Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Hanged Man

Betrayal and Prudence


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1986


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, December 2015


In the earliest hand-painted examples, the figure on the twelfth card shows a man hanging by one foot from a wooden crossbeam. In the Charles VI Tarot  (figure 1) the man holds a sack in each hand, from which coins spill out, whereas in the Visconti-Sforza Trionfi (figure 2) his hands are tied behind his back. We find both aspects in minchiate and the so-called classical tarot respectively, with a variant in the case of “minchiate. In the Charles VI cards, the free leg is bent and waves in the air, according to a posture that we find for this type of punishment in different depictions of hell (figure 3 - Giuseppe Salerno, The Last Judgment, 1629, detail of Hell, Dome of Gangi, Palermo. Photo by Angela Bisesi) while in the minchiate it takes on the iconography of the Visconti-Sforza , with one leg bent behind the other so as to form a cross.


In the Sermones de ludo cum aliis, our man is called “lo impichato”, a term which we find, with a lexical variant, in Folengo and Garzoni, who call him the “Appicato” and the “Impiccato” (hanged or choked man). 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 (Game of Tarot played in the Conclaves) (1), the pack of cards is mixed by Cardinal Farnese, who distributes one card to each of the cardinals attending. The “Judas” card falls to the cardinal of Pisa, considered a traitor. A similar term already appeared in the Tarot, and in precisely the Visconti cards at the Yale University Library. The Hope card, unusual in a pack of tarot cards (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 a man lying on the ground, whose robe bears the words “JUDA TRADITOR” (Judas traitor). In this regard the Visconti card follows a medieval tradition in which the antitype of Hope is Judas (2).


The manuscript diary of Iacopo Rainieri, which tells us about 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 città 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 in which was depicted Cesaro di Dulcini and Vicenzo de Fardin, known as il Vignola. They were shown strung up by one foot as traitors to their homeland, since they had brought the art of spinning silk to the city of Trent, and a price of 100 ducats had been put on their heads 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) (3). In this document, the two traitors are “strung up by one foot” because they had taught spin silk-spinning in another town, thus promoting what could well become dangerous competition to the business of their own town.


Muzio Sforza Attendolo seems to have been sentenced to the same torment by Antipope John XXIII, who in 1412 denounced him as a traitor for his alliance with the enemy Ladislao,  king of Naples. In his Annali d’Italia (Annals of Italy), Muratori wrote that the Pope felt so offended that he had him painted hanged by the right foot, under a sign in which he was found guilty of twelve betrayals. More detailed information is gained from the chronicles of the time: “Per ordine del Signor nostro Papa fu dipinto su tutti i ponti e su tutte le porte di Roma, sospeso pel piede destro alla forca, quale traditore della Santa Madre Chiesa, Sforza Attendolo e teneva una zappa nella mano destra, e nella mano sinistra una scritta che diceva così: Io sono Sforza vilano de la Cotignola, traditore, che XII tradimenti ho facti alla Chiesa contro lo mio honore, promissioni, capitoli, pacti aio rocti” (On the  order of our Pope, Sforza Attendolo was painted on all the bridges and on all the doors of Rome, suspended by the right foot from the gallows as a traitor of the Holy Mother Church, holding a hoe in his right hand, and in his left hand an inscription that said : I am Sforza peasant of Cotignola, traitor who betrayed the church XII times breaking my honour, promises contracts, and pacts) (4).


This case is important for the number of things he was blamed for that correspond with the Traitor of the tarot. Whoever initiated this action knew that people would immediately connect that number to something known, so we must ask whether the XII, as well as indicating the twelfth apostle, Judas, also reflected the image of the Hanged Man already present in the tarot [as card XII]. If this were the case, immediate recognition would have been much easier.


In Sigismondo Fanti’s Triompho di Fortuna (Triumph of Fortune), we find another significant example. 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” (On 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 willful design of theirs will fail, and that they will be brought to a bad and desperate end. Therefore Fanti warns all powerful men to beware of such people in every way) (5).


On page LXIIv. of the responses, the Cumean Sibyl has this to say, in quatrain XVI, illustrated by the same figure of a man hanging 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 are  inhuman, or traitor / to Lords, or relatives in fact or in word / Lacking all respect, for no reason / I see you finish your days in the air)  (figure 4) (6).


