Try Your Luck with a Book of Fortune

Fortuna identified as female in the middle ages and Renaissance, but Luck wasn’t always a Lady—at least she didn’t act like one. A title page from a rare interactive book from 1610 offers one of the starkest comparisons of good and bad fortune. The goddess presides over two outcomes for common folk and kings alike: a showering of coins, or a showering of turds.

While their winners and losers were not necessarily pelted with anything, interactive fortune-telling books like this one went viral throughout Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Part of their appeal was the way these versatile parlor games served both genders, answered personal questions about players’ fates, and also doubled as games of chance. The Newberry’s deep collections include a wonderful array of such proto-Magic Eight Balls, including a number of editions of the first truly popular interactive book of its kind: the Libro della ventura—or Book of Fortune—written by Italian soldier and poet Lorenzo Spirito in the 15th century.

A typical edition of the Libro della ventura began with a woodcut of a wheel of fortune surrounded by 20 questions (e.g., “Will I be happy,” “Should I wage a vendetta,” “How will I die?”). After choosing a question, the reader would be led through a series of steps, from one section of the book to the next, until being instructed to roll three dice. (Use of dice was frowned upon by society at this time, though tolerated.). Depending on the outcome, the reader was then directed to a page displaying an image from the zodiac—Scorpio, Pisces, or Capricorn, say—inside a sphere lined with the names of mythic rivers. These rivers would give the names of one of 20 prophets (perhaps to counteract all that immoral dice-throwing!) who would at long last surrender the fortune, usually in the form of a few lines of poetry.

Though entertaining to the single reader, these books were best enjoyed by couples or in entire companies eager to compare their respective futures. Yet telling one’s fortune was most decidedly a gamble. Dissatisfied users readily warned against the worst dice combinations by blacking out the woodcuts of those die faces with ink—as if rolling the dice a second time could improve one’s destiny.

The Libro della ventura was ultimately published in 50 editions and at least six languages, and the Newberry has several rare print editions in Dutch, French, and German. The library’s possibly unique 17th-century Italian manuscript after Spirito offers its own charms, however, with beautiful pen and gouache drawings throughout that lead the reader on a quest for answers to eternal questions about life, longevity, and love.

Will you survive your journey, marriage, or love affair? This book could tell you! Though now increasingly fragile due to the use of iron gall ink, it was recently digitized and can be safely accessed here.

By Suzanne Karr Schmidt, George Amos Poole III Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts