Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot



Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1989


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, June 2018


In Greek sophrosyne, in Latin temperantia, temperance is one of the four cardinal virtues. For Plato in the Republic, it controls the appetites; for Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics it essentially consists in the moderation of sensual pleasures in compliance with the requirements of “right reason”.


For his part, Saint Thomas in the Summa Theologiae writes: “Temperance, which denotes a kind of moderation, is chiefly concerned with those passions that tend towards sensible goods, viz. desire and pleasure, and consequently with the sorrows that arise from the absence of those pleasures” (1). The temperate person is therefore  one who  is constrained to resist the attraction of passions and pleasures of the senses when they become excessive.


In the 16th century Sermones de Ludo, Temperance is put close to Love, as a virtue that teaches moderation of the instincts, including that of concupiscence or sexual desire.


Temperance is generally depicted in the hand-painted tarot decks (figure 1  - Visconti-Sforza Tarot / figure 2 - Charles VI Tarot) in its most common version: a maiden in the act of pouring water from one container into another that contains wine, which is meant to indicate mitigation of the effects of wine, but more generally, to dampen what is too exciting. It expresses therefore the necessity to control certain instincts, so that, through this virtue, they become balanced.


An iconographic variant of remarkable interest appears in the Alessandro Sforza Tarot (figure 3). A nude woman is seated on the back of a stag, turning her shoulders towards the animal’s head. With her right hand she pours water from a cup, making the liquid fall on her sex, which she covers with her left hand (figure 4). The cup is less apparent, as it has been impressed by a punch together with other decorative elements (figure 5). It is a particular depiction of Temperance: a myth from the ancients is being used as moral training, in accordance with the typical practice of the time.


It is now necessary to emphasize the function that the myths of the “ancient gods” had in the Middle Ages in relation to Christian allegory. Fundamental to this are the studies of Jean Seznec who in his work La Survivance des dieux antiques (translated as The Survival of the Pagan Gods) writes: 


“Thus mythology tends to become a philosophia moralis (so titled in an eleventh century work attributed to Hildebert of Lavardin, bishp of Tours, which draws many examples from the pagan poets, as well as from the Bible). It even tends to become reconciled with theology: the medieval genius for allegory which, renewing the tradition of the Fathers, finds anticipations of the New Covenant in Old Testament characters and episodes from pagan myths as prefigurations of Christian truth.


“In fact, beginning in the 12th century, when allegory became the universal vehicle of all pious expression, mythological exegeses in this sense grew to astonishing proportions. It was in this period that Alexander Nekham related the gods to those virtues which, according to St. Augustine, had prepared man by degrees for Christian wisdom, that William of Conches, in his commentary on Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, interpreted Eurydice as the innate concupiscence of the human heart and the giants as our bodies, formed of primeval slime, which are in constant rebellion against the soul, Jupiter; that Bernard of Chartres and his pupil, John of Salisbury, meditated upon pagan religion—‘not out of any respect for false deities, but because under cover of words truths are hidden which may not be revealed to the vulgar.’ Above all, it was at this period that the Metamorphoses of Ovid were exploited as a mine of sacred truth” (2).


According to the Christian meaning, Temperance has the task of taming, in a principled way, sensuality and sexual pleasures, and so among the virtues, and connected to it, is Chastity. In the Tabernacle by Orcagna in the church of Orsanmichele in Florence, the four cardinal virtues are depicted side by side with their connected virtues according to the precepts of Saint Thomas; in particular, Humility and Virginity (Aquinas, op. cit. II-II, q. 152 and q. 161) (3) (figure 6La Temperanza fra l’Umiltà e la Verginità [Temperance between Humility and Virginity]. See note 4).  In this representation of Temperance, it is depicted holding a compass, a measuring instrument, because measure is a specific quality of this virtue.


The depiction in the Alessandro Sforza card is connected to the Greek myth of Diana, which arises as an allegory of moral education. During the recurrence of the Anodos, the goddess’s annual appearance at which she renewed her virginity by bathing in a sacred spring, she was watched and desired with concupiscence by Actaeon. Furious, the goddess changed him into a stag (figure 7 - Ceramic Plate, ca.1535. International Museum of Ceramics, Faenza), an animal directly connected to her myth, inasmuch as the goddess of hunting was called “elafebòlos”, meaning “deer-shooter”. But the deer was also considered an animal symbolic of mildness and provided with many such traits.


