Saturday, February 6, 2016

January 2016, 1377: Florence – Sentenced as players of naibi

After questioning Franco on several aspects, I now have a translation of his article reporting important findings from Florentine documents of the summer of 1377, from which the motivation for much of his research since has come. This essay appeared originally in The Playing Card vol. 44 (2015-2016) no. 3, pp. 166-173, now online at My translation first appeared on Tarot History Forum at Comments in brackets are mine. My object was a literal translation, sometimes at the expense of elegance and simplicity, for which I apologize to author and reader for my lack of skill.

Franco Pratesi, "1377: Firenze – Condanne ai giocatori di naibi"

English abstract

Two books of the Podestà of Florence, with records from July to October 1377, have been examined for this study. In addition to the expected captures of gamblers playing the dice game of Zara - about one hundred- a dozen captures can be read there for players of Naibi, at such an early stage. All these players were Florence dwellers, living in six different parishes all around the town. The spread of the game in Florence is commented on, as well as the implicit confirmation that a remarkable production of playing cards was already established there.


In the history of playing cards, and card games, the Florentine provision of March 1377 has a special role. In older contributions, this law was not known; when we heard the news, there were many uncertainties and inaccuracies before the document was checked with the original and recognized as valid; for a long time it was considered the oldest evidence for all of Europe. More recently, the authenticity of other documents has been recognized and the Florentine testimony seems to have lost its lead, but remains in any case one of the oldest documents in this regard.

Here we are not interested in other cities, and the Florentine provision in 1377 is the natural starting point. A study of that document appeared years ago in this journal 1; rereading it after a quarter of a century I find it still valid on the whole. One of the points that should be adjusted is the idea that the word naibi was virtually unknown in Florence, for the reason that even in official documents it was written in a different way; this remains true, but only partly, because writing naibi or naibj cannot be attributed to ignorance of the term, but only to alternatives in writing the final letter that is also observed for more familiar names.

Reading the provisions leaves strong doubts for us about the situation in months, if not several years, before. We can go back a long way, at least for Florence, it is excluded as much based on documents from other sources as for for reasons internal to the text, considering that it speaks of noviter in(n)olevit, and that noviter serves to show that there could not have been a long Florentine tradition. However, it is also true that if the new game was spreading in the city to the point of worrying the city councils, it could
1 F. Pratesi, The Playing-Card, 17, No. 3 (1989) 107-112.

not be something isolated, known only by a few, maybe a merchant who had brought it to his family or among his partners in business, a deck of playing cards found in an exotic location.

Assuming that such an event actually occurred before cards took on the character of a game of the masses, such as to be considered by the communal council, not a little amount of time would be needed. In fact, the presence of a memento was not enough; for it to be reasonably used in a game, the understanding and acceptance of its rules was essential, observed by various players in agreement; Also the number of decks of the new cards had to be multiplied somehow.

In short, what happened in Florence before March 1377 remains a mystery to be investigated; Now, however, we can put aside all possible hypotheses about it and move on to read other documents of that same year 1377, simply transferring ourselves from spring to summer.

Books of the Podestà studied

The present study is part of a wider investigation conducted in the Governmental Archives of Florence (ASFI) on the documents relating to the history of card games in Tuscany. One strand of this research has been on the books of the foreign magistrates [rettori forestieri] and the Books of the Fleur-de-lys [Libri del Giglio, which Franco tells me had a big fleur-de-lys on their covers] of the Chamber of the Commune [Camera del Comune]; most of the documents so far studied are about the fifteenth century, but some data at the end of the fourteenth century were extracted from them 2. Those of the executive 3, or rather of the captain and the podestà [chief magistrate], have not yet provided results useful for those years.

As for the series of books of the podestà, great difficulty is encountered selecting the units of possible interest, and also in being able to consult them once selected. In particular, of the books of the old Inventory 4 available in the ASFI, very few are dedicated to inventiones, i.e.the capture of offenders caught in the act; when these archival units are not found reported, it remains to verify the possibility that the related documents have been included in some book of the Officium extraordinariorum.

An attempt to do so has led to selecting two units for the year 1377, the very year of the first Florentine reports on naibi. The aim was not to find others so early, but only to control the situation of the game for convictions at the time when naibi were introduced. It is of two outwardly virtually identical books, with the same dimensions of 30x23 cm and covered with parchment on which are painted one central crest and four of similar magnitude in the corners.
4 ASFI, Inventario N/26.