We also have found a figure identical to the one in the Marseille Tarot. This figure can be seen in the Bolognini Chapel  in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, in the fresco depicting Hell, in, painted by Giovanni da Modena in 1410. In his will, Bartolomeo Bolognini invited his successor to make the images of the pains of Hell were “Orribiles quantum plus potest” (as horribles as possible), and the intended result was certainly achieved. At the centre, a gigantic gastrocephalous devil  [one with a head on its belly] - painted according to the iconography current at the time - sits on his throne. Amidst sharp, severe and massive rock shards, the damned are shown as they undergo punishment, with their faults written on small signs [banderoles]on the stones and above the horizon line On this tar-colored horizon, the only forms of vegetable life are skeleton-like trunks and branches, on which the damned are pierced or hanged. Among them, two men are strung by one foot to the branches of the same tree. We see one from the front, the other from the back. Their heads are above the other damned, two groups of three persons immersed in water up to their chests, looking at the hanging figures above them  (figure 5).


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” (ido/latry). 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 Nineveh, the city 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 as well. The Maestro in fact shows a similar scene: a hanged man above a cistern containing several people, including King Ninus with a crown on his head. The scene refers to the Biblical description of the destruction of Nineveh by God (Nahum 2:8, King James Version): “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 latrês = 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 in the condition of the penalty. The two hanged men had to be represented one from the back and the other from the front, so that 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 their very creator.


Answering question LXIII of his Triomphi, Fanti takes into account “Se`l fin dell huomo sara buono” (whether the purpose of the 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. Benchè ’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. However, Fanti says, men today could reasonably be accounted among the brutes, since they fail to recognize the benefit they have received. But they pay for the debt of their supreme ungratefulness…) (7). 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 tarot of at Yale: it is only through prayer and devotion to the true God that one can avoid the penalty due to traitors.


A further testimony, definitive in regard to being hanged by one foot as the punishment inflicted to traitors, it is found in a majolica dish that I have found in the Ceramic Collection of the Museum of the Malatesta Museum in Fano (figure 6). The plate, fragmented and partly incomplete, has a wide setting decorated with a flowered branch done in monochrome blue. At regular intervals, between the sinewy spirals, there are small flowers with a central button in orange. At the center of the plate stands the figure of a man hanging, his foot held by a rope and a scroll with an inscription that runs along the top of the cable. The few remaining legible words on the scroll are “TRADITURE NO TE C [...]” (TRAITOR NOT TO YOU C […]) (8).


While the concept hanged man=traitor and its iconography is now consolidated, the Fano plate is not only further proof as expressed here, but the inscription that identifies the crime of which he is guilty makes this the only existing example of profane art where the crime=penalty is explicitly defined. And if the figure of this traitor in the Bolognini Chapel, refers  iconographically to the Tarot of Marseilles, with the leg folded to form a perfect cross, the form of the legs in the Hanged Man plate of Fano is exactly the same as that in the Visconti Sforza tarot card (fifteenth century).


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 that symbolizes an upward thrust, a thrust towards heaven, 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” (9).


Being hanged, by one or by two feet, and 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 (10) that represents an allegory of love. From the branches of a dead tree, a woman has been hung by her feet, “per non avere fede sopposta” (for not having had faith in her lover) (figure 7).


Some historians have often wondered why in the Triumphs there was no Prudence, since there are the other cardinal virtues (Fortitude, Temperance, Justice). To answer to this question, it is necessary to proceed to the following examination. We have seen that the figure of the Traitor reflected a Memento Mori, which we can express in this way: “Be careful not to betray your own Creator before death comes, since the doors of hell will be open for those who will not listen to this warning”. To avoid this danger, the teaching of the Fathers of the Church addressed man to Prudence, considered by Saint Thomas an intellectual Virtue, since it is a forecast of the future (11).


But Prudence had to show itself directly in human behavior, according to an exact moral code. Aquinas said “…prudentia est virtus maxime necessaria ad vitam humanam. Bene enim vivere consistit in bene operari. Ad hoc autem quod aliquis bene operetur, non solum requiritur quid faciat, sed etiam quomodo faciat; ut scilicet secundum electionem rectam operetur, non solum ex impetu aut passione. Cum autem electio sit eorum quae sunt ad finem, rectitudo electionis duo requirit, scilicet debitum finem; et id quod convenienter ordinatur ad debitum finem (…Prudence is a virtue most necessary for human life. For a good life consists in good deeds. Now in order to do good deeds, it matters not only what a man does, but also how he does it; to wit, that he do it from right choice and not merely from impulse or passion. And, since choice is about things in reference to the end, rectitude of choice requires two things: namely, the due end, and something suitably ordained to that due end)  (12)


Choosing the right means toward an end is in part a matter of  exercising the virtue of Prudence, i.e. acting well with regard to future consequences. Toward the end of being part of God’s future Kingdom and avoiding Hell, acting against the law of God is a betrayal of God. Hence the image of a man hanged for betrayal of his lord or the law which the lord entrusts him with is an image of the consequence to those who disobey God’s law, and so is to that extent an image of imprudence. The prudent man follows God’s commandments.


