Just a quick note to highlight a wonderful book I discovered while doing some preservation boxing in our Rare Book Room: ‘Triompho di Fortuna’ (The Triumph of Fortune) by Sigismondo Fanti, published in Venice in 1527. While the subject matter – astrology, fortune-telling and the workings of fate – might not figure very highly in the Royal Society’s current research funding priorities (!), the stunning woodcut images are well worth a look in their own right.
The ‘Triompho di Fortuna’ begins with a series of instructions to readers seeking their destiny within its pages. We then find depictions of figures of fortune, followed by wheels and spheres of chance featuring various animals, both real and mythological, at their centres – this one shows the ‘Rota del dracone’, or wheel of the dragon [click image to see a larger version (pdf)]:
and here’s the ‘Rota della balena’, or wheel of the whale [click image to see a larger version (pdf)]:
and the ‘Sphera del serpentario’, or sphere of the serpent [click image to see a larger version (pdf)]:
The book concludes with a series of pages featuring astrologers, some holding scientific instruments of the period:
alongside a set of cards, similar to the tarot pack, containing four-line verses indicating the eventual fate of the reader who has followed a particular path through the book. One typical example, translated into English, reads:
The beautiful Venus and the celestial signs
appearing in the western sky,
the white Taurus that never fails,
all seem to announce great riches for you.
… pretty much the kind of thing that people who consult astrologers and fortune-tellers usually like to hear!
Of course, astrology was much closer to the heart of the natural philosophical world 500 years ago, as pointed out in James Hannam’s fascinating book ‘God’s Philosophers’, which I’ve recently been reading. [James gave a great lecture about it for us too – click here to listen to the podcast.] Astrologers needed to be expert mathematicians and have access to state-of-the-art astronomical tables in order to cast their horoscopes and make forecasts based on the motion of the heavens. The church was generally content to turn a blind eye as long as astrologers didn’t claim that their horoscopes fixed a person’s entire fate; however, the inquisition did give a frosty reception to those who crossed the line, such as the 14th century Bolognese astrologer Cecco D’Ascoli, who made the rather serious mistake of calculating, retrospectively, the horoscope of Jesus Christ. Or maybe ‘fiery reception’ would be more accurate – Cecco was burned at the stake in 1327.
Our copy of ‘Triompho di Fortuna’ is in decent condition – as often happens, the front board has become detached and the joint is crumbling (hence the need to place it in a protective box), but the paper quality is sound, and the woodcut illustrations have survived the centuries extremely well; they’re far lovelier than my rather inadequate digital photography skills allow for. It seems to be quite a rare work, and I could only find four other copies in British public collections (at the BL, the V&A, and the universities of London and Oxford).
The book was meant to be navigated via a complex system of dice-throwing and horology – the time of day at which the reading took place was apparently most significant. I’m no expert in these things myself, but if any of our readers happen to be well-versed in the tarot pack, 16th-century astrological theory and Venetian dice-play, they are very welcome to visit the Royal Society Centre for History of Science to check on their fortunes. My apologies in advance if our opening hours of 10am to 5pm prove to be an inauspicious time window for consultations …
I’ll keep an eye out for other beautiful illustrations as the preservation boxing programme continues – no matter how many years you work at the Royal Society, there’s always a stunning new find lurking in the collections. Oh, and here’s one more image from the ‘Triompho di Fortuna’, and a question to ponder over: if windsurfing was invented in the 1960s, then what exactly is this lady, Fortuna de Euro, doing here …?