Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Conjuration of the Tarrocco

A magic ritual in sixteenth-century Venice


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, May 2013

This article is intended as an initial investigation of the tarot as used for magic rituals in Renaissance Venice. The issue was further developed by us in the article Tarot and Inquisitors to which we refer for complete information.


In sixteenth-century Venice one of the most blasphemous magical practices,  dangerous for those who were accused of practicing it (in case of proven complaint attempts to correct gave sentences of flogging and banishment), was represented by the conjuration [scongiuro] of the tarrocco, also known as the hammer of love.


The meaning of Hammer of Love is explained thus by the Vocabulario of Bran, "as if [a hammer] beats and pummels [percuota] the heart". A pounding which aimed to revive not only love, but also other forms of sentiment, such as friendship, esteem or simple affection, even if love was considered the main reason. In the commentary that Lorenzo Lippi made to his Malmantile Racquistato the term "ammartellato" in the octave below is explained in this way: "Hammer of love [martello d’amore] is any sorrow or anguish of heart for the beloved: called Hammer, which beats and pummels the heart, whence then came the word Heartbeat [Batticuore]"(1)


Lorenzo Lippi

Il Malmantile Racquistato
  (Canto Quinto - Ottava 14)


Io ho (dice un di lor) bell'è trovato

Un' invenzion, che ci verrà ben fatto;

Perchè il Duca Baldone è innamorato

Della Geva di Corte, e ne va matto;

Ma la furba lo tiene ammartellato,

E a due tavole dar vorrebbe a un tratto

Tenendo il piè in due staffe, amando lui,

E parimente il Duca di Montui.


Malmantile [a village not far from Pisa and Florence] Regained   (Canto Five - Octave 14)


I have (says one of them) found

A beautiful invention, that will do us well;

Because Duke Baldone is in love

With Geva of the Court, and he goes crazy;

But she, [being] cunning, keeps the hammer of love [ammartellato],

And would play two boards at one time (1)

Holding one foot in two stirrups, loving him,

And likewise the Duke of Montui.


(1) An expression taken from the Italian game of Sbaraglino, meaning in ordinary speech much the same as “killing two birds with one stone”.


It is an expression much used in the past, and we find it, for example, in the Annotazioni di Anton Maria Salvini sopra la Fiera di Michelagnolo Buonarruoti il Giovane [Remarks of Anton MariaSalvini on the Proud One of Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger] (2), in the translation of the Histories of Tacitus accomplished by Alessandra Bernardo (1529-1606) (3), in a version supposedly translated from Greek to Italian  Il Pollaio (The Chicken Coop)by “Aristophanes” (4) and in Giovanni Della Casa, better known as Monsignor Della Casa or Monsignor Dellacasa (1503-1556), best known as the author of the manual of good manners Galateo overo de’costumi [Etiquette or of customs] (1551, but published posthumously in 1558), who dedicated to the topic also one of his five playful chapters in terza rima (burlesque style and often suggestively obscene) entitled Il Martello [the Hammer] (5).


Michelagnolo Buonarruoti the Younger

Remarks on the Fiera [Fair] of Anton Maria Salvini


V [verso]. 44. E di martello e di rabbia ha a crepare (Scena IV - Atto Quarto “Della Seconda Giornata”).

Martello: Il battito della gelosia, i batticuori, i crepacuori, i quali dà la medesima a' cattivelli amanti. Onde ammartellato si dice uno tribolato dalla Gelosia.


V [verse]. 44. And by the hammer and by anger he has to die (Scene IV - Act Four "Of the Second Day").

Hammer: The beat of jealousy, palpitations, heartbreaks, which gives the means to naughty lovers. Hence ammartellato says “one troubled by jealousy”.


C. Cornelius Tacitus

Four Books of The History translated by Bernardo Davanzati - XLIV


Original by Tacitus

Oclavius Pontiam Postumiam stupro cognitam, & nuptias suas abnuentem, impotens amoris interfecerat


Translation by Davanzati

Ottavio [Sagitta] per aver ammazata per martello d'amore Ponzia Postumia, giaciutasi seco, e non volutolo per marito [venne mandato al confino dal Senato]


Ottavio [Sagitta], for having destroyed by the hammer of love Ponzia Postumia, lying with her, and not wanted by her husband, [was sent into internal exile by the Senate]


“Aristophanes” (6)

Il Pollaio [The Chicken Coop]
– Preface

Questa o commedia o tragedia che siasi,

Poi che dell' una e dell' altra partecipa,

In meno di tre dì scrisse Aristofane

Per martello d' amor, per sfogo d' animo

Contro la cara a lui, ma infedel, Clizia,

Che scioccamente preferì di stringersi

In turpe nodo all'eunuco Nicomaco.



This or comedy or tragedy let there be

Then who of one and the other participates,

In less than three days Aristophanes wrote

For hammer of love, for venting his soul

Against the dear to him but unfaithful Clizia,

Who foolishly chose to huddle

In vile turpitude with the eunuch Nicomachus.



Monsignor Della Casa


Capitolo del Martello - Incipit


Tutte le infermità d'uno spedale ,

     Contandovi il francioso, e la moria, (1)

     Quanto il Martel d'Amor, non fanno male

Non è chi sappia dir quel, che si sia:

     Ma vienti voglia mille volte ognora

     Di disperarti , e di gittarti via.