In the Tuscan Bestiary Libro sulla natura degli animali (Book on the nature of animals), a medieval moral essay, the Christian is repeatedly invited, through appropriate animal examples, to exercise the virtues demanded by his profession of faith and his constant practice of confession and penance. This work relates how the deer was able to kill snakes, in order then to eat them, and then free itself of the ingested poison by drinking pure water. From this behavior derives a precept of moral education: “Also men must imitate it, getting rid of hatred, lust, rage, avarice, by turning to the living source that is, Christ” (5).


In the myth, Diana is always a virgin goddess: her constant ritual is the gesture of drawing and pouring water, the element of regeneration and purification. For this reason in Rome the temples of the vestal virgins were built in wooded areas in proximity to springs gushing from cliffs. Diana completes her ritual of purification not in order to dampen potential ardor (since the goddess is always virgin), but pouring water in her “water” (her sex, as a container associated with liquids), she is in contact with energies of the two waters, renewing her virginal purity.


Based on the myth described, the depiction assumes a moral value: as Diana has prevailed over Actaeon, symbol of temptation, and has made him mild; in the same way men must tame and subjugate their instincts, maintaining chastity by drawing from the salvific water of Temperance.


The position assumed by the Goddess, seated on the deer, is not unusual in late medieval art. On a Venetian tomb of the 15th century, a fantastic animal is mounted by a putto in exactly the same way (figure 8), while on a capital of the Ducal Palace in Venice we find a similar attitude in the 14th century astrological representation of “The Sun on the Lion” (figure 9).


Such composite typology, made to affirm complete dominion over the creature being ridden, as we find also in the Strength card in the Visconti Tarot at Yale (figure 10), has its origin in the depictions of Aristotle and Phyllis, of which there exists ample documentation in Medieval and Renaissance art (figure 11 - Memmo di Filippuccio, documented from 1288 to 1324, Profane Love, detail with Aristotle and Phyllis, fresco. Museo Civico, San Gimignano - figure 12 - Francesco di Antonio del Chierico, The Triumph of Love of Petrarch, detail with Aristotle and Phyllis, ms. Ital. 545, 1546, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris).


If water has the function of purifying the fire of the passions, a considerable fire appears in the Temperance card of the 17th century Anonymous Parisian Tarot, called A Trempance, on which the maiden pours the water contained in the cup (figure 13). That fire symbolically represents passion, from which the expression 'inflamed with love' derives, is testified by an extensive literature. Petrarch, for example, expressed himself in this way, thinking of Laura:

Quel foco ch’i’ pensai che fosse spento
dal freddo tempo et da l’età men fresca,
fiamma et martir ne l’anima rinfresca.


(That fire that I thought had gone out

because of the cold season and my age no longer fresh,

now renews flame and suffering in my soul) (6)


There is also a beautiful engraving by Daniel van den Bremden which highlights the effect of fire as responsible for amorous excitement (figure 14  - from Spiegel van den Ouden en de Nieuvven Tijdt by Jacob Cats, 1632. See note 7). In the background, the amorous encounter between a man and a woman visually expresses the consequence of the effect of the fire with which the woman warms her own sex in front of the fireplace.


In the card of the so-called Mantegna Tarot an ermine appears at the feet of the young girl (figure 15). Ripa in his Iconologia writes that in representing this virtue: “si puo ancora dipingere l’ermellino, per la gran cura che ha di non imbrattare la sua bianchezza, simile a quella di una persona casta” (It is still possible to paint the ermine, for the great care it takes not to smear its whiteness, similar to that of a chaste person) (8)


The jurist Andrea Alciati, the famous author of the Emblemata, in another of his works, the Parergon Juris, in Book VIII (which appeared for the first time in 1544), Chapter XVI called De ludis nostri temporis (Of games of our time) (9), puts Fame to represent Temperance:


Mundus habet primas, croceas dein Angelus alis:

Tum Phoebus, luna, & stellæ, cum fulmine dæmon:

Fama necem, Crux ante senem, fortuna quadrigas:

Cedit amor forti & justo: regemque sacerdos,

Flaminicam (1) regina præit que is caupo propinat

Omnibus: extremo stultus discernitur actu.


The world has first place, then the golden winged angel;

Then Phoebus, the moon and the stars, with lightning the demon ;

Fame precedes death, the cross the old man, fortune the chariot;

Love gives up to strength and justice, the priest precedes the king,

the queen precedes the high priest’s wife , the innkeeper offers drinks

To all, at the end the fool is recognizable by his actions.


