Palingenio's Zodiacus Vita, 1535 Venice

In my perennial search for moralizing writings of the right time and place to be part of the milieu of the early tarot, I have come across a curious philosophical poem in Latin, the Zodiacus Vita, by Marcello Palingenio Stellato. A full French prose translation was published in 1731, over 500 pages long, as La Zodiaque de la Vie: ou Précepts pour diriger la Conduite & les Moeurs des Hommes (The Zodiac of Life, or Precepts for directing the Conducdt and Morals of Men), which is online at ... &q&f=false
A modern verse translation by Jacques Chormarat was pubished in 1996, reviewed at According to Chormarat, the poem was originally published in 1535 Venice.

The earlier French translator says that Palingenio apparently came from the Duchy of Ferrara, because the last name of his pseudonym is probably taken from the name of his hometown, Stellada (p. xxi). He concludes that Palingenio was probably a priest (p. xxv). But one report has him as a physician to Ercole II, Duke of Ferrara. Against this, the translator says that there is no record of him in a list that was compiled in France of Italian physician-poets. He surely would have been included, because the poem was much discussed by French men of letters (the translator gives numerous citations by French literati, p. xviii). Also there is no mention of Ercole in the work, as would have been customary.

This refutation is not convincing as it stands: under what name was he looking? “Palingenio” is likely a pseudonym. The word "Palingenesis" means "rebirth"; it was used by the Pythagoreans for their doctrine of reincarnation, and by the Stoics for their doctrine of the continual recreation of the Universe by the Demiurge. It could also be applied to Christian rebirth at baptism (

Also, according to Italian Wikipedia (( ... o_Stellato), the introduction to the 3rd edition testified as to the poem's extensive medical knowledge. Furthermore, the opening words of the first 29 lines of the poem are in fact a dedication to Ercole II, Italian Wikipedia says. It adds (from what source?) that the dedication was at the suggestion of Ercole II's chief physician. Given the vituperation against the clergy in the poem, such discretion would have been advisable. The duchy was part of the Papal States, and popes throughout the 16th century wanted to oust its ruling family and get the duchy for themselves.

Three years after his death, the 1731 translator says, the Inquisition had his body dug up, burned, and his ashes scattered to the winds, as that of a Magician. The 1996 translator says the same. Italian Wikipedia dates the exhumation at 1551. It is a fact that the Estensi had unconventional physicians: Ercole I died the morning after drinking a solution containing gold (I think I read this in Humfrey and Lucco, Dosso Dossi; I’ll check next time I’m at the library). The gold wouldn’t have hurt him; but whatever acids put it in solution might have.

Finally, for what it's worth, the Calvinist historian Scultetus Abraham stated that the poet was a courtier to Ercole II, and the name "Palingenio" was in honor of the Duchess. It is well known that she was convert to Calvinism.

Although the poem's plot is reminiscent of that of Folengo's Triperuno, Mantua 1528, there are no Tarocchi sonnets in it, and no one even took the trouble to divide it into 22 parts. It has 12 books, each named after a sign of the zodiac. There may be some connection between the theme of each book and that of the corresponding sign, and thus some sense that the "ladder of virtue" passes through each sign, starting in Aries and ending in Pisces; but there is no sense that anyone's life is dominated by any sign at any time.

