tarot of Marseille. I also was wondering whether only the graphics had been transposed in the figures of the tarot, or if there was also a relationship with respect to meaning.

To be continued in part two.

[1]  This episode takes up some ideas I already have exposed, first in an article: « The Judgment of Lorenzo », Bruniana & Campanelliana, 14 (2008), p. 541-561, then in a book: La scelta di Lorenzo. La Primavera di Botticelli tra poesia e filosofia, Pisa, Roma, Fabrizio Serra, 2012 (available in Japanese translation: http://www.keisoshobo.co.jp/book/b214140.html).

[2] Erwin Panofsky, Hercule à la croisée des chemins et autres matériaux figuratifs de l’Antiquité dans l’art plus récent, Paris, Flammarion, 1999. Original German Edition: Erwin Panofsky, Hercules am Scheidewege und andere antike Bildstoffe in der neueren Kunst, Leipzig, Berlin, Teubner, 1930.

[3] Panofsky, Hercule à la croisée des chemins, cit., p. 64 and note, p. 99.

[4] Xenophon, Mémorables, II, 21-33, transl. P. Chambry, Paris, Garnier, 1935, p. 359-362.

[5] Marsilio Ficino, The Philebus Commentary, ed. and transl. Michael J. B. Allen, Tempe, Arizona, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000, p. 481-483.

[6] Ficino’s interpretation is perfectly coherent with a careful reading of the Philebus, in which numerous passages present different choices in life as judgments between the goddesses Aphrodite and Athena. See Plato, Philebus, 11d-12a; 12b -c; 27d; 28b; 33a; 44d; 50e; 52d-e; 55c; 59d; 65b.

[7] Marsilio Ficino, Epistolae, Venice, Matteo Capcasa, 1495 (anastatic reprint by Stéphane Toussaint, Lucca, San Marco Litotipo, 2011), p. 358.

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