Essays of Andrea Vitali:

Card 12: The Hanging Man

In the earliest miniatures, the figure on the twelfth card shows a man hung by one foot from a wooden crossbeam. In the Tarots of Charles VI (fig. 1), the man holds a bag in each hand, from which coins spill out, whereas in the Trionfi of the Visconti (fig. 2) his hands are tied behind his back. We find both aspects respectively in the "minchiate" and in so-called classical tarots, with a variant in the case of the "minchiate". In the cards of Charles VI, the free leg is bent and waves in the air, while in the "minchiate" it takes on the iconography of the Visconti Tarots, with one leg bent behind the other so as to draw a cross.
In the "Sermones de ludo cum aliis", our man is called "lo imphicato" ("the hanged man") a term which we find, with a syntactical variant, in Folengo and Garzoni who call him the "Appicato" or the "Impiccato". In other 16th century documents, we find him called the "traitor". In fact, many documents and accounts tell us that this was the penalty for treason. There is a rather obvious reference to the figure of Judas, who is explicitly mentioned in certain texts. In the "Gioco de tarochi fatto in Conclavi" ("Tarots played in the Conclaves"), the pack of cards is mixed by cardinal Farnese who distributes a card to each of the cardinals attending. The "Judas" card falls to the cardinal of Pisa, considered a traitor. A similar term already appeared with the Tarots, to be exact, in the Visconti cards of the Yale University Library. The Hope card, apparently unusual in a pack of tarots (see below), is represented by a kneeling woman in the act of praying. Her hands grasp two ropes, one tied to an anchor, the other around the neck of an old man lying on the ground, whose white dress bears the words "Juda traditor", (Judas the traitor).
The manuscript diary of Iacopo Rainieri, which tells us about the events which took place in Bologna between 1535 and 1549, has this to say about the penalty for traitors: "Adi 21 detto fu atachati su li cantoni de la piaza uno foglio de carta nel quale li era depinto cesaro di dulcini e Vicenzo de fardin ditto il Vignola li quali erano apichati per uno piedo per tradittori de la patria li quali avevano portato în la cittŕ di Trento il mestiero del fillatoglio de lavorare la seda et aveano taglia drieto che li amazava guadagnava ducati 100 e chi li deva vivi ducati 200. Notta che il ditto Cesaro Dolsino feva l'arte dela seda et Vicenzo feva l'arte del ligname zioe faceva li filatogli" ("On the 21st, a sheet of paper was put up on the corners of the square, with a drawing of Cesaro di Dulcini and of Vicenzo De Fardin, known as il Vignola. They were shown strung up by a foot, as traitors to their home, since they had brought the art of silk spinning to Trento, and a price of 100 ducats had been put on their head for killing them, and 200 for capturing them alive. It was mentioned that Cesaro Dolsino worked with silk, while Vicenzo was a carpenter who made the spinning frames") (c. 40 recto – March 12, 1532)
In this document, the two traitors are "strung up by a foot" because they had taught how to spin silk in another town, thus promoting what could well become a dangerous competition to the business of their town. In Sigismondo Fanti's "Triompho di Fortuna" (Triumph of Fortune) we find another significant example. The question XLVII is an attempt to answer "Quel cha l'huomo, o alla donna per li loro ma pensieri averra" ("What will happen to a man, or a woman, because of their evil thoughts"), and is illustrated by three figures: the first shows a convict climbing the steps of a gallows, the second a man hung by one foot, while the third shows what is left of a man condemned to such a penalty. A head, an arm and a leg are hanging from the rope. Fanti thus explains the question: "Nella presente domanda, l'Auttore tratta di coloro che sono oppressi da molti e scelerati pensieri, e spetialmente di quelli che pensano operarli contra de loro maggiori, notificando, che ogni tristo lor disegno andera fallato, e che da cieli sarano ridotti a pessimo e disperato fine. Onde il Fanti essorta tutti i potentati a doversi da questi tali per ogni modo guardare". ("In this question, the Author deals with those who are oppressed by many evil thoughts, and especially those who think of using them against their superiors, and warns them that every wilful design of theirs will fail, and that they will be brought to bad and desperate end. Therefore Fanti warns all powerful men to beware of such people in every way".
At the card LXII v. of the responses, the Sybilla of Cuma has this to say in the quartain XVI, illustrated by the same figure of a man hung by one foot: "Se inhumano serai, o traditore / A Signori, o parenti in fatto o in detto /Senza cagion privo d'ogni rispetto / Te veggio in aer terminar tue ore" ("If you be inhuman, or traitor / to Lords, or relatives who are such in fact or in word / if you be without any respect, for no reason / I see you finish your days in the air) (fig. 3).
