Playing Card Prohibition around Florence (1377 - ca. 1500)

The following article is based upon the studies of Franco Pratesi.

Florence became known as the famous birth place of renaissance. A lot of cultural achievements of that time started here, mostly they appeared first in Florence and wandered then to the other cities of Italia and in later development inspired  the rest of Europe.

Florence with its estimated 50000 inhabitants (Milano, Naples and Venezia had been far bigger) was a republic until the early 16th century, then being transformed to the Grand Duchy of Toscana with the capital Florence under the reign of the Medici-family. The overwhelming influence of this family was established under Cosimo Medici, called later Pater Patriae, in the 30ies and 40ies of 15th century. In the 20ies of the same century the Medici had been still only the 3rd wealthiest family of Florence with 1.2 % of the capital of all inhabitants.
The state as republic probably contributed in high degree to the creativity of the city and its inhabitants, it was a gathering point for artists, humanists, architects and ingenious men of all kinds. Dante, Giotto, Petrarca, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and many others started from here to impress the world with their works.
As many things were invented in Florence, the question, if Florence also influenced strongly the early development of the first Tarocchi cards, should be honestly considered, although the friends of early playing cards do know, that the few old Tarocchi-cards, that survived from 15th century didn’t originate in Florence, but are known from Milano (Visconti-Sforza-Tarocchi) and from Ferrara (famous for many documents about card-producing).

The date of 23.03.1377 (23.03.76 in the time measuring of older calendars, as Good Friday was the beginning of the new year) was long time seen as the first sure sign of existing playing cards in Europe, now the date of 1371 in Spain seems to be secure and another date of 1367 (Bern) is in discussion:

1377: Cards ("Naibbe") are forbidden in Florence by a vote of 98 to 25.
"Naibbe" is an Arabian word, meaning a high militarian leader in the state of the Mamelucks. From this developed the idea of "Marshalls", which got the names "Ober" and "Unter" in Germany.

Recently (1989) the documents of the Florentine Archivo de Stato had been researched for further notes about playing cards or card playing. From 956 statutes, nearly each of them a big tome written in various hands in old Italian and/or Latin, 30 codices, occasionally in a bad state of preservation, were selected with suitable date and origin (mainly of communes at the border of Florence and federations of country villages).
As far I do know, there wasn’t a research comparable to this, so the great number of entries about playing card prohibition in Florence doesn’t allow any conclusion, if Florence was more or less than other Italian cities involved in the prohibition of playing cards. Missing entries about playing card prohibition from other cities could mean, that there were no playing cards prohibition, but also mean, that there simply was no research done or no documents available.

The general result of the investigation was, that the smaller cities and villages around Florence had their own laws and did follow the directive of Florence only hesitatingly.
In the early times (1377 – ca. 1405 - 1410) naipes seem to have caused no serious problems, eventually due to the condition, that the new mode had only arrived in big cities, but not in the provinces. Later the use of cartes is seen as less dangerous than dice-games (mostly known under the general name of “zara” or “zardum”), and, in case of a punishment, one had to pay a lower fine. The general prohibition is often reduced to a more specific law, allowing some ways to play with cards or allowing playing under special conditions.
From 1430 until the late 40ies some dangerous games appeared and the interest of prosecuting players seems to be raised.

In 1450 there is a sudden change in policy, some games are allowed in Florence.

