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“On the Idea of the Future”: A History of Chiromancy


In uncertain times, a tool to predict the future could change your life, but such a device would surely be costly or physically unattainable. Yet, that tool might be right in the palm of your hand. What if, in fact, that tool was the palm of your hand?



Today we will explore the use of the palm as a tool for prediction, a salve for uncertainty, through one of our text manuscripts, TM 1111. This manuscript is known as the Dell’idea del futuro–– meaning “On the idea of the future.” It is an unpublished treatise on chiromancy copied in Central Italy, likely Florence, in the 1600s.


Les Enluminures, TM 1111Dell’idea del futuro (On the idea of Future), Central Italy (Florence?), seventeenth century.


Chiromancy is often simply called “palmistry.”  It is the reading of a person’s character and future in the lines of the hand.  For centuries, palmistry has been associated with fortune-telling, although its origins are more deeply related to theories of the body, medicine, and prediction than to the occult. The practice is found all over the world, with endless cultural variations. Those who practice chiromancy are generally called palmists, hand readers, hand analysts, or chirologists.


The origins of palmistry are uncertain. It may have begun in ancient India and spread from there through the Roma, a diaspora that originated in the northern Indian subcontinent. The Roma, still often known pejoratively as "gypsies” have long been associated with traditional fortune-telling and chiromancy. Contemporary Romani actress and writer Mihaela Drâgan coined the term “Roma Futurism,” heavily inspired by AfroFuturism, to reference Roma practice. This term combats the stereotypes associated with the term “fortune telling” and expands the Roma’s prophetic practices into the realm of fine art and theatre.



Historically, chiromantic practice has been known in China, Tibet, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. An early text on palm reading was written by the harbinger-poet, Valmiki, entitled “The Teachings of Valmiki Maharshi on Male Palmistry.” This ancient Hindi palmistry focused on the movements of the stars and planets. Chiromancy underwent significant developments in ancient Greece, documented mostly by the philosopher Anaxagoras.


Medieval writings transition to focus on the graphic lines of the palms. Medieval European chiromancy developed from the mid-twelfth century onwards, first influenced by Arabic sources, such as the writings of Ibn Rushd (known as Averroes) and Ibn Sina (or Avicenna). Chiromancy was apparently designed for the use of the clergy in medieval Latin Europe, with a series of predictions aimed at an ecclesiastical user. The oldest surviving chiromantic text in Latin Europe is found in the Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College, as MS R.17.1), illustrating the ecclesiastical origins of the practice. In medieval Italy, Pietro d’Abano, professor of medicine in Padua (who lived from c.1250 to 1318), wrote at least one treatise on chiromancy


The scribe Eadwine in the Psalter named after him, Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.17.1, f. 283v (detail)


Contrary to popular belief, chiromancy was sometimes used––not by witches–– but by late medieval witch-hunters, who interpreted pigmentation spots as signs of a pact with the Devil. Then, after a period of disrepute (coinciding with the persecution of the Roma in the 14th and 15th centuries), palmistry flourished again in the Renaissance. Renaissance scholars were often well versed in palmistry, and markings for different kinds of patterns were devised and illustrated in printed manuals. In the 17th century, when our manuscript was copied, attempts were made to develop empirical and rational foundations for its basic principles.

After a second ebb in popularity during the Enlightenment, Chiromancy underwent a revival in the 19th century. In the 20th century, palmistry was rethought by, among others, followers of Carl Jung.  Jung had his palms read by the hand reader, Julius Spier. Although Jung did not practice or believe in chiromancy himself, he wrote part of the introduction to Spier’s palmistry book, stating: “Modern biology… does not exclude the possibility that hands, whose shape and functioning are so intimately connected with the psyche, might provide revealing and, therefore, interpretable expressions of psychical peculiarity, that is, of human character.”


Les Enluminures, TM 1111Dell’idea del futuro (On the idea of Future), Central Italy (Florence?), seventeenth century.


Let’s turn now to some of the 27 full page diagrams of hands with lines, marks and “mounts” in our 17th-century manuscript Dell’idea del futuro. This extensively illustrated, unpublished manual of chiromancy is a witness of attempts in 17th-century Italy to establish the study of chiromancy as a “natural” science with rational foundations, closer to physiognomy than to divination.  Full-page drawings of hands, a few of them pounced, instruct how to read a person’s life expectancy, digestion, capacity to bear children, sites of wounds and broken bones, love, integrity, wealth, ambition, wisdom, and so forth.  


Les Enluminures, TM 1111Dell’idea del futuro (On the idea of Future), Central Italy (Florence?), seventeenth century.


The first chapter treats the quality and shape of the hand, with descriptions of fifteen different hands, providing a list of the important points, A-Z. Then there is a chapter on the lifeline, followed by a chapter on how to measure the lifeline, explaining how to translate the length of the line into years of life. A fourth chapter on the head line (literally, the “natural line”) tells how to know the nature of a man according to the shape and direction of the line.


Other chapters touch on the medical topics. The fifth chapter on the heart line describes how to predict fertility. A chapter on the line of the liver discusses how to read the status of digestion and nutrition. Chapter nine treats the lines that are used for predicting wounds or broken bones.


Les Enluminures, TM 1111Dell’idea del futuro (On the idea of Future), Central Italy (Florence?), seventeenth century.


Then we move into the more astrological chapters, with chapter eleven, covering the mount of the moon, related to imagination, intuition and mystery. The word “mount” here describes the bumps or lumps of flesh on your palm and your fingers. The moon mount is located at the base of the metacarpal joint, usually known as the opponens digiti minimi. That is–– the fleshy base of your palm in line with your pinkie finger, but closest to your wrist. The following chapters discuss the mounts of Venus (mainly related to love, health and affection), Saturn (related to integrity and perspective on things), the Sun (emotion, interest, wealth and outlook on beauty), Jupiter, and Mercury.  The final chapter, chapter seventeen, “Aforismi universali...” importantly contains a list of general rules about interpreting lines and mounts on hands.


Les Enluminures, TM 1111Dell’idea del futuro (On the idea of Future), Central Italy (Florence?), seventeenth century.


Let’s conclude with a final, fascinating element of use in this manuscript. Many of the diagrams show traces of pouncing. Pouncing is a method of transferring a design by pricking the outlines of a drawing, and then blowing a fine dust through the holes onto another surface.  Essentially, this is a method of transferring the outlines of a drawing exactly to another surface, often used in fresco painting and for other copying purposes like the dissemination of studies in artists workshops. 


The last two illustrations of our Dell’idea (Dell’Edea) del futuro are neatly pounced, suggesting either that a model was used for drawing them, or that these drawings themselves were used as a source for copies.  The eight preceding leaves with illustrations have prick marks that outline the hands with lines, but these marks do not follow the drawn lines, leaving us with a puzzle. Could our manuscript have been used as an instructional manual for physical demonstrations with pins and strings corresponding to the astrological and instructional chapters of the manuscript?


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