Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Bagatto in Context Redux

Earlier generations of occultists elevated the Fool and Magician, those lowly entertainers, to an exalted, even god-like status. (It is not that surprising a blunder, as they had the order of the trump hierarchy backwards.) Today, very few Tarot enthusiasts can bring themselves to break with those traditional beliefs. Even Tarotists who don’t know where these stupid ideas originated continue to cling to them. These figures must be something more, something better.

There are degrading depictions of the Fool on some cards. There is the rank of the Magician, the lowest of all the trumps. There are examples of fools and deceivers as people of the lowest status, or beneath/outside the classification of medieval society. There is the obvious symbolism of the Fool representing the cardinal vice of Folly, and his constant use as an illustration of the atheist of Psalms. There is the explicit judgment of the churchmen: Habent spem joculatores? Nullam; tota namque intentione sunt ministri Satanae. (“Do jongleurs have any hope [of salvation]? None, for they are the ministers of Satan.”) They were beneath consideration, so that sermons condemning them were addressed to their audience rather than the performers. There is the pervasive use of Folly as the downfall of mankind and fools as the exemplars, including the influential works by Erasmus and Brandt. There are even examples in which such subjects appear among the lowest figures in ranks-of-mankind groupings, a nearly exact parallel to their use in the trump cycle, and so on.

None of these categories of historical evidence has made much impression on Those Who Know Better, and this print will not make a whit of difference either. Tarotists will continue to seek out exceptions to the general rule. They will argue special cases—there are several—which, when taken out of the larger context, tend to support a preferred interpretation. By elevating the lowest subjects above their station, they will make hash of the overall sequence. However, for those who don’t ignore evidence, this broadsheet is directly to the point of how street magicians were perceived in Renaissance Italy. It is a 16th-century compendium of low-lifes by Girolamo (Hieronymus) Porro, and has a cups-and-balls magician prominently depicted. (There is also a fool, with his dog.) Porro’s print is a direct answer to the question, “what kind of figure was the magician in Renaissance society?”
He was one of these dirtbags.

Porro’s print is meaningful context.

Le Bararie del Mondo (c.1580)
“A satire on social parasites who make a living doing unnecessary tasks or nothing;
vignettes depicting beggars, thieves, injured or deformed people, lazy workers, prostitutes,
and street entertainers, among others, accompanied by engraved Italian legends.”


  1. Hi Michael,

    This is great - I'm sure you wish we could find a higher resolution version.

    There is an article mentioned in M.A. Katritzky, "The art of commedia: a study in the Commedia dell'Arte 1560-1620 with Special Reference to the Visual Records", p. 211, note 417 - William Twinning and I. Hampsher-Monk, "The mountebank: a case study in early modern theater iconography", in "Evidence and Inference in History and Law: Interdisciplinary Dialogues", pp. 231-286, that might be helpful. Especially if it finds some 15th century examples, but 16th are good too.

  2. Hi, Ross,

    It would be great to know what the couplets say. I've changed the posted pic to a larger, 1300px JPEG, which gives a better impression of the figures. The text is at that frustrating level of obscurity where someone who reads Italian might be able to suss out some of it.

    The Windsor Royal Library site didn't seem helpful.

    From Katritzky's comments we get the gist that the couplets are not flattering -- apparently not a gentle mocking but harsh condemnation. Katritzky's book "Women, medicine and theatre, 1500-1750" has a reproduction of the print on page 102, but there's no telling how good it might be, as Google doesn't show it.

    Still, now that Porro's print is "out there", sooner or later someone will probably turn up a copy... and present it with a theory about the alchemical or Kabbalistic meaning in some (or all) of the figures.

    Here's one of the places online where the original (750px) image can be found.

    Popular Culture Imagery--16th Century Street People

  3. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the bigger version!

    Yep - it's just out of focus enough, I can't even guess.

    Katritzky's "Women" is viewable at Amazon too, and you can see the image on page 102, but magnified to the extreme it is worse than the 1300px image you found.

  4. Unfortunately I didn't find a 1300px image, which might have been much better. I just enlarged the 750px image and doctored it a bit to emphasize the two vignettes I wanted to discuss. I'll add a couple pics from the Amazon version, just for comparison.

  5. Yeah, it is one degree of resolution short of being legible to a native speaker, I imagine.