We too have found a figure identical to the one on the Tarot of Charles VI and on the Marseilles Tarot. This figure can be seen in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna in the fresco depicting Hell, in the Bolognini Chapel, painted by Giovanni da Modena in 1410. In his will, Bartolomeo Bolognini invited his successor to make the image of Hell "Orribilis quantum plus potest" ("as horrible as possible"), and the intended result was certainly achieved. At the centre, a gigantic gastrocephalous devil – painted according to the iconography current at the time - sits on his throne. Amidst sharp, cutting and massive rocky shards, the damned are shown as they undergo punishment, with their faults written on small flags, on the stones and above the line of the horizon. On this tar-coloured horizon, the only form of vegetable life are skeleton-like trunks and branches, on which the damned are pierced or hanged. Among these, two men are strung from a foot to the branches of the same tree. We see one from the front, the other from the back. Their heads are above other damned, two groups of three people steeped in water up to their chests, who are looking at the hanging figures above them.(fig. 4). The caption identifying their sin starts on the left of the hanging figure whose back we see, and ends on the right of the second hanging figure: "ido/latria". Between the heads of these idolaters, above the people steeped in the water, are the words "ninusrex". The reference is to the ultimate idolater, King Ninus, the founder of Niniveh, the town where idolatrous rites were performed more than anywhere else. When painting this fresco, in order to invent and describe certain punishments, Giovanni da Modena certainly drew inspiration from previous models. The "Maestro Bolognese" of the Brussels initials, when depicting Hell in the "Book of Hours" of Charles the Noble, and in the "Book of Hours" currently in the Bodleian Library of Oxford, seems to have referred to the same models too. The Maestro in fact shows a similar scene: a hanged man above a cistern, which contains several people, including King Ninus with a crown on his head. The scene refers to the Biblical description of the destruction of Niniveh by God (Nahum 2,9): "But Nineveh is of old like a pool of water: yet they shall flee away".
Giovanni da Modena did not explicitly represent King Ninus, and he used the stones as a natural cistern in which to place the idolaters. The term idolatry comes from the Greek eidôlatres, made up of eidôl- on = image and latręs = servant.
The imagery is based on a law of retaliation: idolaters, who worship images of false gods, are forced to observe the image of their own fault through eternity, represented by the condition of the penalty. The two hanged men had to be represented, one from the back and the other from the front, so the vision of their fault, and hence of the suffering caused by the punishment, could be complete.
Idolatry is the ultimate _expression of treason, and the most ignoble, since it repudiates the very creator. Answering question LXIII of his "Triomphi", takes into account "Se `l fin dell huomo sara buono" ("whether the purpose of man is good"), and has this to say: "L'Auttore in questo luogo dimostra che Iddio, rispetto alla sua infinita altezza e somma deita, non hauer potuto crear l'huomo in altra forma, che a l'imagine e similitudine sua. Benche `l Fanti dice, che gli huomini si potrebbero oggi ragionevolmente metter nel numero de gli animali bruti, perche non riconoscono il ricevuto beneficio Ma pagano i loro debiti d'una somma ingratitudine...". ("The Author in this place shows that God, because of his infinite height and supreme godliness, could not have created man in any other form, except in his own image and likeness. Yet, Fanti says, men today could reasonably be accounted among the brutes, since they fail to recognise the benefit they have received. Put they pay the debt of a supreme ungratefulness…").
It is interesting to note the figures which illustrate this question: once again, we find a man walking up the steps of a gallows, and the parts of the body left hanging on the rope. The figure of the man hanged by one foot, that is of the traitor, is replaced by a man kneeling in prayer. There is a clear link here to the Hope card in the Visconti tarots of the Yale University Library: it is only through prayer and devotion to the true God that one can avoid the penalty due to traitors.
Man's sin is represented iconographically in the image of a fall. First Lucifer, followed by all his host. "Man turned upside down, that is man who has lost his standing position, has lost everything which symbolises an upward thrust, a thrust towards the sky, towards the spiritual, he no longer rises up the axis mundi towards the celestial pole and towards God; on the contrary, he plunges into the animal world and the dark netherworld" (G. de Champeaux - S. Stercks: Simboli del medioevo, Milan, 1981)
Esotericism exploited the iconographic conformation of the figure, the cross formed by the two legs and the upside down position, in order to satisfy its doctrinal speculations. Actually, the position of the free leg being bent was a natural one for anybody in those conditions, and the victim would inevitably tend to rest one leg against the other in order to soothe the pain created by the unbalanced position of the body.
Being hanged, by one or by two feet, an in any case upside down, also became an allegorical representation of negative situations which caused pain and moral suffering. We can see an example in an Italian ceramic plate of 1510 which represents an allegory of love. From the branches of an essicated tree, a woman has been hung by per feet, "per non avere fede sopposta" ("for not having had faith in her lover") (fig.5).

First published in ... with the title .... copyright: Andrea Vitali

L'Appeso, Fig.1
L'Appeso, Fig.2
L'Appeso, Fig.3
L'Appeso, Fig.4
L'Appeso, Fig.5