From Il Matto to the Fool in Tarot
Whether the Tarot Fool is called Il Matto, Il Pazzo, Le Mat or Le Fou, his names all mean the same thing—the crazy guy. This card experienced the most extreme makeover of any Tarot trump, going in stages from a mentally ill outcast, through a vagabond street entertainer, to a self-actualizing free spirit. These changes weren’t arbitrary—each stage built on what went before. Let’s follow the Fool’s progress from the fifteenth to the twenty-first century.
Early Italian Cards
The earliest Fool card we have is from the luxurious, gold-leaf Visconti-Sforza deck commissioned by the Duke of Milan in the 1450s. This Fool’s ragged clothing exposes his loin cloth, he’s feather-brained, and he carries a long club to fend off dogs. His prominent goiter would have inhibited swallowing and breathing, giving him a chronic cough and making it difficult to talk.
The Visconti-Sforza Fool is very similar to the Vice of Folly painted by Giotto in 1305 (Scrovegni Chapel, Padua) where paired virtues and vices face each other on opposite walls. Stultitia, stupidity or lack of reason, is paired with Prudence (reasonableness and forethought). Like the Visconti-Sforza Fool, this allegorical figure is feather-brained, dressed in rags, and carries a large club. His misshapen body indicates a defective mind. His mouth is clamped shut because he has nothing sensible to say.
What were fifteenth- and sixteenth-century attitudes toward those who were mentally different and unable to act reasonably?
The Fior di Virtu was a text written in the early fourteenth century that describes pairs of virtues and vices. It was published in numerous editions from the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries and was translated into dozens of languages. The section on Folly quotes Aristotle, who makes a distinction between those who are dangerously insane, melancholics who have lost their minds, and those with low intelligence. Madmen of all types act on impulse without considering the consequences; they don’t provide for themselves; and they don’t listen to advice. Madmen lack Prudence: The ability to discern truth from falsehood and good from evil; to learn from the past; to take prudent advice; and to prepare in advance, like the ant who spends the summer storing grain for the winter.
At the time Tarot was invented, the mentally ill fell into two categories: the dangerous, raving madman who needed to be confined for everyone’s safety; and the “Innocent”, the child-like simpleton. Most people believed mental problems were caused by excessively cold and damp humors that thicken and slow the brain fluids, making one dull-witted and susceptible to demonic possession. Being born under an unlucky star could also be a factor. Those so afflicted had no legal rights, and no obligations to family or society. They were the ultimate outsider with no place in the social hierarchy. This is precisely the role the Fool plays in the game of Tarot, where he has no rank and no power, yet he can pop up anywhere to mimic any card; making him, ironically, one of the most valuable cards in the deck.
The earliest Tarot Fool is a simpleton, portrayed in art and Tarot with any of these attributes: feathers on his head or a fool’s cap with ass’s ears; a long club or stick; a dog nearby; laughing inappropriately; dressed in rags; genitals exposed; holding a pinwheel, balloon or wind instrument; and bells on his cap or clothing. The Ferrarese card at the top of the page created in the late 15th century has many of these attributes in common with the Fools from illuminated psalters shown here.
We don’t know how the Fool in the block-printed decks used by ordinary people differed from the Fool in an aristocrat’s hand-painted deck. But there is a hint that the travelling Fool, similar to the Tarot de Marseille, may have existed in Italy by 1500. An Italian block-printed deck from about 1500 known as the Budapest Tarot shows a Fool in profile walking along a path. A partial sheet of uncut cards housed in the Cary Collection of Playing Cards at Yale University is believed to be from Italy in the early 1500s. Only a thin slice of the left side of the Fool card remains, but it seems the Fool walks to the right, a stick over his shoulder, and a hat or pack on his back like the Tarot de Marseille.
While the French Fool was evolving into a wandering entertainer, Bologna kept the innocent simpleton. The Fool in Mitelli’s Tarocchino is similar to the simpleton in this Venetian engraving that’s nearly contemporary with the deck. Cesare Ripa in his 1593 guide to symbolism, Iconologia, describes a typical fool that is nearly identical to the engraving: a grown man laughing, riding a stick like a horse, a pinwheel in his hand, and surrounded by children as in the Ferrarese Charles VI and Este Tarot decks.
