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Saturday morning quotes 5.41: Fortuna

February 27, 2016

RotaFortuna500x500The ancient symbolism of Fortune’s Wheel, randomly turned at the capricious whim of the goddess  Fortuna, strikes us as much more appropriate to describe life’s ups and downs than the less reality-based myth that honest  hard work always results in success.  Today more than ever, a successful career is really the result of having been born in happy circumstances, or otherwise the serendipitous result of having stumbled upon the right connections.  Plain and simple.

The idea of blind luck guided by the fickle hand of the goddess Fortuna applies to all but is particularly applicable to those who choose to dwell in the (increasingly absurd) political realm. William Baldwin alluded to the phenomenon in his preface to the Mirror for Magistrates (1559), a collection of poems:

“…whiche might be as a myrrour for all men as well noble as others, to shewe the slyppery deceytes of the wauering lady, and the due rewarde of all kinde of vices.”

But we get ahead of ourselves.  The idea of Fortune’s Wheel is as old as the origins of the wheel itself, and dates to the earliest surviving records of a civilized culture, as demonstrated in David M. Robinson, “The Wheel of Fortune”, Classical Philology, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Oct., 1946), pp. 207-216.

“Whoever first conceived the idea of the wheel―whether in Babylonia, where solid wheels were known as early as 3000 B.C. and wheels with axles as early as 1600 B.C., or in Egypt, where actual wooden wheels with bronze rims have been found as early as the fifteenth century B.C. and from the fourteenth century in Tutenkhamon’s tomb―made a wonderful invention. It assisted the progress of civilization and the means of transportation. But, even if the wheel was known before the Greeks, the metaphor of the Wheel of Fortune, I believe, began with the Greeks.”

– Robinson, p. 207

Leaping ahead in time to the age of Shakespeare, we read that the theme of the Wheel of Fortune applied to those who would rule was a common concept, as quoted from Raymond Chapman, “The Wheel of Fortune in Shakespeare’s Historical Plays”, The Review of English Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan., 1950), pp. 1-7.

“The uncertainty of kingly state is sometimes described in medieval literature by the Latin formula, regnabo, regno, regnavi, sum sine regno. It is impossible to determine whether these words arose from the Fortune-theme or had an independent beginning, but by the end of the Middle Ages the two were inseparable. The four states of the king correspond to the four positions on the Wheel of Fortune―rising, ruling, falling, and cast off. It is often maintained by medieval writers that the act of getting on the Wheel at all is voluntary, and that those who aspire to greatness expose themselves wilfully to the vicissitudes of Fortune. This view is developed by Boccaccio, who describes how he saw in a dream men climbing a wheel with the words ‘I reign,’ while others, falling, cried ‘I am without reign’.”

– Chapman, p. 2

More specific to the plays of Shakespeare, Chapman identified many textual references to the ever-turning position of the wheel, particularly in the history plays.

Fortune raises men to the seat of kingship or casts them down from her ever-turning Wheel. This conception of a relentless alternation of rise and fall is clearly susceptible of extended dramatic treatment. It is the pattern which lies beneath Shakespeare’s history-plays, particularly as a linking theme of the great tetralogy. Throughout Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, he had the regnabo formula in mind. As well as direct references to Fortune, there are metaphors of rising and falling to describe the changing luck of the chief protagonists.”

– Chapman, p. 3

Fortune’s Wheel is a familiar theme in poetry throughout the ages, and thus pervasive in musical settings.  “Fortuna desperata”, an anonymous song (some attribute to Busnoys) composed around 1470, was extremely popular in its original three-voice format, but was also fodder for quotation, expansion, decoration and arrangement, including a handful of mass settings by luminaries including Obrecht and Josquin.  Arrangements are found as late as 1560, surprising in an era when musical tastes were in rapid transition.

An excellent anthology of versions of “Fortuna desperata” is Fortuna desperata: Thirty-Six Settings of an Italian Song. Edited by Honey Meconi. (Recent Researches in the Music of the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, 37.) Middleton, Wisc.: A-R Editions, Inc., 2001.  Meconi believes the musical qualities of the piece, nominally in the lydian mode, ensured its ninety-year lifespan, and that the reason it lived on was because the “superius and tenor are each well-constructed and memorable, and [were adaptable due to] the beguiling melodic and rhythmic simplicity of their lines” (p. xvi).

Apart from the musical qualities of the song, the textual theme of the ever-turning wheel of Fortuna still resonates with all thinking persons capable of self-reflection. For those interested in the historical symbolism, a worthwhile and enlightening discussion can be found in the 2012 dissertation by Mary Lauren Buckley,  Fortuna desperata: a study of symbolism.

We have mentioned the theme of Fortune’s Wheel in the distant past in relation to our CD, La Rota Fortuna,  a recorded tribute in honor of the 500th anniversary of Francesco Spinacino’s 1507 book of lute music, the very first published music for the lute. The recording features vocal versions of several pieces Spinacino arranged for lute solo and duet, providing some insight into the popular music of the time.  Judging by reports of streams and downloads, the most popular track on the CD is our heartfelt and rhythmically supple rendition of “Fortuna desperata”, which may be heard here.


  1. 1597 Spinacino’s Book? Shouldn’t it be 1507?

  2. Thank you for spotting the typo, Bruno, which is now fixed. Yes, Spinacino’s book was published in 1507, before they had computer keyboards that fiendishly place the number nine just to the left of numero zero. But one can find many typos in Spinacino’s book(s) as well. Thanks again.


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