The first book 5, of 28 pages, contains a record of activities and above all, announcements, with the standard formulas that record the promulgation of notifications to the citizens by the official town crier. The first book 5, of 28 pages, contains a record of activities and above all, announcements, with the standard formulas that record the promulgation of notifications to the citizens by the official town crier. What we are interested in are captures done on behalf of the podestà for carrying weapons, being out at night and, especially, gambling. There are no records of such captures in this book, but documentations of this kind can be found in the second part of the other book examined.

This second book 6, of 48 pages, begins with a couple of pages concerning the installation of the new podestà Pietro, Marquis of the marquisates of Monte Santa Maria. The podestà of Florence was chosen from among the foreign knights of the more or less ancient nobility; in this case the Marquis was no doubt of an ancient family and even of imperial descent.

The notary who writes this book is Matteo of Pizzica, who comes from the same marquisate of Monte Santa Maria from which the podestà came; his handwriting is particularly beautiful and clear, apart from some of the abbreviations. As is usual, there is a precise summary list of the powers conferred by the podestà to the various officers and employees. Of interest to us are the three knights (indicated with the corresponding term in medieval Latin, milex sotius) Aloisio, Antonio and Bellaccio, and especially the notary delegated for extraordinary cases, as we read in f. 3r: "Item elegit et deputavit in suum notarium extraordinariorum viz. Ser Guelfutium Francisci de Civitate Castelli" [Item: chosen and appointed its secretary extraordinary viz. Ser Guelfutium Francesco of Città di Castello].

On ff. 4-10 are recorded all meetings chaired by the podestà; They are stereotyped texts, inserted usually five or six per page, in which the only significant detail is the date. The second part of the book, starting from f. 12r, corresponding to July 10, contains the podestà's records of patrols in search of possible offenders against the laws on arms, being out at night, and gambling. Finding these sentencings in a book of the podestà cannot cause surprise, because such convictions can also be found recorded in the previous decades. But it was a huge surprise to see that in this period so early are already recorded some sentencings [condanne] of naibi players. [Note: I translate "condanne" as "sentencings" here and sometimes elsewhere, rather than "sentences", in an attempt to convey the impromptu nature of the proceedings; the patrols levy the fines, Franco says, and the offenders pay, mostly on the spot, as opposed to coming before a judge in a later proceeding.]

Those sentenced for games [per gioco]

The three knights of the podestà do their regular inspection tours in the city at the head of the group of berrovieri [policemen assigned to this duty], and of all these rounds a continuous verbalization is kept in the book under review, already indicating in the section when the rounds took place at night. Many times it records, with a standard and rather long-winded formulation, that the group returned without having caught anyone. Catches recorded by the knights are exclusively for being out at night and for bearing arms. At the end of August there appears a fourth name added to those of the knights of the podestà: Blaxius, probably “Blasio” in Italian [or more correctly "Biagio", Franco tells me in correspondence]. One might say that the newcomer
5 ASFI, Podestà, 2261.
6 ASFI, Podestà, 2262.

comports himself most zealously, so that among those caught are also included some players of zara [a dice game], those indicated in the table below in italics with an asterisk.

All the data in the table indicating sentencings for game-playing, except the three above [the three with an asterisk, convicted for zara], result from the activity of a single officer of the podestà, the notary Ser Guelfuccio, assigned to extraordinary cases and coming from Città di Castello, a town not far from Monte Santa Maria. Plainly, this officer is dedicated particularly to catching players [per gioco]. In particular, among those sentenced by his action, none appears for being out at night, the most frequent sentencing for the knights of the podestà, but this is explained immediately by the fact that there are no nocturnal rounds for the group under the notary’s command. Apart from only two cases in which Ser Guelfuccio sentences men carrying prohibited weapons, all of his sentencings are for games, for us of great interest.

 [in the table below, through 12 Aug. [Agosto is on p. 169; the rest is on p. 170]

Unlike previous years, here next to zara appears naibi. In the Latin text zara is indicated systematically as ludus çardi, but sometimes appears ludus tassillorum, which probably did not indicate a different game. The game of naibi, however, is always referred to as ludus nayborum. As expected, the sentencings for playing games are overwhelmingly associated with that of zara. For this game it was quite common at the time to find groups of numerous players captured together, which will become less and less frequent with the passing years; here the number of zara players simultaneously captured varies from one all the way up to thirteen.

In particular, there is a noticeable decline in captures towards the end of the period. This is also true for the other officers of the podestà, so much so that the last recorded capture is for someone surprised at night by Blasio on 30 September, while in October eighteen nocturnal rounds of the podestà’s group were recorded, all without captures, up to the last on f. 46r, on 9 October, followed only by a couple of blank pages.

