Essays of Andrea Vitali:

Card 16: The Tower

During the Renaissance, the card of the Tower was called by various names: in the Sermones de Ludo it appears as "Sagitta" ("bolt"); other authors, including Garzoni, Piscina, Pomeran and Teofilo Folengo call it "II fuoco" ("the fire"). But it is also called "La casa del diavolo" ("The devil's house") in Ferrara and "La casa di Plutone" ("Pluto's house"), or just "La casa" ("The house") by Pietro L'Aretino. It was also called "La casa del dannato" ("The house of the damned"), "Inferno" ("Hell") and "Cieli" ("Skies"). These terms are not contradictory; rather, they all represent an allegory, that of the destruction of a house struck by fire or lightning which, according to the cosmological notions of the age, were held to come from the Sphera Ignis, the sphere or circle of fire located above the Earth. Still further, as one rose up towards the higher skies, was the circle of the Moon, then that of the Stars, and at last that of the Sun, celestial bodies which we find in the tarots after the card of the Tower. (fig. 1 – "The Seventh Day of Creation", woodcut attributed to A. Dürer, in "Liber Chronicarum", by Hartmann Schedel, Nuremberg, 1493)
This destruction could be the work of God, but also that of the devil, if God allowed it. In the Tarots of Charles VI, a tower seems to break up under the action of a lightning bolt coming from above, while tongues of fire break out of cracks on its walls. In the Bible, the wrath of God against the fools who do not believe in Him, and against sinners, manifests itself as "fire and lightning". Many passages of the Bible refer to this: "Thou woundest the head out of the house of the wicked man" (Habakkuk 3:13); "but I will send a fire into the house of Hazael, and it shall devour the palaces of Ben- hadad." (Amos 1: 4); "And Jehovah shall be seen over them; and his arrow shall go forth as the lightning" (Zechariah 9:14); "The sun and moon stood still in their habitation, At the light of thine arrows as they went, At the shining of thy glittering spear" (Habakkuk 3:11); "And I will pour out mine indignation upon thee; I will blow upon thee with the fire of my wrath; and I will deliver thee into the hand of brutish men, skilful to destroy." (Ezekiel 21:31); "The house of the wicked shall be overthrown; But the tent of the upright shall flourish" (Proverbs 14:11); "Thus saith Jehovah: Behold, I am against thee, and will draw forth my sword out of its sheath, and will cut off from thee the righteous and the wicked. Seeing then that I will cut off from thee the righteous and the wicked, therefore shall my sword go forth out of its sheath against all flesh from the south to the north" (Ezekiel 21:3).
Careful observation of the figure of the Tower on the Cary Sheet, together with the image of the "Foudre" ("lightning") in the Vieville tarot gave me the opportunity to understand the original meaning of this card. On the Cary Sheet, at the bottom, we see the head of a cow at the base of a tower (fig. 2); in the Vieville tarot, the tower has been replaced by a tree with a shepherd and his flock (fig. 3), while balls fall from the sky as in the Cary sheet: these represent stylised fire and stones of destruction, as we can see in the work of Lucas van Leyden, "Lot and his daughters" (fig. 4). The explanation is obvious: this is the destruction of the house of Job at the hands of the devil, who had permission from God to tempt the faith of Job in his Lord, destroying his house and animals. In fact, the Bible says: "The fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them" (Job 1: 16); "Thy sons and thy daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother's house; and, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead"(Job 1: 18). This verse of the Bible was painted by Bartolo di Fredi in 1367 in the Collegiata of San Gimignano (fig. 5). The fresco shows us a house with battlements, and the roof falling in and killing those living inside. One of these is shown while fleeing outdoors, according to an iconography which can be found in the Florentine "minchiate" (fig. 6). A devil appears above the house, sounding a trumpet. To the right of the house appear the words of verse 1, 17 of Job "The Chaldeans made three bands, and fell upon the camels, and have taken them away, yea, and slain the servants with the edge of the sword". Under the fresco appears the following description: "Come el demonio nabissò casamenti ne quali erano phigliuoli et phigliuole et li beni di Giobbe" ("How the devil crushed the houses where the sons and daughters and the goods of Job were"). In this verse of the Bible, evil is inspired by Satan. The feeling of pain which emerges from this test is holy, since its existence is necessary to prove the faithfulness of man to God: In all these things, Job never sinned, nor did he accuse God of foolishness "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: Jehovah gave, and Jehovah hath taken away; blessed be the name of Jehovah" (Job 1: 21-22). God had allowed the test suggested by Satan, sure as He was that Job would have passed it. The Biblical story tries to teach us that God can allow any man to be struck and oppressed. With the words of the "Pater Noster" Do not lead us into temptation, we ask God not to have to undergo temptations, which can be of two kinds: those which drive us to commit evil because they appear as something pleasant, and those which can lead us to doubt God because they cause pain. Even in tragedy and temptation, man has the opportunity to choose. The terms attributed to this card, that is the "House of the Devil" and later, "The House of God", can be understood in the light of the above. The house of those who keep the faith will be protected by God, the house of those who deny the Creator will fall into the hands of the devil, as expressed in the Book of Proverbs "The house of the wicked shall be overthrown; But the tent of the upright shall flourish".
