The exquisite hand-painted tarocchi* cards of medieval Milan display neither titles nor numbers. Yet “The Fool,” as he will be called in later decks, is easy to identify. So is his type. Just as his image is the ancestor of trump card Il Pozzo, the madman, he is one of the displaced mentally ill who wander our streets through the centuries, homeless, ragged, and gaunt.
His face is doleful; his tattered clothes afford not even modesty let alone warmth. He carries a club, for a street person must ward off snapping, snarling street dogs.
The lumps on his neck reveal the root of his sorrows. They are the goiters of congenital hypothyroidism (CHT, previously called cretinism), a malady endemic where mined (rather than sea) salt was used and where the soil was low in iodine. Although its cause was unknown until the early 20th century, the tarocchi players would have recognized his plight. Hopefully, one of the ladies and gentlemen who owned the lavish deck threw him a coin now and then, for in his time and place, the “social safety net” equalled the charity — and fortunes — of the rich and powerful.
Inspired by a true story, The Bones You Have Cast Down, by Jean Huets, will transport you to a medieval village and a lush Renaissance court, to long ago times not unlike our own, when the keepers of faith conspired against the faithful, and the rich and powerful embraced war and corruption even while fostering works of artistic brilliance revered to this day. “Enchanting and richly historical, as well as dazzling and dark, heart-wrenching and intoxicating.” — Stuart R. Kaplan || Amazon/Kindle | INDIEBOUND | iTunes | B&N |
Despite his utter lack of rank, this beggar, this madman, this Fool, is a trump card. Tarot scholar Gertrude Moakley named him the Carnival King. Indeed, he wears a crown — a mock crown of feathers. It is he who will lead the raucous Carnival parade, a misfit becoming an emblem of drunken abandon and the fertile madness of spring.
But at the end of the festivities, his feather crown is plucked apart, and revelry is trumped by the austerity of Lent. And the Fool takes to the streets once again.
*While many consider tarot cards “New Age,” the earliest extant decks originated in late medieval Northern Italy, and were used in a game like bridge. The 78 cards of a traditional tarot deck comprise suits (now called Minor Arcana) and trumps (now called Major Arcana). The 56 suit cards resemble modern playing cards, with four suits, each with ten “pips” and a court of king, queen, male knight (jack) plus a female knight. The 22 trump cards feature allegorical figures such as Fortune, Temperance, the Sun, and the Moon.
Sources: Jean Huets, “A Quattrocento Crossroads,” Fantasy magazine. HERE. Gertrude Moakley, Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family, New York: 1966)