The intellectuals of the time knew this concept very well as the significance of Prudence; so it is natural that the figure of the Traitor would recall this virtue. We might wonder why in the Triumphs Prudence was never portrayed in its classical version, that is, a woman who looks at herself in a mirror, to mean that Prudence cannot be seduced by fleeting appearances.


The figure of a man hanging by his foot, which recalled the betrayal and therefore the lack of Prudence, would have had more visual impact, because it privileged  the sense of physical pain caused by the hanging position, assuring a greater emotional effect. The medieval visionary spirituality often returned to this kind of terrifying representation.  An example is the gargoyles, sculpted to suggest to man that only inside the Church (and in the Spiritual Church) could he have shelter against the influence of evil that they represented. An example of the Traitor-Hanged Man considered as Prudence can be found in the work Risposta di M. Vicenzo Imperiali all’Invettiva di Flavio Alberto Lollio (Answer of M. Vicenzo Imperiali to the invective of Flavio Alberto Lollio) (13). Imperiali describes the Triumphs in descending order: the World, Justice, the Angel, the Sun, the Moon, the Star, the Tower, the Devil, Death, Prudence, the Hermit, the Wheel, Strength, Love, the Chariot, Temperance, the Pope, the Priestess, the Emperor, the Empress, the Magician, the Fool.


The author, listing the Triumphs in a literary form, writes in verses 274 - 275 - 276:


Vien poi la Morte, et mena un’altra danza, 

Et la prudenza, e la malitia atterra,

Et pareggia ciascuno alla bilanza.


Then comes Death, and brings another dance,

prudence, and malice down here,

And everything equals out on the scales.


To understand this passage better it is necessary to know what the author writes about the Devil, and for this reason we report the verses from 263 to 279 (in the original Italian with English translation) explaining the meaning of the verses afterwards. 


Quivi il Demonio di rado sta dentro,                                                                  265                                                                         

Rarely the Devil stays down there in Hell,

Anzi fra l'human seme sviluppato

On the contrary, he developed among the human seed

Sempre dimora: ed io in un gran mar entro:

He always lives here: and I enter into a great sea:

S'io voglio di costui haver narrato,

If I want to tell a story about this one,

Come nel Mondo ognihor fa nuova preda,

How in the World every instant he makes new prey,

Onde di quella Principe è chiamato.                                                                  270                                                                              

So of that he is called Prince.

Tal, che conviene qua giù ch'ognun li ceda,

So it is best that everyone down here  yield to him

D’ingegno, di malitia et di possanza,

In cleverness, malice and power,

Ben ché la sciocca turba ciò non creda.

Although the foolish crowd doesn’t believe this.

Vien poi la Morte, et mena un’altra danza,

Then comes Death, and brings another dance,

Et la prudenza, e la malitia atterra,                                                                  275                                                                        

Prudence, and malice down here,

Et pareggia ciascuno alla bilanza.

And makes everybody equal on the scales.

Ma, ' l vecchio saggio la Fortun' afferra,

But the wise old man catches Fortune,

Et fa di lei, e di sua ruota un fasso,

And makes of her and her wheel a faggot,

Quantunque essa la forza vinca in guerra.

Although she beats Strength in war.


"Rarely does the Devil live in Hell, instead he always stays with men and now I’m going to get into a great discussion: the fact that at every moment in the world he has a new prey gives him the title of Prince of lost souls. So it is necessary on earth that everyone be afraid of him, considering him superior in cleverness, malice and power, even if the foolish common people think themselves able to cheat him. Then comes Death that with another dance takes  Prudence (referring to taking the trick in the  game, but also to the name of the card) and men (the author, to identify humanity, uses a negative attribute that human sentiment shares with the Devil, that is, malice) [, making everybody equal in death (or equalizing the result, so that the wicked who escaped punishment in life are punished after death, and likewise the good rewarded). But the Hermit takes Fortune and makes it and its wheel a faggot [firewood], even if Fortune in war wins over Strength" (14).