The online reviewer did a Herculean job summarizing the Zodiacus Vita’s “pilgrim’s progress”; to me the summary reads as a kind of perverse echo of the tarot trump sequence. At the same time its cosmology and attitude to the powers of this world is strikingly like that of the Catharism that thrived in Northern Italy three centuries earlier. Here is my translation (correcting Google) from the online review's French:
In Chomarat’s presentation, the Zodiac of Life is "a moral treatise, describing an intellectual progression, walking through the steps of a route leading from the lowest to highest, the dirt of the ground to the ethereal sky and beyond, to the infinite light" (p. 9). The lowest, the coarsest is the love of wealth (Book II), more vile than the pursuit of pleasure and carnal greed (Book III: "The world is a stage of fools and a shop of errors," ca. 70, and lib. IV). Particularly scathing is the satire of the clergy: "there is no plague more monstrous / they are the dregs of mankind, the source of folly, the sink of evil, / wolves in sheepskin, making a cult of God for greed" (V, 589-591), "they run the world and focus on the disgusting "(IV, 291). One then rises to goods that can bring relative happiness (friendship, marriage, health ...), then to wisdom (lib. IV and V). The acquisition of wisdom implies contempt of death (Book VI). Book VII opens to the supersensible world: the immortal soul appears to him. The next book deals with the issue of freedom and hence the origin of evil. God is not responsible for evil, but Sarcothée (or Pluto), the ruler of this lower world. Here the doctrine of Palingène cannot be further from Christian theology, in adherence to a doctrine of Plotinian emanationist inspiration, but to which the poet gives strong Gnostic accents: "If the demon who commands earth is mistaken / or evil, it is because it is the last cause, at a great distance from the first" (VIII, 669-670); “the demon who presides over the terrestrial/ globe is wicked and rejoices in his cruel tyranny" (VIII, 690-691). There is then no place, in this thought of corruption away from the first principle, for the dogma of original sin; for, according to the formula of Book X: "In all things nature has poured poison" (713). If the human world is the theatre of evil, the wise man is free, however, in that he alone follows reason. Books VIII, IX and X deliver guidance for the acquisition of wisdom: to follow the virtues and avoid the vices. The poet then explains his cosmology: already, in Book VII, stating that man is "a foolish and wicked animal" (315), the poet declared that it is absurd to think that "Jupiter", whose power is infinite, has not produced better beings and worlds better than this one (309 ff). In fact, the stars and sky are inhabited, and the world has no bounds or end beyond the ether; it is infinitely filled with light (lib. XI and XII). The argument ("the science of God is not confined by any terminus / and divine power knows no limits", XII, 29-30) suggests Bruno, who cites and comments on him at length in De immenso. This light, beyond the sunlight of which it is only a reflection, is none other than the divine itself, and in this life, by dint of purification and of love, it is possible to "see" the "gods", and enjoy their support.
As in the poem, in the tarot we start, on this “stage of fools”, with the scum of the earth, namely its temporal rulers, the church, and the Pope, all of whom the tarot puts scarcely higher than a street conjurer in its hierarchy. We progress to relative happiness in marriage, success, and the practice of the virtues. But in this unstable world, apparently ruled by Fortune (p. 309 of 1731 translation), such goods are nothing compared to wisdom (the Hermit). Against Death, in virtue and wisdom we know the immortality of the soul (Temperance, as the pouring of the nectar of the gods), and realize that the ruler of this world is the Devil, whose minister is the Pope (thus the Devil card has a similar composition to the Pope card). Regardless of disasters, we rise up toward the light, avoiding the demons (which lurk between the earth and the moon), knowing that the sun is only the image of the greater light, until, by slow progress, we may hopr to arrive at the divine.

Such at least is the message of the poem. But could it have influenced the interpretation of the tarot sequence? Clearly the poem had some influence with someone, even in Italy. How could a poor priest not only have financed the printing of a 500 page poem but got it past the Venetian censor with no apparent repercussions for either printer or writer, a writer living in the Papal States? (Even having one's ashes scattered is no repercussion for someone who doesn't believe in the resurrection of the physical body.) Outside of Italy, especially in France, its popularity was wide. According to Italian Wikipedia, the book went through 60 printings between the 16th and 18th century, all of course outside of Italy, where it was on the Index.

The 1731 French translation was dedicated to, hence probably financed by, an English lord, Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield. I expect that the main reason for the translation was the book’s attack on the Roman Catholic clergy, from top to bottom, by one of its own, and as such useful propaganda for Protestants. Yet the book’s doctrine of the ignorant or evil world-ruler—for which the author, p. 310, carefully cites Christ and St. Paul on the “prince of this world”--is seen by the reviewer as a Gnostic “accent”, as characterized for example by Irenaeus in Against All Heresies--a work that went through several editions in the 16th century, first by Erasmus, an author known to be popular with the Estensi at that time (Humfrey and Lucco, Dosso Dossi p. 222).

