Friday, November 25, 2016

Nov. 20, 2016: Imaginary origins of triumphs and minchiate

This note explains a point that was unclear in a note he wrote a year earlier (in this blog, the note for Oct. 12, 2015, Here is my translation of "Genesi favolosa di trionfi e minchiate", at, posted there Nov. 20, 2016. Comments in brackets are mine. This translation originally appeared in the Tarot History Forum at

Last modified Nov. 25, 2016

Imaginary origins of triumphs and minchiate

1. Introduction

Perhaps the main reason for this note derives from my senile dotage, which proceeds inexorably. It deals in particular with considerations that are not based on new documents of the time, or even on other recently published studies; I rely here mostly on imagination, which for historical studies can hardly be regarded as a suitable guide. In addition to this first reason, of a general nature, I have to explain the particular motivation that led me to return once again to commenting on something that I had already written. The passage of mine to be commented on is reproduced below.
Dai dati presenti nell’elenco riportato sopra, si può concludere che nel 1445 ci furono molte più condanne per giochi di carte che nei decenni vicini. Se ciò corrispose a un effettivo rafforzamento dei controlli proprio in quell’anno e forse in anni vicini è possibile, ma difficile da verificare; per capire meglio la situazione, sarebbe utile un’ulteriore indagine centrata sul decennio 1440-50. Similmente speculativo rimane qualsiasi tentativo di collegare queste condanne dei giochi che si facevano con le carte comuni proprio nel momento in cui si stavano diffondendo i trionfi, i nuovi mazzi di carte speciali che si utilizzavano in giochi che in genere erano permessi. Sarebbe di grande interesse trovare in questi libri qualche citazione che testimoniasse la comparsa dei primi trionfi, ma se per un gioco di carte non era possibile infliggere condanne era proprio quello, insieme alla diritta e a pochi altri.

(From the data in the list above, it can be concluded that in 1445 there were many more convictions for card games than in neighboring decades. Whether this corresponded to an effective strengthening of its controls in that year and perhaps in adjacent years is possible but difficult to verify; to better understand the situation, further investigation would be useful, centered on the decade 1440-50. Similarly speculative is any attempt to link these convictions for games done with common cards precisely to the time when triumphs, the new deck with special cards used in games that were generally allowed, was being diffused. It would be of great interest to find in these books a few citations that would witness the emergence of the earliest triumphs, but the special cards were used in [a type of] games [i.e. trick-taking] that was generally allowed, including diritta and a few others, and it was hardly possible to impose penalties for that one.)
[Translator’s note: part of the problem was that I misunderstood the last clause, translating it as “but if for a card game it was not possible to impose penalties precisely for that one, along with diritta and a few others.” This seemed to me dubious, hence my query, which Franco quotes later. Franco supplied the correct translation. The additions in brackets above, approved by Franco, are explanatory in nature, put in after reading this note, as the clause is still difficult to understand.]

The most unusual and curious thing is that I'm quoting here my earlier quote of an even older writing of mine. (1) We try to make order, since this is the starting point, and explain why we have to go back.

After I wrote the above for the first time, I actually did that "further investigation centered on the decade 1440-50". (2) When this second study, which examined all the

registers of the forties of that century, was finished, I allowed myself to quote again my comment earlier, to justify this new study carried out without foreseeing the result and to emphasize my surprise at having found registered even two cases of triumphs games in 1444. Now I consider a third time necessary to return to that comment, because ultimately it proved too difficult or wrong ... for translating into English.

2. Writing in English

Permit me a digression ... a linguistic one. On card games and playing cards I have written many notes for many years; I have often faced the dilemma of whether to write in Italian or English. I write in English with an ease almost equal to writing in my native Italian, but with some understandable differences. One difference is subjective: even writing in Italian I am sometimes uncertain about the correctness of some expression, but in English I'm afraid of slipping on a banana peel at every step. The other difference is objective: the Italian language has remained closer to Cicero's prose and, if desired, sentences can be filled with complex syntax and subordinate clauses. Even our use of relatively common verbs in the subjunctive and conditional usually is difficult to render fully in English.

The conclusion to the above is that if I write in English I begin with a preliminary reduction in the complexity of thought, trying to direct it towards shorter and better coordinated sentences, especially avoiding long convoluted ones. Nevertheless the result does not reassure me, because my "English ear" is not fine enough to recognize the flaws, the imperfections of style to even the grammatical mistakes.

The advantage of writing in English is obviously linked to the much greater likelihood of finding an interested reader. The topic of the history of playing cards and the games in which they were used cannot find the same reception as a text on the meritorious activities of the church, or on ecological problems, or the healthiest diets. Passing from Italian into English, the number of readers passes rapidly from some units into some tens, which can also give a

certain satisfaction.