Wandering beggars were a common sight during tshe Renaissance and were often portrayed in art. This wayfarer from about 1510 has some attributes of the Tarot Fool. As in the Tarot de Marseille, he’s a mature man dressed in ragged clothes. He uses his long stick to fend off a dog. The long-handled spoon attached to his pack, used for dipping into communal porridge pots, reappears in the Tarot de Marseille holding the Fool’s knapsack.
A 1750 Bolognese manuscript discovered by the researcher Franco Pratesi gives the first written indication of how cartomancers interpreted the Fool. “Madness” is the keyword, which stays true to the earliest card images. The Fool doesn’t develop other attributes until the late 16th century when he evolved into a traveling entertainer or jester. European divinatory meanings for the Fool tend to be darker than those in the Anglo-American world. They include: delusion, confusion, drifting passively, irresponsibility, and impulsive actions that end in chaos. At its best, the card takes on the meaning of radical freedom and detachment from society’s restrictions; which leaves room for another kind of madness—creative genius.
Tarot de Marseille
This image conflates two versions of the Fool. From the waist down, with shredded clothes and a harassing dog, he’s still the crazy social outcast. Some of the earliest TdMs, like the 1650 Noblet, retain the exposed genitals of late medieval images, showing he’s unaware of appropriate behavior. Above the waist, he’s dressed colorfully with a collar and belt trimmed with bells. His head gear is a stylized fool’s cap with bells on the ear tips. His long spoon and knapsack tell us he spends most of his time on the road. Is he a homeless beggar who can’t cope with the responsibilities of job and family? Or is he a travelling jester or street performer hitting the road between gigs? Is his mind so confused and his life so disordered that he just wanders about accepting handouts and hoping for the best? Or does he revel in the freedom of the open road, scorning conventional people trapped in the rat race?
French Occult Tarot
When French occultists associated Tarot with the Hebrew alphabet and the qabalistic Tree of Life, it didn’t raise the Fool’s consciousness one bit. Eliphas Levi’s description in his book Transcendental Magic reads: “A man in the garb of a fool, wandering without aim, burdened with a wallet, which is doubtless full of his follies and vices; his disordered clothes discover his shame; he is being bitten by a tiger and does not know how to escape or defend himself.”
The Fool’s appearance, according to prominent occultists Papus and Oswald Wirth, reflects the disordered state of his mind, and shows what happens when you can’t resist temptation and irrational impulses. This Fool wanders about aimlessly, alienated from society and with no free will. It does not end well for him, as a crocodile waits with open jaws. Tarot of the Bohemians by Papus gives the keywords “inconsiderate actions” and “madness”, which are compatible with the earliest cards as well as the Tarot de Marseille.
Rather than a congenital madman who can’t help himself, the occult Fool seems to be a victim of moral laxness and low consciousness, which, theoretically, he should be able to transcend.
The Golden Dawn
In the late nineteenth century, the Fool experienced a quantum leap in consciousness when the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn made Tarot central to their teachings. The design of the Golden Dawn deck was a closely held secret, so its imagery had little influence on the development of mainstream Tarot. But the Golden Dawn’s qabalistic and astrological associations had a massive influence on how the cards are interpreted in the English-speaking world.
They assigned the Fool “zero” and put him first in the major arcana lineup, associating him with the element Air, and the first letter of Hebrew alphabet, Aleph. This opened the way to reinterpreting the Fool as beginnings, initiation, innocence, the breath of life, and potential energy before things come into manifestation. This Fool is an innocent babe picking roses, not aware of the thorns, and holding a restrained wolf. The Golden Dawn’s card meanings are: the first vibration of manifestation, the first breath, beginnings, and the inexperienced innocent beginning his journey to enlightenment.
Two former members of the Golden Dawn, Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, created a deck in the early 20th century that built on the Golden Dawn’s teachings, revolutionized Tarot and lifted the Fool to spiritual heights.
