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The exquisite hand-painted tarocchi (tarot) 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.

0 The Fool
“The Fool” from the hand-painted Visconti-Sforza tarocchi. Attributed to Bonifacio Bembo of Cremona, circa 1450. Collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, NYC.

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.

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.

The Bones You Have Cast Down cover

A novel based on the true story of the Popess card of the tarot.

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“Enchanting & richly historical, heart-wrenching & intoxicating.” —Stuart R. Kaplan, author Pamela Colman Smith. 

“A storytelling treasure. The sights, smells, feel of Renaissance Italy seep from every pore of the story.” —Ron Andre, A Matter of Fancy

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)

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