The captures for games of naibi might seem a negligible contribution, but they are not. Numerically they represent a good ten percent of the total, eleven cases compared to 105 total for zara, and this is certainly no small thing for a new game, compared with the most popular game throughout the Middle Ages. In short, the game of naibi had evidently already become familiar among Florentines.

Players of naibi

The Latin text of the book is not being transcribed here, but at least the names of these first known Florentine card players must be reported. It should be noted in this regard that the transition from Latin to current Italian can lead, among other things, to confusing the patronymic with the last name: families who at the time had a last name were relatively few, and so perhaps what is given in the table should read di Donato, di Cecco, etc. In the last column a reference number is inserted, whose only purpose is to display better the seat of the parish in Fig. 1 [for which see p. 173].

It may be significant that all the cases are Florentine players, because in captures for the game of zara there is often instead the presence of foreigners [i.e. foreign in relation to Florence]. Comparing the data on naibi with those on zara, you may notice a minor variation in the number of players caught for the offense: In our case it goes from two to four. That information is certainly not sufficient to conclude that the game of naibi was for two, three, or four players. If you were able to deduce participation by the number captured, based on subsequent evidence one would have to conclude that naibi could be played even alone, a result that is clearly absurd. However, it remains significant that for naibi one never meets, even later on, captures of large groups of players, as sometimes happens for zara.

Unlike other cases, the professions of these Florentine gamblers are never mentioned in the document in the study; however their, popular character is confirmed by the names and parishes of origin. We encounter eleven players from six parishes, which are distributed in a wide radius of the city. The first three are on the right bank of the Arno (St. Ambrose, St. Pier Maggiore and S. Reparata), the last three on the left bank (St. Felicitas, St. George, St. Frediano). Most of these churches still exist; only S. Reparata was demolished for the construction of the new cathedral, and S. Pier Maggiore because the structure had become unsafe. Fig. 1 schematically shows the positions of the parishes within the last circle of the city walls, built half a century earlier; compared to the previous circle, they are almost all outside The wide dispersion in the city is evident, but of particular interest is the fact that the peripheral areas richest in manufacture are represented, where there was extensive use of low-level workers who had their poor dwellings precisely in these two rather unhealthy zones, let us say to the E and SW of the ancient center.

The spread of playing cards

So far we have seen how the documents studied could provide useful information on Florentine card players and how the new game had already spread throughout the city. Next to this aspect, however, there was inevitably another, also important, the production and trade of playing cards. There are significant elements, in Florence, showing us how in this city there could have been a rapid development of the new game. Here you must understand: in any location a new game could quickly take hold on the population and win their favor; but this was not the game of morra, done with the fingers of one hand [like what is called in English "scissors-rock-paper"], it also needed the new cards in order to play.

In this connection one often reads that the first playing cards were objects that were not only new, but also expensive and valuable, made of parchment with gesso primer, perhaps covered with gold, as well as having on the front such beautiful paintings as are usually sought in court circles. (We often forget that the testimonies of those high-level environments were recorded and then also preserved longer and better than any testimonials of popular setting.) So it is assumed that it has taken a longer or shorter period before playing cards could "descend" to the common people, if only because of their high cost that prevented a widespread distribution among the people.

On the court circles and the relevant documentation I have really nothing to add to to the great deal that can be read, but on the popular character, yes. First I would like to recall that in Florence there was a typical and much appreciated manufacture of orpelli and argenpelli [pieces of parchment or leather to which was affixed a layer of gold and silver, real or imitation], which, as objects, apart from the different use, were not very different from naibi. The Florentine production was

much appreciated, and even Francesco di Marco Datini and his associates and successors at Avignon imported precisely from Florence hundreds of dozens in the second half of the fourteenth century, over several decades. On this point I refer to my previous study, also published in this journal. 7 In fact, to pass from a stack of orpelli to a pack of naibi would not require large variations in the process.


Two Books of the Podestà of Florence were studied for the period July - October 1377. Among those caught red-handed for infractions by the agents [famiglia] of the podestà were recorded those sentenced for games: a hundred captures were recorded for the game of zara and indeed eleven for the game of naibi, surprising considering that only in March of the same year the provision was approved that prohibited them. The eleven players lived in six different parishes in poor areas of the city. The spread of the game in Florence was commented on, and we can deduce the logical consequence that there was already a significant production of playing cards; This could have been based on the experience gained for decades by Florentine artisans in the manufacture of carte [parchment] and pelli [leather] (including silver and gold).
7 F. Pratesi, The Playing-Card, Vol. 26, No. 2 (1997), 38-45. [See also his Nov. 2015 study at]

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