Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Hospital of Incurable Madman

Tarot and madness


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, Feb. 2012

by Tomaso Garzoni of Bagnacavallo

L’Hospidale dei Pazzi Incurabili (The Hospital of Incurable Madmen) by Tomaso Garzoni of Bagnacavallo was simultaneously published in 1586 in Venice, Ferrara and Piacenza, as a demonstration of the consolidated fame of the author. The plot consists in a visit offered to the readers after payment of a coin of 20 soldi to an all-embacing mental hospital where are confined the representatives of the different forms of madness, ancient and contemporary. The centre of the hospital is constituted by the “King of Fools” [Pazzi]; that means the vainglorious madmen [pazzi], to whom the author dedicates the fifteenth discourse of the thirty that comprise the first part of the work. Every typology of madness is reported through a Discourse, followed by a Prayer to a divinity or tutelary numen to whom the visitors can address particular exhortations with the purpose of making the poor sick men heal. A female section exists as well, which the author describes in a unique Reasoning, whose resulting typologies of madness are identical to those of the men, but with the variation that the women do not have the possibility of healing, given their lack of Prayers. While every Discourse is expressed with examples of masculine characters drawn from history and from the chronicle of the time, the names given to the women - for instance Domitilla Feronia, Ostilia Mutinense - show that they do not have historical settings, while the Devices set above their cells have the purpose of representing the typology of madness they have, to be individualized by the visitors through the visual interpretation of the Devices themselves and the oral reasoning reported for each of the women.

The different forms of madness are not inserted by the author according to a precise logical-classificatory plan, while it is evident the architectural concreteness of the building with its rooms displaced from right to left with cells set “under” or “down” until reaching the last room, the one of  Ostilia Mutinense, tormented by diabolic madness and situated precisaly in the lowest part of the building, conceived with the purpose to create the idea of the infernal descent, toward a madness without name.

The work, which opens with a Dedication, after which follow two Sonnets, introduces the Discourses through a Prologue of the author to the Spectators. It is in this Prologue that we find the first reference to tarot, in which Garzoni at paragraph 6 ironically writes “…those fools [pazzi] of tarocco that consider themselves as Nestor”, or rather those people without quality who believe themselves to be wise. Son of Neleus, king of Pylos, and Chloris, Nestor became famous for being the oldest and wisest man fighting under the walls of Troy, and still today many adages quote him as a synonym for “wise old man".

After the Prologue follow 30 Discourses with beguiling titles such as: "About frantic madmen and deliriums," "About bizarre and furious madmen," "About madmen as unbridled as a horse," "About awkward and fatuous madmen" etc. Of obvious concern to our investigation related to tarot, Discourse XIII has great importance: "About spiteful or of tarocco madmen" [pazzi dispesoti o da tarocco] which I give here in full, including the Prayer. The edition of reference is that printed in Piacenza by Gio. Bazachi in 1586.


[1] Some people have such a spirit inserted in their brain that when they think they are offended by someone, they start to contend with him with a mad [pazza] willfulness; and if the offender multiplies the offenses, so on his part grow hatred [l'odio] and continual spiteful acts [dispetti]; whence the thing reduces him to such that, getting his brain taroccando  in a bestial manner, he gets the name of Spiteful [Dispesoti] & da [i.e. "of] tarocco Madman [Pazzo].

[2] Perhaps among ancient examples could be placed here that of Clicomede Astipalense, a man of prodigious strength cited by Plutarch. Defrauded of a certain prize due him because of his prowess, he developed so much spite [dispetto] about this thing, that one day he leaned his shoulders on a column that held up the school, in which were all the children of the nobility, and furiously pushing it to the ground, he killed the teacher together with all the young people.

[3] Among such can also be counted Marganore, written about by Ariosto (1), who because of the death of his two sons developed such hatred [urta] of women, that however many women came into his domain, all for this reason were treated badly and with ugly jokes by him.