Purchè ti guardi torto la Signora ,

     Parti aver le budella in un canestro,



Chapter on the Hammer - Beginning


All the infirmity of a hospital,

      Counting Il Francioso, and la moria, (1)

      As for the Hammer of Love, it does not hurt

No one knows how it works  

      But come desire a thousand times an hour

      Of despair, and of discarded way.

If a woman looks at you wrong

     You go away with your guts in a bucket.



(1)Il Francioso = syphlis / la moria = the plague


The use of cards for "sortilege” [literally, reading fates] is reflected in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by several witnesses. First [Gianfrancesco] Pico della Mirandola in a chapter against divination (1506) included the images depicted in a game with cards as one of several forms of sorcery, and in the same half-century, the Spanish jurist wrote Martin de Azpilcueta, while Juan Perez de Montalvàn or Montalbàn (1632), pointed to the cards as a method for doing sortilege or predicting the future (7).


As is learned from the trials against people accused of stregherie [witchcraft] and herbarie [magical use of herbs], the invocation to the devil [demonio] to get love via his aid was a habitual practice in Venice, especially among the prostitutes of a certain age who, fearful of losing, or having already lost, their lovers, resorted to the ritual of the martelo [hammer] to win them back. A certain Gabriele of Venice was accused in 1589 by the Holy Inquisition (8) because it discovered her teaching such a magical ritual to a massera, i.e. a maid-servant, named Ariosa, who wanted back into the good graces of her employer, who had fired her. In this case, even if it was not used to resurrect an amorous passion, the function of the hammer was still that of beating the heart of her mistress, needing it to move in the sense wanted by the maid. In the deposition, Gabriele turned out to have learned the conjuration from Emilia Catena, who three years before had been tried and sentenced on the same accusation. La Catena, a public prostitute, was a friend of Francesca Bellocchio, who was also tried in 1589 on the same accusation. Called to witness, Ariosa confessed: "... and then she told me that I might take a piece of rope from the doorbell of the Church and buy a hanging lamp with a bozzolao [candle holder with a round base], oil, and a tarrocco in which the Devil was painted, and all these things in the name of my aforesaid Mistress, and that in taking these things not to say anything else; and then she told me that I was to kindle said lamp before the tarrocco card where the image of the Devil was, which I had to place with its feet up and kneel before said tarrocco with my tresses on my shoulders, (I do not remember if with uncovered knees), and become suddenly angry [stizza], while kneeling and extending said hanging lamp, and so would have attained my intent".


In practice, the servant had to light a candle in front of a reversed tarot card depicting the devil and let it burn until the result was achieved. The woman had been recommended to loosen her hair and remain kneeling in front of that card directing to it at dawn, noon and dusk prayers of devotion and magic formulas. This would have caused the Devil to go to the heart of her employer by giving it much beating, forcing her to return the massera [maid-servant] to her good graces (9).


The reverse of the Devil card ("which I had to place with its feet up" [qual doveo pore con li piedi in su]) finds its justification in this ritual: the practices of witchcraft were often predicated on the use of a crucifix upside down to signify that what was considered Good in reality was Evil. The only inverted crucifix that holds a value of Good is that placed in the papal chair, to witness the descent of the Pope, St. Peter, who was crucified upside down. In the magic ritual described the card was inverted to indicate instead that the Devil is considered Evil par excellence, was actually good, the only good that can be used to get what was wanted (10).




1 - On Lorenzo Lippi and the work described see the article Il Malmantile Racquistato.

2 - La Fiera, Commedia di Michelagnolo Buonarruoti il Giovane e la Tancia commedia rusticale del medesimo  coll’annotazioni dell'abate Anton Maria Salvini gentiluomo fiorentino e Lettor delle Lettere Greche nello Studio Fiorentino, Firenze, 1726, p. 418. On Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane [the Younger] see the articles Tarot in Literature II, III and Del Minchione.

3 - Opere di C. Cornelio Tacito tradotte in volgar fiorentino da Bernardo Davanzati, Tomo Secondo, Bassano 1790, p. 352

4 - Il Pollaio, Commedia di Aristofane, con una sua Lettera a Clizia Scarionne (Tradotta dal greco) in “Il Nuovo Ricoglitore”, Anno III, Parte Seconda, Milano, 1827, p. 492.

5 - In addition to il Martello (the “hammer of love”, i.e. falling in love), the other Chapters of Della Casa are il Forno [the Oven], il Bacio [the Kiss], il Nome suo [His name] and la Stizza [the Sudden Rage].

6 -  In the preface of the work, the translator writes that he found the manuscript of this work on a Mediterranean coast and assumed that it was by Aristophanes, something we doubt.

7  - A more exhaustive review has been completed by Ross Sinclair Caldwell in the essay Origine della Cartomanzia included in the book “Il Castello dei Tarocchi”, Torino, 2010.

8 - ASV, S. Ufizio, b 65, 29 Otober 1589.

9 - This inquisitorial trial is described by Marisa Milani in Giornale storico della letteratura Italiana, CLXII, 1985.

10 - Further information on the rituals described here edited by Ross Sinclair Caldwell at the English language site