Waite Smith Tarot
The Waite Smith Fool card has a rose from the Golden Dawn’s imagery, as well as a friendly white dog, fanciful clothes and a bright sun. Waite’s The Pictorial Key to the Tarot describes the card: “A young man in gorgeous vestments pauses at the brink of a precipice.…The edge which opens on the depth has no terror, it is as if angels were waiting to uphold him…. He is pure spirit in search of experience.” This is the birth of the spiritual, other-worldly Fool. The mountains and expansive blue sky imply a mystical ascent. He is pure spirit emerging from the void and entering manifestation. His willingness to step off the cliff edge shows his radical trust in the universe “as if angels were waiting to uphold him”. He is pure impulse, living in the moment, innocent and trusting. This can look crazy to most people; but it’s the divine madness of one who knows he is being sustained by a higher power.
The divinatory meanings at the back of Waite’s book are not aligned with his card description. They include folly, mania, intoxication, negligence, carelessness and delirium. These meanings seem to describe the original fifteenth-century Fool rather than the Waite Smith card and often appear as reversed interpretations in lists of divinatory meanings.
Putting the Fool first in the major arcana series paved the way for author Eden Gray to introduce the “Fool’s Journey” in her groundbreaking books of the 1960s. In this interpretation the Fool is the cosmic life force descending into manifestation to experience each Major Arcana card in turn on the path to cosmic consciousness.
Our contemporary Fool can be an innocent, spontaneous flower child, like the Trippin’ Waite card, or the playful inner child depicted in the Songs for the Journey Home with a propeller on his head instead of feathers. The enigmatic black figure of the Tarot of the Crone depicts the primal void and the state of pure potential before manifestation on the physical plane occurs. Brian Williams’ PoMo Tarot shows the other side of the modern fool – clueless, irresponsible, out of control and creating chaos around him.
Who is the Fool — other-worldly mystic or madman? The fifteenth-century Fool is pre-rational, the victim of a defective mind; while the modern Fool has transcended the limits of logic and rational analysis. No matter where he falls on the scale, the Fool is always an outsider, at odds with conventional society, dancing to music only he can hear.
See more cards and art at
Illustrations in order from the top
Ferrarese Tarot (known as the Charles VI Tarot) Ferrara @1470. Collection of Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
The Robin Wood Tarot. Llewellyn, 1991.
Stultitia. Fresco by Giotto @1305. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.
I Tarocchi Visconti Sforza. Milan @1450. Reproduced by Il Meneghello, Milan, 2002. Collection of Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City.
Illuminated Letter D in a 15th century Psalter. Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna. Reproduced in Tarocchi: Arte e Magia, edited by Giordano Berti and Andrea Vitali, p 54.
Illuminated Letter D from an Italian Psalter, early 16th century. Bodleian Library, Oxford.
The Budapest Tarot @1500. Reproduced by Sullivan Hismans, 2018. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.
Tarocchino Mitelli @1660. Reproduced by Giordano Berti, 2017. Collection of Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris
Folle in Biblia Sacra Vulgate Editionis Sixti Quinti Pont. Max, Venice 1603. Reproduced in Vitali, Andrea and Terry Zanetti. I Tarocchi: Storia Arte Magia, p. 19.
The Wayfarer. Hieronymous Bosch, 1510. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.
Jean Noblet Tarot @1650, restored by Jean-Claude Flornoy, 2007. Collection of Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris
Oswald Wirth Tarot. Reproduced in Wirth, Oswald. Tarot of the Magicians. San Francisco:Weiser, 2012.
The Golden Dawn Tarot. Robert Wang and Israel Regardie. U.S. Games, Systems, 1977
The Rider Tarot Deck, A. E. Waite and P.C. Smith, 1909. U.S. Games Systems, 1971.
Trippin’ Waite Tarot. James Abrams, 2019. Tarotcollectibles.com
Songs for the Journey Home. Dwariko Von Sommaruga & Catherine Cook. New Zealand, 1996.
Tarot of the Crone. Ellen Lorenzi-Prince. Arnell’s Art, 2017.
PoMo Tarot. Brian Williams. Harper San Francisco, 1998.
Metzler, Irina. Fools and Idiots: Intellectual Disability in the Middle Ages. Manchester University, 2016.
The Florentine Fior di Virtu of 1491 with facsimile woodcuts. Translated by Nicholas Fersin. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1953. pages 50-56
Ripa, Cesare. Iconologia, Venice:1593. Quoted in I Tarocchi: Storia, Arte, Magia, p. 34.