In the Italian popular tradition, the two terms have the same meaning. To live "a casa di Dio" or "a casa del Diavolo" – "at the house of God", or "at the house of the Devil" – means exactly the same thing: to live in a far away place, difficult to reach, at the end of the world (Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana UTET 1962, see under Diavolo and Casa). The card of the Tower in the Parisian tarot drawn by an anonymous hand in the 17th Century, called "La fouldre", shows us a devil playing a drum, and other demons in a more confused manner (fig. 7). This figure is based on a variant meaning of "House of the Devil", as a "noisy place, din, pandemonium, confusion". Carducci, in his autobiography, says, "as far as I remember, I would say they simply made a house of the devil. Actually, in my time, I never played or sung or danced except as a joke" (Dizionario UTET p. 337).
The image of the Tower in the tarot of Catelin Geofroy, dating back to 1557, shows us the same allegory. In front, we see a woman playing a violin, while in the background, the devil is carrying off another woman who is crying desperately, meaning that the in the house where confusion – that is sin – reigns, the devil can carry off the souls of those who dwell there. In the Rosenwald folio of the 16th Century, a building is struck by the tip of a lightning bolt, while tongues of fire coming from the Sun strike it. I found the same figure in the "Triompho di Fortuna" of 1527, a book of fortune composed by Sigismondo Fanti from Ferrara. In this book, the same meaning is given to "House of the Devil" and to "House of God", and they are explained with two contrary interpretations regarding the question on how to know "in che luogo daranno quest'anno i fulgori: dimostra I'Auttore in questo luogo, che Dio acciochè gli huomini si r'avvedano de loro errori, lassa alcuna volta incorrere, che i folgori diano in alchuni luoghi. Onde il Fanti minaccia molto ogni generatione di persone, ma sopratutti coloro che tengon poco conto del colto divino" (c. XIII verso) ("where lightning will strike this year; in this place, the Author shows that God, in order to make men repent of their errors, sometimes allows lightning to hit certain places. Therefore, Fanti greatly threatens every generation of people, but especially those who take little heed of divine worship"). First of all, we should notice that the first term which defines the Tower is "La Sagitta" ("The Bolt") which we find again in the "Sermones de ludo cum aliis". The sagitta, bolt or lightning bolt, with its "fire" strikes one of these figures in the "Trionfo di Fortuna", women's monasteries, because of the great disorder in them which provokes the wrath of the "skies"; another ancient definition for the Tower. (fig. 8) In another image, the lightning bolts fall into the beds of great lords, punishing them for their tyranny. Houses of the damned and dwellings where the devil reigns supreme. In a third picture, we find a positive variant of the same image: the bolt this time does not destroy, but leaves a Holy Stone in the dwelling – the tip of the lightning bolt which, according to popular belief, due its celestial origin, appears as a divine gift. The quatrain which illustrates this figure has the following verses: "Non ti curar gia per te far redire / In casa liè caduta Pietra Santa / Che di tal Sacrilegio niun si vanta / Puoterlo in gaudio gran tempo fruire" ("Be not worried if people know that the holy stone has fallen into your house, although nobody usually boasts of such a divine manifestation, in order to enjoy it as long as possible"). (fig. 8). The idea that lightning could be of two kinds, one destructive, the other benevolent, is already to be met with in Pliny, who divides lightning stones into black and red in his "Naturalis Historiae" (XXXVII, 134). The black, round ones were sacred and called Bethels, and could be used to conquer enemy towns and fleets, while the red ones were normally called simple lightning bolts. In popular tradition, any stone coming from the heavens was called a Bethel – the term comes from the Hebrew Beth-el = House of God. In the light of the above, one should consider the sixteenth century astrological text "Le plaisant jeu du dode chedron de fortune" by Jean de Meun, where the ninth astrological house, called the "Maison de dieu", includes aspects of various kinds, some in opposition to each other, including "the divine punishments which often cause suffering".
From the Maison-Dieu of the Marseilles Tarot, like from the Tower of the Rothschild Folio, two human figures are hurled into the emptiness by the destructive force of the lightning bolt which strikes the top of the building, according to an iconography which can also be found in a fifteenth century prints of Virgil's "Aeneidos" (Aeneid). (fig. 9).

First published in Italian language (1987 - 1994) copyright: Andrea Vitali
La Torre, Fig.1
La Torre, Fig.2
La Torre, Fig.3
La Torre, Fig.4
La Torre, Fig.5
La Torre, Fig.6
La Torre, Fig.7
La Torre, Fig.8
La Torre, Fig.9