Such is part of the milieu of the 16th-18th century tarot.

Re: The Zodiacus Vita, 1535 Venice

Thanks for this work ...

I don't know very much about this period in Ferrara (1535). But in the research about the Minchiate Francesi I stumbled about this man, ...
Clement Marot ((23 November 1496 – 12 September 1544), who had a curious life at the French court and also his stays at Ferrara, and he translated Ovid, which caused some woodcut work(around 1551), in which also Chaos appeared.

Image ... id=FANa040

Barthélemy Aneau's Picta poesis,
Macé Bonhomme, 1552 ... hp?id=FANa

The figure of Chaos reappeared later in the Ovid translation of Marolles 1654 and found then its way in the Minchiate Francesi and from here (likely) it went into the Etteilla Tarot and the Petit Oracle des Dames.

I'd difficulties to find other Chaos presentations and so Marot stayed as a possible influence on Marolles. The biography is curious.
He was in Ferrara, precisely around the time(1535/36), when your object had been printed.


Added: in cases o a surprising accident it's often of use to observe the general politic. In 1535 died Francesco Sforza II, which caused a new war between Habsburg and France. ... E2%80%9338

Re: The Zodiacus Vita, 1535 Venice

Quite a coincidence. Not just because of the place and date, but also because of the likely connection to Etteilla.

I must confess that I did not stumble upon this strange poem via Google. I learned about it from Etteilla; he recommends it on p. 63 of his Philosophie des Hautes Sciences), 1785. He says he is using its account of Geniuses (i.e. Spirits). As I was doing a post on Aeclectic about Etteilla's account at the time (see the Etteilla Timeline thread), I did a search, and Google gave it to me. There is in fact some similarity between the two accounts, although probably not enough that Etteilla needed to have mentioned Palingenio in particular.

Etteilla’s own tarot sequence has peculiarites that suggest additional influence. Etteilla’s Judgment card is number 16, as one of the evils that can befall a person, along with sickness (15), death (17), traitorous priests (18), and so on. Yet in the 2nd Cahier he describes his own sequence in a way that suggests that they are meant as outlining a return to Paradise, by following the cards in reverse order. From evils (13 to 78) one ascends, by the virtues (9-12), to the stars (8, 6, 4, this last corresponding to the Marseille Star), past the demons (3, corresponding to the Moon card), to the light seen not with the eyes (2, corresponding to the Sun). Here Judgment, by its place in the sequence (16) is not the final reward for virtue, as in most sequences, but mainly an evil to be avoided. And in the lists of synonyms and related meanings that were being compiled in Etteilla's lifetime, most of the meanings had to do with judicial judgments of a secular character. He has downgraded Judgment; similarly, in Palingenio I see no Judgment by which one enters Heaven. There is Grace, to be sure, but the ascent is mostly a consequence of virtue, purification, and contemplation of the divine, as much as I've read of the last book of Palingenio.

How did Etteila know to read and recommend Palingenio? Could this guy Marot, two centuries earlier, have been a link, bringing something from Italy to France? I have been thinking lately about the difficulty in tracking the origins of French cartomancy. The more I read of Etteilla the less convinced I am that it started with him, because so much of what is in the cards and their keywords is either absent from or contradicts his own theoretical writings. And now you, Huck, have been tracking down this Minchiate Francesa. Maybe it won't be so hard to find the connections as I thought.

Re: The Zodiacus Vita, 1535 Venice

Well, this sounds interesting.

A relation between Etteilla and the author of 1535 together with a second French relation via the "Chaos-road" from Italy to France and close to it - not to forget it - the Caos del Triperuno (1527) - which, known to Rabelais, possibly caused the Tarau note in 1534 (very close to 1535).
And the context, that Mazarin loved Teofilo Folengo alias Merlinus Coccai (as reported in 1649) and Mazarin took - plausibly - some distant influence on the production of the Minchiate Francesi (the Poilly brothers made portraits of Mazarin).