The general political condition of the year 1450 was, that Francesco Sforza succeeded to become duke of Milano with the strong financial help of Cosimo de Medici, the inofficial leader of Florence. Francesco Sforza had been then for a periode of 26 years been a successful condottieri with the natural problem to guide mercenaries – who surely didn’t care anything about playing card prohibitions in the local cities, having their own rules of life. From 1450 on it became Francescos interest to change his earlier companions from wild men into normal useful citizens or at least peaceful militaric leaders, stopping the long periode of wars in Italy (he was successful, together with Cosimo, in the peace of Lodi in 1454). The last uncalculatable “wild condottieri”, Jacopo Piccinino, then leader of the rest of earlier famous “Braccheschi”, unwilling to agree with a peace, in which he did win not enough, was stopped 1462 by an agreement with the new King of Naples, Ferrante, who hired him for a high price first and assassinated him later under the obscure accusation of treachery in 1465.
These soldiers, who had made their lives 30 years long in camps without great social control and much time for card playing, probably would have shown great disagreement with prohibitions against that what they perceived as their normal habits.
Cosimo as friend and money-giver of Francesco Sforza had reason enough to use the same policy as the new duke of Milano – more tolerance. The new playing card freedom in 1450 in Florence, after a periode of stronger prohibition, doesn’t look accidently and seems to appear according to the new political conditions as a resocialising measurement.

The content of the documents in the villages around Florence


1408: Games are forbidden
1409: Some laws are added concerning accusations
1414: Sconnacompagno ”, probably a dice game, is strongly forbidden

1416: After the normal prohibition of dice games it is added, that similar fines will be taken from players of the game of naibi “ … simili pene incontri chi giuchera el giuco de naibi ”.

1463: games of “ cartarum ” are added to the list of forbidden games; in an older statute “ scalabrino ” – dice game ? – is noted as dangerous game.

1410: names of forbidden gambling games eventually refer to card games; games with naibi are forbidden, but the fine is only half of the usual

S. Pietro in Mercato (Montespertoli)
1398: some games are allowed ( tabulae, scachorum, pilae, aliossororum, marellarum, sagittarum ), naibi are forbidden at a reduced fine of 20 soldi instead of 30

Santa Maria a Monte
1391: cards are not mentioned
1396: card games are forbidden, the fine is 20 soldi against 3 lira for other prohibited games
1419: the prohibition against cards of 1396 is deleted
1445: the deletion of the prohibition of 1419 is deleted, cards are forbidden again
1517: playing near the church is prohibited (meaning, that card playing allowed at other places)

1459: two kind of card games are allowed, ‘ alla diricta ’ and ‘ a vinciperdi

Cascia (Reggello)
1404: Condannata is forbidden
1412: all card playing is forbidden
1433: card playing is prohibited in churches and a given distance to them.

1392: a long chapter against gambling, cards are not mentioned
1442: “ Ludum cartarum seu naiborum ” is forbidden equal to zardum, the fine is distributed ½ to the commune, ¼ to the accuser and ¼ to the podesta; 10 days later it is added, that the podesta has in each case to respect the social status of the players, to consider the place and the way of playing.

Borgo San Lorenzo
1374 and 1386: cards are not mentioned, in a later addition chess and Tavola are allowed cause there old origin
1428: it is regretted, that a card game “alla condennata” has become the fashion of the village and it is prohibited as dice games.
1437: naibi are explicitly prohibited with the execption of the standard game of “ alla diritta e alla torta

1396 + 1411: long chapter about gambling without mentioning cards
1443: condannata is forbidden and the the “ lending of cards
1448: a complete discussion with reference to earlier laws; several card games as “ condennata, pilucchino o pizzica ” are considered to result eventually in scandals, all card play are forbidden except for “diritta e torta.”

Sesto Fiorentino
1409: An edict prohibits any gambling activity, according to the laws of Florence, but cards seem to be allowed
1416: any card game is allowed, that doesn’t hurt the first statute (against gambling)
1419: the guards shall do their duty and accuse (gambling ?) players
1427: card games are prohibited, but not for Florentine citizens. Anybody can accuse and earn a part of the fine.
1432: card playing is allowed at holidays, until the bell rings the Ave Maria; this law is given to avoid, that the local youth do leave the commune during the holiday to play “a zara”.
1445: Several dangerous games are spreading such as condennata, and counter measures should be taken. All card games are prohibited except “ diritto ” and “ vinciperdi ”. A month later all card games are prohibited.

The notes in Florence after 1377

1393 : Giovanni di Pagolo Morelli gives advice to the youth in his “Ricordi”: “Do not play hazard or dices! Do prefer astralagos (bones similar to dices) and naipes."