(1) flaminica = Popess. The flaminica was priestess of any of the fifteen most important deities in Rome, wife of the flamen (priest) of that god, one of the highest religious offices in ancient Rome.


In the same fashion, Viéville’s Temperance lady, (figure 16 - 17th century, Paris) while pouring liquid from one vessel to another that is on the ground, with the other hand holds a banner with the words “Fama Sol” [Fame Only] on it.


Obviously this is not a variation of a personal nature, but a substitution in perfect harmony with the earthly prerogative of Temperance, which is that the temperate man is made known through virtuous deeds, according to a concept expressed by the Fathers of the Church and the Ancients.


Pierre de La Primaudaye, in the first volume of his work  Académie française, divisée en dix-huit journées [traitant] de l'institution des mœurs, et de ce qui concerne le bien et heureusement vivre en tous états et conditions, par les préceptes de la doctrine et les exemples de la vie des anciens sages et hommes illustres writesin reference to the four parts of Temperance: “O combien (dit Euripide) la Temperance est a estimer, veu qu’elle produit entre les hommes tant de gloire & d’honneurs. Ceste vertu est devisee en quatre principales parties, Continence, Clemence, Modestie, & Ordre……..La Modestie, par laquelle l’honneste honte & pudeur peut acquesir une bonne & bien meritee renomee.  ...Car toutes ces proprietez sont indubitablement conjoinetes avec la Temperance,  & consiste aussi bien de l’action, qu’au discours de l’esprit” (O how much (says Euripides) Temperance is to be esteemed, since it produces among men so much glory and honor. This virtue is divided into four principal parts. Continence, Clemency, Modesty, & Order. ... Modesty, by which honest shame and reserve may acquire good and well merited fame. ... For all the qualities of these virtues are undoubtedly conjoined with Temperance, as much in actions as in discourses of the spirit) (10).


An equivalent concept of Temperance, in which it makes a man famous, is expressed by Giovanni B. Bovio in Teatro morale dogmatico-istorico dottrinale e predicabile nel quale si spiegano le Virtù, ed i Vizi, coll’autorità della Sagra Scrittura, de’ Santi Padri, con Ragioni, Similitudini, ed Esempi [Moral, Dogmatic-Historical Doctrinal and Affirmable Theatre, in which is reflected the Virtues and Vices, with the authority of the Holy Scriptures and Holy Fathers, with Reasons, Similarities, and Examples]:


"Whenever people see in their society temperate men - who hate gluttony, debauchery, and other detestable extravagances, and who love and practice Temperance, with so much prudence - they  take them much in account, in observance and honor. People repute them to be the ornaments and objects that give fame and reputation to their country” (11).


Etteilla in 1788 represented the virtue in the traditional way, with a girl pouring from one vessel to another, but had her standing with one foot on a sphere and the other on a flat block (figure 17 - Temperance, watercolored engraving for Etteilla by Pierre-François Basan, 1788. See note 12). This combination was a Renaissance motif used to represent a youth chasing after Opportunity but restrained by Wisdom, according to Edgar Wind (13) Opportunity or Fortune, with her forelock to be grabbed (according to the saying “Seize Fortune by the forelock”), is on a sphere to indicate how quickly she goes away, and Wisdom is on a block much longer and wider than it is thick, to show its firm stability as a foundation for action (figure 18 - Fresco, Mantegna Workshop, Mantua, early 16th century). The fresco traditionally had the title “Occasio e Poenitentia”, i.e. Opportunity and Second Thoughts. It is an example of the Renaissance motto Festina lente, make haste slowly. In other words, do not act impulsively, but act quickly once you have thought it out. With regard to Temperance the contrast between sphere and block advises following the firm and reliable counsel of Wisdom in regard to opportunities for the pleasures of the senses, as opposed to acting impulsively.  Etteilla’s juxtaposition of the two solids expresses the balance that the virtue represents.


In the Grand Etteilla II, by the Etteilla follower Simon Blocquel in 1838 (using Etteilla’s keywords but not his original design), Temperance is depicted as a maiden who has a bridle in her hand, with the obvious symbolic function of restraining the passions, and an elephant, another symbol of temperance (figure 19) (14) as it appears in the image of this virtueby Ripa  (figure 20). About this concept he writes: “L’elefante è posto per la Temperanza, perche essendo assuefatto da una certa quantita di cibo non vuol mai passare il solito, prendendo solo tanto, quanto è sua usanza per cibarsi" (The elephant is put for Temperance, as being accustomed to a certain quantity of food, it never wants more than the usual, just taking as much as it is used to in order to feed itself” (15).




