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Comprising 56 possible outcomes, and fortunes, from the roll of three dice observed by the zodiac sign of Libra, this page, and 20 others like it, belong to the only known complete copy of Spirito Lorenzo’s El Libro dala Ventura overo il Libro de la Sorte
Whatever, there is no doubt that good fortune and chance were believed to be as reliable indicators of personal fate as faith and good works by Roman Catholics in the Middle Ages – not for them the dour doctrine of Calvinist pre-destination.

Accordingly, manuals of fortune telling flourished in France and Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries, apparently tolerated by the Roman church. Maistre Laurens L’Esprit’s Le passe temps de la fortune (Paris 1534) is one of the more famous of these works, while a mystic mathematician called Marcolini da Foili worked out a system of using dice to select fortunes which forms the basis of Spirito’s work.

The fortune seeker first consults a full-page woodcut illustration of a Wheel of Fortune (gameshow addicts take note) at the front of the book. The Wheel will take the adventurer to one of 20 kings, who sends him to one of 20 ‘signs’ (zodiac and otherwise) each with a page like the one illustrated here. The fortune seeker then rolls three dice, the outcome determining his journey to a planetary wheel – for instance, a roll of three fours is accompanied by the text instruction va a la spera de Mercurio (“go with the hope of Mercury”). Each wheel is divided into 56 rivers of the known world, each indicating a biblical prophet, at whom the journey ends with a pronouncement of fortune.

This religious pay-off could have been designed to keep Lorenzo out of trouble with the Inquisition, and his work was published at least five times, possibly as many as 20 times, during the late 15th/early 16th century. This copy was published in 1501, it had the 16th century ownership inscription of Christopherus Holtschuher, and plates for C.W. Dyson Perrins, from whose famous collection the book was sold by Sotheby’s in 1946 to Zwemmer for £320.

Bound in red morocco jansen by Riviere & Son, Spirito’s work appeared at a Christie’s sale in London on November 28, where it sold to a private collector at £40,000 (plus 17.5/10 per cent premium).