Saturday, January 09, 2010

"We took particular Notice of one of those She-Astrologers": 17th century Venice

I have posted before about a woman astrologer’s advert in mid 17th century London (both the adverts reproduced in this post have George Thomason’s hostile annotations about their being circulated by ‘one of Lilly’s whelps):

In late 17th century Venice, women astrologers were part of the fun of carnival. I found the following story in Jean Dumont’s A new voyage to the Levant containing an account of the most remarkable curiosities in Germany, France, Italy, Malta, and Turkey; … done into English, and adorn’d with figures (1696). I have added paragraphs and modernized the spelling. During these public (and largely jocular) consultations, a ‘trunk’ – a tube – was used for more discreet communication between the woman astrologer mounted on her stage and the particular client below. In the story, the German officer asks for the tube to be reversed, so it must be a kind of elongated speaking trumpet. He then propositions her…

“During the Fair, the whole Place of S. Mark, and part of the Broglio, is covered with Shops: The other part is full of Jugglers, Tumblers, Puppet-Players, Bears, and Mountebanks, who are dancing frequented by all sorts of People, from the Nobleman to the Gondolier.

But the greatest Crowd is about certain Female-Astrologers, who are mounted on little Stages or Scaffolds, covered with Lace and Ribbons like Puppets; their Faces painted white and red, and surrounded with a great Number of Books, full of Figures and Characters, tho' they understand no more of 'em than to distinguish the White from the Black. There are also some Men who follow the same Trade; but they are not so much followed as the Women, whose triple Top-knots draw the Multitude after 'em. They sit upon a Chair, from whence, as from a Tripos, they blow good Fortune to their Customers thro' a Tin Trunk eight or ten Foot long, the Querist putting the other End to his Ear. The Price of a Consultation is no more than Five-pence; and for so small a Sum you may have the Promise of as much Honour and Riches as you please.

These Wenches, who sometimes are not ugly, observe an admirable Gravity in pronouncing their Responses; but they are not so starch’d in private, and may be easily prevailed with to lay aside their affected Severity. One of my Friends, who is a German Officer, happened t’other Day to try the Experiment; and since the Story is not unpleasant, I shall make bold to entertain you with it. As we were taking our Diversion in the Fair, we took particular Notice of one of those She-Astrologers, who was one of the prettiest and gravest of the whole Tribe. She was surrounded with a Crowd of People of all Ages and Ranks, who approached one after another to the End of her Trunk to learn their Fate, and to hear the Oraculous Sentences which she pronounced with an incredible Majesty and Authority. My Friend took his Turn among the rest, and after she had acquainted him with his Fortune, told her that he was desirous to consult her about some private Affair, and therefore entreated her to turn the other End of the Trunk, that he might communicate his Secret to her without disclosing it to the Company. But instead of proposing some Questions to her about his Fortune, he told her thro' her Trunk, that he came not to desire the Assistance of her pretended Art, which served only to amuse the Vulgar; that 'twas in her Power to grant him a more solid Favour; and that his Business was to enquire where and when he might spend a Night with her.

As soon as she had heard his Proposal, she turned the Trunk and replied, that he ought not to be surprised at her way of Living, by imposing upon the Credulity of the People, since the only Occupation of the greatest part of Mankind consisted in cheating one another, every one in his own Way, and according to the Nature of his Employment; and that for her part she thought five or six Crowns a day but a moderate Recompense for the Pains she took in deceiving those that were willing to be deceived; adding however that she was glad she had found a Man of Sense, that knew the Infirmities of Humane Nature, and would laugh with her at the Follies of Mankind, and concluded with giving him an Assignation at an Inn, where she promised to meet him that Evening. Her agreeable Humour furnished us with Matter of Discourse for above an Hour; but this was the End of the Adventure, for the Officer did not think fit to drive the Jest further.”

That’s a poor ending to the story: she ought to have been given the chance to swindle him in private. But he doesn’t even go as far as to ‘make an excuse and leave’, the craven. The image is a Venetian painting (for I have failed to find an image of the women astrologers, though I am sure there must be one), Antonio Zanchi’s ‘Abraham teaching astrology to the Egyptians’, out of Josephus, a painting of c.1665, says WGA.

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