Recently I found this curious line of divination development.

1. Minchiate had 35 numbered trumps (at least around 1550) plus 5 unnumbered cards.

2. The first reader of the rest of the coffee is given as a man of Florence in late 17th century. In Florence Minchiate had a certain influence, so it wouldn't be a revolutionary conclusion, that the man of Florence might have been influenced by Minchiate.

3. Franco Pratesi found once a cartomancy list in Bologna with 35 symbols (maybe from 1750, but no precise date).

4. I found a German text of 1763, which for the moment is the oldest German cartomancy note (as far I know it)
It reports also about coffee reading, and presents a list with 35 symbols.

5. We found the author of the Spiel der Hoffnung (1799), which was a running game, in which the game table was made by 36 cards. But the 36th card has a special function and it isn't really part of the game. Card 35 is the Hoffnung (hope) and the place, where you can finish the game as the lucky winner.

6. In 1846 appears the "Le Petit Lenormand" as a German divination deck and uses rather precisely the 36 figures of the Spiel der Hoffnung. It becomes very successful in Germany - and still it is in a strong competition to Tarot divination.


Parallel to this we have some relation between Minchiate Francesi and the Etteilla Tarot divination ... just created by the use of "Chaos" as a card motif in both decks, which was also proceeded in the Le Petit Oracle des Dames, which used 42 cards (as one of the Minchiate Francesi versions).

Re: Palingenio's Zodiacus Vita, 1535 Venice

On Aeclectic, Kwaw (SteveM here) steered me to Etteilla's Zodiaque Mystérieux of 1772 for more on Palingenio.
On p. 8 Etteilla says:
Je reviens à l'objet de ma Préface, pour rendre compte au Lecteur des raisons qui m'ont porté à nommer cet Ouvrage Zodiaque, Si j'ai préferé ce titre, ce n'est pas que je ne sache bien que Palingene, fameux Poëte Italien du quinzieme siècle, a fait un Poëme moral, sous le titre de Zodiaque de la vie humaine; mais se Savant n'a eu d'autre intention que de donner des précepts de sagesse aux hommes; & Etteilla n'a d'autre but que de leur dévoiler l'avenir. Palingene usant de la licence poetique, n'a pensé qu'à donner à son Poeme un titre phantastique, qui n'a d'autre rapport avec la ceinture du Ciel, composée de douze maisons, qu'en ce qu'il est divisé en douze Livres; & Etteilla tratant de la science divinatoire, s'est cru obligé de donner à ses Oracles un titre relatif à la sage Cabale: d'ailleurs l'étude qu'il a faite de cette science, l'a mis à portée de découvrer dans la succession & le retour périodique des événemens de la vie, une espece de rotation perpétuelle, qui l'a amené de nécessité à son titre de Zodiaque Mystérieux; ressemblant en cela, s'il ose le dire, à ces anciens Philosophes qui appelloient chaîne d"Homere, ou anneau de Platon, la coherence & conjonction de toutes créatures, par laquelle, dit à peu près un Ancien, comme par une cordelle venant du Ciel, & accrochant les choses inférieures d'ici-bas, elles se lioient & joignoient ensemble.