1 - St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, question 141, article 3.

2 - Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art, trans. Barbara F. Sessions, Pantheon Books, New York 1953, pp. 90-91; Originally La survivance des dieux antiques. Essai sur le rôle de la tradition mythologique dans l’humanisme et dans l’art de la Renaissance, Studies of the Warburg Institute 11, London, 1940. 

3 - A. de Surigny, “Le Tabernacle de la Vierge dans l’Eglise Or-San-Michele à Florence (“The Tabernacle of the Virgin in the Or-San-Michele Church’), in Annales Archéologiques XXVI, 1869, pp. 26, 77, 152.

4 - Il Tabernacolo della Madonna d’Orsanmichele. Lavoro Insigne di Andrea Orcagna e altre sculture di Eccellenti Maestri le quali adornano la Loggia e la Chiesa predetta, Tavole dodici disegnate da Francesco Pieraccini e incise dal Cav. Prof. G. Paolo Lasinio con dichiarazione compilata da Giovanni Masselli. [The Tabernacle of the Madonna of Orsanmichele. Work Signed by Andrea Orcagna and other sculputures by Exellent Masters which adorn the Loggias and the aforementioned Church. Twelve plates designed by Francesco Pieraccini and engraved by Cav. Prof. G. Paolo Lasinio with textcompiled by Giovanni Masselli.] Florence, Printed in Prato by D. Passigli, MDCCCLI [1851], Plate VII.

5 - Chapter XLVI.

6 - Francesco Petrarch, Quel foco ch’i’ pensai che fosse spento, Canzone 55 of the Canzoniere (Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta). Translation from Leah Middlebrook, Imperial Lyric: New Poetry and New Subjects in Early Modern Spain, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park PA, 2009. p. 86. This Canzone was set to music by Luzzasco Luzzaschi (1545-1607).

7 - Jacob Cats, op. cit. in the text, Dordrecht, Isaac Burchoorn, 1632. It is a book of emblems, the formulation for which Cats was inspired especially by proverbs and everyday life.

8 - Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, Rome, By the Heirs of Gio. Gigliotti, M.D.XCIII. [1593], p. 40            

9 - Andreae Alciati, Parergon iuris libri 7 Posteriores, Lugduni, apus Sebastianum Gryphium [Supplement for jurists, book VII and after, Lyon, Sébastien Gryphius], 1544, p. 90.

10 - Pierre de La Primaudaye, op. cit. in the text, Paris, Guillaume Chaudiere, Rue Sainct Iacques, à l’enseigne du Temps, & de l’homme Sauvage [at the sign of Time and the Wildman], M.D.LXXVII [1577], p. 45r.

11 - Giovanni B. Bovio, op. cit. in the text, Volume II, Rome, 1734, p. 58.


Gallica entry: Livre de Thot // ou // Collection précieuse des tableaux de la Doctrine de Mercure dans laquelle se trouve le chemin royal de la vie humaine &c &c &c] : [jeu de cartes, estampe] [Pierre-François Basan] ([Exemplaire découpé, aquarellé et contrecollé sur feuille]), i.e. Book of Thoth // or // Precious collection of the pictures of the Doctrine of Mercury in which is found the royal way of human life etc. etc. etc.: [deck of cards, print], [Exemplar cut out, painted in watercolor and laminated on folio] [Pierre-François Basan].) This Gallica web-page was brought to the attention of the tarot history community by Steve Mangan on Tarot History Forum.

13 - Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1958. Thanks to Michael S. Howard for this paragraph and its notes.

14 - The design is first seen in Etteilla, ou L’Art de tirer les cartes de dire la bonne aventure [Etteilla, or the art of reading the cards in fortune-telling], by “Julia Orsini” (pseudonym of Simon Blocquel), Lille, 1838. The date and correct name of the author is given in La littérature française Contemporaine, 1827-1842, Continuation de la France Litteraire, Dictionnaire Bibliographique ... . Tome 5, by Félix Bourquelot and Alfred Maury, Paris, 1854, p. 562, seen at The latter source and others were brought to the attention of the tarot history community by Steve Mangan on Aeclectic Tarot Forum. Thanks to Michael S. Howard for this information.

15 - Cesare Ripa, op. cit., p. 169.


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 1989 and 2018