Court de Gébelin also connected the Hanged Man to Prudence. In his Tarot, engraved in the eighth volume of the work Monde Primitif (15) the figure of the man is turned right side up (as already depicted by some card makers of Rouen and Brussels at the beginning of the XVIII century), with a foot tied to a piece of wood set in the ground, to signify the necessity of not acting by impulse, and pondering everything well before undertaking any action (figure 8).


While Eliphas Levi gave the meaning of Prudence to the Hermit, the next scholars of esotericism kept the image of a hanged man and exploited the iconographic structure of the figure of the cross formed by the two legs and the upside down position, to satisfy their own 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 (16).




1 - Paolo Giovio, Gioco di Tarocchi fatto in Conclavi (Game of Tarot played in the Conclaves), ms. 2.5 1/30 Roma 1550. Fondo (Collection) P. Giovio. Como, City Library.

2 -  Leone Dorez, La canzone delle virtu e delle scienze di Bartolomeo di Bartoli da Bologna, Bergamo 1904, p. 82. For “JUDA TRADITOR’, see Stuart R. Kaplan, Encyclopedia of Tarot, vol. 1 (Cincinatti, Ohio: U.S. Games Systems, 1978), p. 91. In the high-resolution scan on the website of the Beinecke Library, only vague outlines of the letters are still visible

3 - Iacopo Rainieri, Diario di cose seguite in Bologna dalli 20 settembre 1535 fino li 25 dicembre 1549 (Diary of things that happened in Bologna from 20 September 1535 until 25 December 1549), ms. 615, XVIth century, cc.241, c. 40 recto - March 12, 1532.

4 - Ludovico Antonio Muratori, Annali d’Italia (Annals of Italy),  Milano, A spese di Giambattista Pasquali, 1744, Anno 1412, p. 62.

5 - Sigismondo Fanti, Triompho di Fortuna (Triumph of Fortune), Impresso in la inclita citta di Venegia: per Agostin da Portese: ad instantia di Iacomo Giunta mercatante florentino, 1526 nel mese di genaro 1527 (Printed in the famous city of Venice by Agostin da Portese for Iacomo Giunta, Florentine merchant, 1526 in the month of January 1527). At that time there were two ways of reckoning the year. One, the stilo communa, started Jan. 1. The other, the stilo Veneto, started March 1. So January 1526 in one way of reckoning would be January 1527 in the other. See: Robert Eisler, The Frontispiece to Sigismondo Fanti's Triompho di Fortuna, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 10 (1947), pp. 155-159,  footnote 4.

6 - Ibid., quatrain XVI, page LXIIv.

7 - Ibid., question LXIII.

8 - Pesaro / Fano [?], end of 15th century; h. cm.4,3 - Ø cm. 25,8.

9 - G. de Champeaux - S. Stercks, Simboli del Medioevo  (Symbols of the Middle Ages), Milan, 1981.

10 - Ceramic plate, Deruta, 1510, Paris, Musée du Louvre.

11 - “…prudens dicitur quasi porro videns, perspicax enim est, et incertorum videt casus. Visio autem non est virtutis appetitivae, sed cognoscitivae. Unde manifestum est quod prudentia directe pertinet ad vim cognoscitivam. Non autem ad vim sensitivam, quia per eam cognoscuntur solum ea quae praesto sunt et sensibus offeruntur. Cognoscere autem futura ex praesentibus vel praeteritis, quod pertinet ad prudentiam, proprie rationis est, quia hoc per quandam collationem agitur. Unde relinquitur quod prudentia proprie sit in ratione (A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties. Now sight belongs not to the appetitive but to the cognitive faculty. Wherefore it is manifest that prudence belongs directly to the cognitive, and not to the sensitive faculty, because by the latter we know nothing but what is within reach and offers itself to the senses: while to obtain knowledge of the future from knowledge of the present or past, which pertains to prudence, belongs properly to the reason, because this is done by a process of comparison. It follows therefore that prudence, properly speaking, is in the reason). Summa Theologiae, IIª-IIae q. 47 a. 1 co.

12Summa Theologiae, IIa. q. 57 a. 5 co.

13 - Ms. CLI, 257, c. 1554. Modena, Estense Library.

14 - More of our analysis of the document is presented at the link (

15 - Antoine Court de Gébelin, Monde Primitif analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (Primitive world, analyzed and compared with the modern world),Vol. VIII, Paris, 1781.

16 - For more information on the subject on the Hanged Man, see the essays The Traitor, A Gang of Traitors and Ruzante, the Peasant


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 1986