Fortune: All is But Fortune

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Fortune as imagined by the Romans, from Pantheum Mythicum, seu Fabulosa Deorum Historia, 1697. Folger Digital Image 6860.

Fortune: All is But Fortune, part of the Exhibitions at the Folger opened January 18, 2000 and closed on June 10 of the same year. A companion catalog, compiled and edited by Leslie Thomson, was published in conjunction with the exhibition.

Good Fortune, Bad Fortune: which will it be? who will rise? who will fall? These are timeless questions about love, politics, war—about life. But the answers are uncertain, and often the successful fail, the good suffer, the bad win.

A central element of many of the plays, poems, and prose works of the early modern period, Fortune represents the feeling that we have limited power to control both the momentous and the every day happenings of our lives.

That the ways of Fortune are uncertain and unpredictable has not stopped human beings from wanting to know the future. For as long as religions have advocated endurance and the acceptance of what comes, there have been astrology, palmistry, and other forms of fortune-telling. Today predicting the future is big business, as any glance at a newsstand or telephone book will confirm, but we have merely inherited practices with their origins in pagan antiquity. As we look toward a new century and a new millennium our awareness of the revolutions of time, pictured in the turning of Fortune's wheel, is especially acute, and centuries after she was born Fortune is still the goddess of the changing world we experience every day.

The phrase "all is but fortune" (The Tempest 5.1) expresses both the hope and the resignation that characterizes the Renaissance attitude to fortune illustrated and examined in this exhibition.

Exhibition highlights

Classical origins

"By the grumbling of men Fortune is made a goddess."

The word fortuna is from the Latin fors, or luck, derived from the root of the verb ferre (to bring), so that the meaning is that which is brought and Fortuna is the one who brings it. The figure depicted in Roman art is Fortuna Gubernans, the helmsman, or Fortuna Stabilis, with the appropriate attributes of rudder or wheel shown at rest. The Roman goddess brought bona fortuna, external goods such as wealth, health, power, progeny, and physical beauty, all things that are vulnerable to good and bad fortune.

Fortune as the Romans imagined her can be seen here. The medals at the top of the image depict the goddess in various classical manifestations. But of course Fortuna is not easily controlled. Hence the position of the Stoics that the way to endure life's ups and downs is simply to accept them by realizing that although we cannot control our fortune, we can control our response to it.

One response, which fed directly into Christianity, was that of contemptu mundi (contempt of the world), based on the view that life in the world of time is only a temporary condition and that the eternal afterlife is what really matters. The most famous and influential exponent of this idea was Boethius who, in his Consolation of Philosophy, summarized the Christian belief that human life is ruled not by Fortune but by Providence.

Consolations of Christianity

"Whom the poets call Fortune we know to be God."

The printer's device shows a naked Fortune with her usual accoutrements. Her wheel, however, is being turned by the hand of God, placing this illustration very much in the Christian tradition. Despite the insistence of Christianity and, no doubt, widespread belief in the idea of an unknowable Providence, the everyday experience of Fortune's power was unchanged. Perhaps as a direct consequence, Fortune gradually took on the attributes of Occasion and Nemesis. This change in the iconography of Fortune implies that she can be controlled by those who are ready to take advantage of opportunity and who practice self-restraint.

Fortune, blindfolded, to show that fortune favors fools. From Quinti Horatii Flacci emblemata, 1612. Folger Digital Image 6787.

Fortune, Occasion, Nemesis

"If a man look sharpley and attentively, he shall see Fortune"

Despite the insistence of Christianity and widespread belief in the idea of an unknowable Providence, the everyday experience of Fortune's power was unchanged.Perhaps as a direct consequence, Fortune gradually took on the attributes of two other goddesses, Occasion and Nemesis. Even here she seems to dominate.

Aside from this irony, however, the real significance of this change in the iconography of Fortune is that it implies that men can control her by being ready to take advantage of opportunity, and by not reaching too high. This conflation quite explicitly reflects the attempt of Christian Humanism to resolve the battle between freedom and necessity by showing how the individual who is in control of himself can control his fortune.

This conflation of Nemesis and Occasion with Fortune, shows Fortune on a sphere, naked except for a veil, tossing away material goods, but also with the bridle associated with Nemesis and the forelock of Occasion. By the height of the Renaissance in England and northern Europe, Fortune had become a symbolic figure rather than a powerful goddess influencing men's lives.

By the seventeenth century, Fortune had become more an emblematic encapsulation of certain ideas about fate and chance than a goddess having influence on the world. In his book, A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne, George Wither offers a summary of conventions already long associated with the figure and provides an explicit moral reading that emphasizes Puritan values. The linking of Fortune with the moon goes back to classical times: Fortune is like the moon in being always and quickly moving, and she is the goddess who reigns in the sublunar realm, the world of change.

Fortune favors fools

A familiar commonplace to Shakespeare and his contemporaries was encapsulated in the proverb "Fortune favors fools" or its Latin ancestor, Fortuna favet fatuis. Erasmus wittily exploited this idea in his Moriae Encomium (1515) when Folly begins a short discussion of her relationship with Fortune saying, "Fortune, the directrix of human affairs, favors me while she has always been very hostile to the wise."

The idea that Fortune favors fools is pictured here with Fortune, blindfolded and holding her rudder, standing protectively beside an ape wearing the robes and crown and holding the sceptre of royalty.