Of Popes and Papal Bulls

The widespread practice and acceptance of both astrology and chiromancy in Italy in the  Renaissance period is attested to by the interest shown by the Papacy in occult studies. At least four of the popes in the sixteenth century are known to have had an active interest in astrology, most notably Pope Paul III (1534-1549) and the three popes immediately before him, Clement VII, Adrian VI and Leo X. Pope Leo X had a personal astrologer and it is reputed that it was predicted that he would become pope by a chiromancer of the Convent of St Francis by the name of Father Serafino of Mantua.

One chiromantic author who is known to have had something of a close relationship with Pope Paul III is Antonio Piccioli, a lecturer at Bologna university circa 1530 who authored a three part work entitled 'De Manus Inspectione', eventually published in Bergamo in 1587. Such close associations between the Church and the chiromancers and astrologers of this period suggests the unlikelihood of any wholesale opposition or persecution of the practitioners of these arts by the Church itself in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

Index Expurgatorius

However, things changed rapidly with the advent of Pope Paul IV and Pope Sixtus V, both of whom issued papal edicts against the study of the divinatory sciences. Paul IV issued the Index Expurgatorius in 1559 which was a blacklist of forbidden books and studies. Whilst many of the lesser forms of divination were prohibited by this, arts such as necromancy, hydromancy and pyromancy for example, so also were chiromancy and the practice of judicial astrology. But not only was the study of these subjects 'banned', so particular authors and specific books written on these occult arts were 'banned' as well. Specific chiromantical authors whose books were blacklisted by this edict included the writings of Cocles, Corvus and Tricasso as well as the works by the German chiromancer John Indagine and the hermeticist Henry Cornelius Agrippa.

It was the Index Expurgatorius that formed the basis of the Papal Bull issued by Sixtus V in 1586 which also condemned the divinatory arts, chiromancy and the practice of judicial astrology. With the issue of a Papal Bull, the implications of the judgement from Rome acquired an even greater authority, to the point that even the possession of books on these subjects was banned! Of course, there were many reasons why the Church of Rome would have felt it necessary to enforce such censorship; some of these were undoubtedly political and social rather than purely theological. They can easily be seen as ramifications of some of the other questionable activities of the Church of Rome in this period as a whole, such as the Inquisition and the persecution of 'witchcraft' that took place throughout the sixteenth century in the wake of the publication of 'Malleus Maleficarum' in 1486. Since these can readily be seen as manifestations of issues of secular power and control, it is not hard to see such literary censorship in a such a light as well. After all, these edicts closely follow on from the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism and hence the consequent diminishment of the power of the Church of Rome. It is for this reason that the greatest impact of these edicts would have been felt in Italy alone and hardly at all in the countries of Northern Europe.

Chiromancy in Italy

It is unsurprising then to find that the greater part of chiromantical interest during the Renaissance period in Italy occurred only during the earlier part of the sixteenth century! Few works seem to have been written on the subject of chiromancy by Italian authors after that of Piccioli. The more active studies of the hand at this time were going on in Northern Europe, in  countries such as Germany, where the force of the Papal Bull had less effect given the new freedoms won by these countries in the post-reformation period.

By now, Papal Bulls tended to be confined in their influence to the Italian peninsular. This is not to say that chiromancy and physiognomy had fallen completely out of favour in Italy though. The publications and many subsequent reprintings of the works of the physiognomists Porta, Baldi, Ghiradelli and Spontone suggest quite the opposite, given the relation between physiognomy and chiromancy. However, there was a tendency for writers to disdain 'astrological chiromancy', perhaps as a defence against their interest in the study of the hand, and a corresponding increase in approbation for what became known as 'natural chiromancy'. This emphasised chiromancy as a tool for the description of a man's nature and inclinations, rather than as a means for prognostication. By avoiding connecting the practice with astrology and hence illicit forms of divination, and by emphasising its connection with physiognomy it would have been easier to promote the subject as a natural science and thereby continue its study in Italy, despite the stance of the Church of Rome.

One most active physiognomist who also wrote on chiromancy was Filippo Finella. Although he lived at Naples throughout much of the seventeenth century, he was in fact French and we shall treat of him later on. But there are one or two other Italian writers from this period who also deserve mention, the first being Moldenarius, who wrote a text on physiognomy and chiromancy together with further sections on metoposcopy (divination from the lines found on the forehead) and oneirocriticam (dream interpretation), published in 1616.

One Augustinus Mascardus, a professor at the university of Rome, included a physiognomy and a chiromancy in a work of 1639. Dissertation VII at p76 in his work 'Romanae Dissertationes' is an essay on chiromancy which cites Aristotle, Galen, Homer and Job 37:7 and discusses the raging debate as to the proper allocation of the planets to the various parts of the hand, especially with regard to the locations of Mars, Venus and Mercury suggested by Antiochus Tibertus as against those given by Cocles, Tricasso, Indagine and Raguseius.

A much later work on chiromancy was published at Venice in 1662 in a book entitled 'Studio di Curiosita' by Nicola Spadoni. The book is primarily a volume on astrology but it also included chapters on physiognomy, chiromancy and metoposcopy as well as sections on the interpretation of warts and moles (neomancy). The fact that such astrologically based chiromantic texts were able to be printed in Italy by this time reveals that the overriding influence of the prohibitions of the sixteenth century Papal Bulls really only lasted for just over one hundred years at the most.


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