(I return to the object of my Foreword, to report to the Reader on the reasons which brought me to name this Work Zodiac. If I have preferred this title, it is only that I know well that Palingene, a famous Italian Poet of the fifteenth century, made a moral Poem, under the title Zodiac of human life; but the Sage had no other intention than to give precepts of wisdom to people; and Etteilla has the other purpose of revealing to them their future. Palingene, using poetic license, thought only of giving to his Poem a fantastic title, which has no other relationship with the belt of the Sky, consisting of twelve houses, than that it is divided into twelve Books; and Etteilla, dealing with divinatory science, considered it inescapable to give to his Oracles a title relating to the wise Cabala: moreover the study which he made of this science brought him to discover, in the succession and the periodic return of the events of life, a species of perpetual rotation, which brought him of necessity to the title Mysterious Zodiac; resembling, if one may say so, that which the ancient Philosophers called chain of Homer, or ring of Plato, the coherence and conjunction of all creatures, by which, says one of the Ancients a little later, as by one cord coming from the Sky, and hanging on it the inferior things here below, binds and joins them together.)
This account of Palingenio is accurate. So it is clear that Etteilla has read him, or at least got a good understanding of the work's contents from someone.

Re: Palingenio's Zodiacus Vita, 1535 Venice

I took a try, and looked for Palingenio at worldcat. ... ort_yr_asc

A lot of editions, but as the earliest (not naturally correctly sorted as the first) is given a German translation (1564, Frankfurt). I took another attempt to find this text and found it: ... ew/2008193

... I looked a little bit around and was similar disappointed as Etteilla. It's a long text, and it seems boring, and I can't say anything of the Italian poem, but the German translation sounds like a Büttenrede (that are oratios during German carnival). It's hard to read much of it.


From a German comment ... ... 15&lang=en
... I take, that the author attacked the clerics ... and so it was prohibited in 1559 by the church, which is said to have caused, that the book got a lot of interest.
A critique against the clerics would be logical for the Ferrarese court of the protestant wife of Ercole II d'Este in 1535/37.
In my short reading of the German translation text I didn't meet such critical passages.


So I took a closer view at ... ... 40&bih=788
... and there are some editions before 1559 (I saw 1537, 1543, 1548, 1552 and 1556), but all seem to be Latin editions. There's definitely a jump in the productivity with 1559, and for 1560 I find even an English translation ... ... io&f=false
... which likely means, that the prohibition of 1559 caused protestant countries to care for this poet.

Re: Palingenio's Zodiacus Vita, 1535 Venice

Well, it's boring as literature, to be sure, nothing like Triperuno. But if you skim it to compare its structure, as a "hero's journey" narrative, to that of the tarot, it is less boring. It's just that nobody divided it up into 22 unequal pieces for you.

Good job tracking down all those German editions. Thanks to Protestantism, this "famous fifteenth century Italian poet", as Etteilla calls him, had a best-seller, and certainly one of the most tedious.

Re: Palingenio's Zodiacus Vita, 1535 Venice

mikeh wrote:Well, it's boring as literature, to be sure, nothing like Triperuno. But if you skim it to compare its structure, as a "hero's journey" narrative, to that of the tarot, it is less boring. It's just that nobody divided it up into 22 unequal pieces for you.

Good job tracking down all those German editions. Thanks to Protestantism, this "famous fifteenth century Italian poet", as Etteilla calls him, had a best-seller, and certainly one of the most tedious.
As far I see it, it's parted in 12 chapters according astrology.
1559 is the death year of pope Paul IV, who made made a lot with censorship. The following pope accused him and his nephews, which were persecuted and punished.
It's also the death year of Ercole II. d'Este, whose wife (Renée of France, held as a prisoner cause her protestant opinions) found back to France (she was daughter of the French king Louis XII, herself born in 1510). Palingenio was at her court, when he wrote his text.

Both events likely influenced the destiny of the text and its distribution.

Re: Palingenio's Zodiacus Vita, 1535 Venice

I fine an interesting parallel between Palingenio and Folengo. Alan Soons, "Celebration of the rustic virtues in the work of Teofilo Folengo", Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 1:1 (1971), p. 119:
Folengo's derisive mythologizing actually conceals an intense approval of the North Italian sympathizers with the reforms going on beyond the Alps. He was, it now seems certain, a secret assentor to some of Luther's theological conclusions.
As I say, Folengo's Triperuno and Palingenio's Zodiacus Vita have much the same structure, an ascent from the lowness of this earth to the higher levels of the divine; however Folengo is far more clever and entertaining.

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