1423 : "Carte da Imperatori" were named special cards which - among other quotations - were bought in Florence. It seems, that these packs included eight images of emperors and were available in Florence as early as 1423.

1430 : In Florence a card producer Antonio di Giovanni di Ser Francesco is known using wooden blocks for holy pictures and naibi.

1433, 1437 and 1442 : In Florence do appear some laws in addition to the statutes of 1377 against card playing; not only the administration is allowed to accuse but also third parties, which are assured to possess anonymity and will get part of the fines in the case of success. In 1442 peasants, who do appear at market days in the city, are threatened with serious legal measures. 3 sorts of criminal acts are mainly reported: “journeying in the night”, “carrying weapons” and “playing forbidden games”.

1434 : The court of the d’Este in Ferrara under Niccolo III. buys 2 decks of playing cards from Florence (“nel 1434 il Marchese Nicolo III. Faceva pagare a Ser Ristoro e compagni in Florence sette Fiorini d’oro prezzo di due mazzi di carticelle mandatogli a Ferrara”). 

1446 : “Jacopo di Ponnaio dipintori di naibi”, note of another card-producer in Florence.

1450 : In Florence a law allows some card games: “dritta” (probably identical to “diritta”), “vinciperdi”, “Trionfo” and “trenta”, the first time the word trionfo appears in Florence.

1458 : In Florence Francesco di Nicolo de Gambassi is accused to cheat in play: “giuochatore baro … e falsificatore di naibi overo carte”.

1463 : The games “cricca” and “ronfa” are added to the allowed games

1466 : In an older reference it is noted, that Pulci wrote a letter to young Lorenzo de Medici, in which the term "Minchiate" appears. Considerable research was done to detect the letter, however, the information was not tracable.

1471 : In Cortono, rather far away from Florence but belonging at that time to Florence, somebody is accused of heresy of having played Minchiate in the summer of 1470 (having played in a church or near a church). The note is written in a half-Latin-half-Italian version:: "In Dei nomine Amen. Anna domine nostri Yesu Christi  millesimo cccclxxj. Inditione iv, die xx mensis maij.  Bartolomeo di Giovanni di Vaglia de Mugello provigionato nel cassero di Cortona com'egli e bastemiato Iddio et la vergine Maria giuchando chon alchuni provigionato et maximamente giuchava alle MINCHIATE del mese giugno luglio et agoste e molte volte ... etc ...."

1477 : “Pilucchino” and “Minchiate” are also allowed.

After 1494 : After the death of Lorenzo de Medici  the monk Savonarola increases his influence  in Florence with dramatical consequences, especially out of the aspect of playing card research.

Alexandre Dumas in “The Borgias” describes:
“The expulsion of Leonard's dei Medici (1494) was a new triumph for Savonarola, so, wishing to turn to good moral account his growing influence, he resolved to convert the last day of the carnival,
hitherto given up to worldly pleasures, into a day of religious sacrifice.  So actually on Shrove Tuesday
a considerable number of boys were collected in front of the cathedral, and there divided into bands, which traversed the whole town, making a house-to-house visitation, claiming all profane books, licentious paintings, lutes, harps, cards and dice, cosmetics and perfumes --in a word, all the hundreds of products of a corrupt society and civilisation, by the aid of which Satan at times makes victorious war on God.  The inhabitants of Florence obeyed, and came forth to the Piazza of the Duoma, bringing these works of perdition, which were soon piled up in a huge stack, which the youthful reformers set on fire, singing religious psalms and hymns the while.  On this pile were burned many copies of Boccaccio and of Margante Maggiore, and pictures by Fro Bartalommeo, who from that day forward renounced the art of this world to consecrate his brush utterly and entirely to the reproduction of religious scenes."

Savonarola himself was burnt at the stake in 1498, when the citizens of Florence couldn't bear it any longer. Pope Alexander VI., himself, as is reported, a notorious card-player with the help of Ascanio Sforza, another famous card-player, took a deciding part in the process against Savonarola..

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