[4] For a great crazyman [matto] da tarocco in modern times, a certain know-it-all for Latin letters, or a certain Belfagor, has been baptized by everybody; for the bite of a flea he would massacre the whole world. When he jumps on his crazy [matto] wagon he is not afraid of the whole artillery of the duke of Ferrara, because his spite and malice [livore] remove his capability to see the dangers and blows that hang over his rage [furore]. On this theme, some report that one day a person called him «fiddle head»; put into a geat outburst because of this word, he gave the person a punch so hard that, hitting a column, he broke both his hand and his arm; and then when he saw the clear damage, becoming more indignant than at first, he threw a sack of marble at him, to hit him on the forehead, but going to the wall and ricocheting back, it hit him in the stomach, so that, powered by a double fury [furore], he went with his head to hit the belly of the other man;  but when the other got out of the way, he hit his head against the wall and broke it completely: and at last, not having some other way to vent himself, he indiscreetly threw a belch from below, saying; “Now take this, since I cannot avenge myself in another way!”
[5] A great spiteful [dispesotto] and taroccantecrazyman [matto] was Cristoforo of Crispino. A person one day told him (he was ugly): “You are an handsome young man”, and hating irony, he threw a brick of cheese at the man's stomach; and since the other took the cheese and carried it away to eat it, he threw a knife; and since the other took the knife to cut the cheese, being near a bakery, he threw a loaf of bread, that the other picked up to eat together with the cheese; he then wanted to throw at the other a jug without wine that came into his hands: but the other said: “Brother, please fill it with wine and throw it to me!”; he became so angry that, running to a nearby fountain, he intended to throw throw it full of water; but the other, laughing and fleeing like an insidious Parthian, said: “Friend, I'll  have the knife, bread and cheese, and you’ll stay with the jug and water, and we’ll be almost equal”; and so he avoided the last hit of the spiteful madman, who at last realized that he remained greatly humiliated after this crazy [mattesca] enterprise.

[6] A more signal example of spiteful madness [pazzia] could not be described than that presented by the divine Ariosto in the perverse and wicked Gabrina, in that great stanza that begins:

Listen (she said) you, who are
So proud, and who so scorn and despise me;
If you knew the news I have about her
Whose death you mourn, you would give me caresses,
But rather than tell you,
I'd prefer that you strangled me and chopped me into a thousand pieces (2). 

[7] Since the cursed old woman ardently aimed every sort of rage [rabbia] and spite [dispetto] against the forlorn Zerbino, unsympathetic to his fate and without a spark of pity, she truly was a diabolic and iniquitous witch. 

[8] These are rightly called spiteful madmen [pazzi dispettosi], or da tarocco crazymen [matti], and they have in the Hospital a cell with the sign of the goddess Nemesis, whom we call upon for help, that being the goddess who commonly takes care of this sort of crazymen [di matti].

                                                                               PRAYER TO THE GODDESS NEMESIS
                                                                 FOR THE SPITEFUL OR OF TAROCCO MADMEN [PAZZI]

With as much ardour as possible, and as much vehemence as permitted, to you, diva Ranusia, so-called by the ancients because in Rannunte, a city in Asia, is seen your image made by the hand of Phidias, we plead for your greatest help and favour, because against these spiteful madmen [pazzi] we don’t know a better remedy than that of the goddess, who punishing and chastening violent and delinquent people, is rightly considered the healer of the sores of these madmen [pazzi].  But If we obtain that help from so just a goddess, know that we, grateful for your favours, will offer in the temple of Adrasteia consecrated to you, a basket of garlic and scallions [scalogne, also meaning bad luck], and we will all salute the name of Adrasteia, snorting out the spiteful odours, clear arguments for the birth of health to these for whom we dedicate the present prayer to you; therefore save them and keep them in peace.


1 - Marganore: a character from Orlando Furioso, XXXVII, 43 and following.
2 - Orlando Furioso, XX, 138

 Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 2003