At the beginning of my interest in these matters, I had the good fortune to encounter in English-language experts precisely those responsible for the activity of IPCS and its official organ. If I wrote in my English, I could be certain that Sylvia Mann and Michael Dummett, or one of those following them responsible for the publication, always British, would have at least removed the most obvious errors from my text. Returning to write my notes on the subject after a break of at least ten years, I have not found (with one exception) a sufficient interest from British members who would make themselves available to review my writings before publication.

With the above, and with my increased laziness, can be explained the fact that from a certain moment on, I decided to limit myself to writing in my own language, utilizing thus also the ability to better argue my discussions, and in greater detail. At one point intervened, unexpectedly, the good will of Michael S. Howard who gradually inserted in the Tarot History Forum and in his blog (3) almost all of my most recent notes in English translation.

When I read Howard’s English I feel respected and honored beyond my merits; in particular, if I wrote my text directly in English would have simplified quite a lot of those sentences. As I had already verified in other areas, educated Americans have less difficulty and more patience than the English in supporting styles far from their own; personally, I would write very differently, but they bend their language as much as possible to agree with that of others.

I have not checked all the translations, and it is likely that some misunderstanding has remained here and there. I have just tried to respond to all his requests to confirm certain points whose translation remained dubious. An exception has occurred on precisely the point we are dealing with here: in this case I could not

respond as usual with a single line, but I need these several pages. Howard’s appropriate objection to that passage, which makes it impossible to translate without feeling unfaithful either to the text or to the reality, was expressed as follows.
It seems like you are saying there that any references you might find in the "book of the lily" to trionfi wouldn't be to the game we know, because it was included among the permitted games. But I can't see how you would be saying this, because it wasn't included among permitted games until 1450, as I think you already knew. So I am puzzled about how to translate the quote. (4)
[Translator's note: the lily is the official emblem of Florence. The "book of the lily" is the register of offenses.]

Unfortunately, I am not able to respond accurately based on the documents of the period. I'll try to use all my imagination and explain what can be proved. But I have to introduce the topic, starting from afar, from other games that were popular even before the arrival of the playing cards.

3. Dice games

Before the spread of playing cards there existed other types of games, significantly different. Chess was considered the noblest game, so much that it was rarely banned by the municipal statutes; in the few cases of prohibitions one can assume that it was a forbidden variant of the game where the moves made on the board were dictated by the roll of the dice. The dice games, such as Zara, the most popular, were usually at the opposite extreme and were always prohibited. An intermediate position was occupied by board games; they moved the counters along a given path according to the points made with the roll of the dice. Despite the fact that the points of the dice were obviously linked to the case, alternatives existed on their use, such that the game had to be considered to be of mixed type, i.e. intermediate between those of pure chance and those reflection. Unlike chess, these games could not be done without dice. Thus there was a serious problem if it was desired to allow them the character of an intelligent game.
4. M. S. Howard, email, 11.11.2016

Because the contrast to games of dice was efficacious, it was necessary to prevent an easy subterfuge on the part of the players. The players of dice games, including zara, could use a board similar to the one with twelve rows still known today from backgammon, and use it only as a board on which to roll the dice. It was enough to keep the board stationary next to the pieces, never using it, so as to show any guards who caught them in the act: they were playing a board game and were about to start the game, which is started with a first roll of the dice to arrange the pieces on the course.

This explains the warning that we often find in municipal statutes: board games are all prohibited except ones in which at the start all the pieces are placed in predetermined positions on the board. Evidently, all those variously placed pieces on the game board made it no longer suitable for rolling the dice in games of only dice. So far I have not used my imagination, just documented facts. The defect is that we are off the topic of playing cards, but only up to a point, because the same problem is also found for them.

4. Card games and triumphs

Like board games, card games also often have an intermediate character between games of pure chance and games of reflection: the cards are dealt randomly, but their use in the game can usually be made at the player's choice and thus in the long run an experienced player will have the edge over their opponents.

Lawmakers who must thwart gambling find then the problem that we have seen for board games: how do you regulate card games so that, using the same deck, only some games are allowed and not others? The variability of games and environments is too broad to be regulated by a law, above all because any law could then be observed to the letter in a rigid manner and without exceptions. For one player sentenced there were dozens who quietly continued to play in public and in private. One should not forget that at the end

of the fourteenth century Giovanni Morelli considered naibi among the recommended games for children (5); evidence of that kind can hardly be found in the Books of the Lily.

Among all the card games, the first to be allowed in the Florence area was usually diritto, which seems to have been a trick-taking game; it also seems likely (but not sure!) that it did not associate the trump function to some cards in the deck of naibi [ordinary cards]. When naibi a trionfi [triumph packs] appeared, for sure the added cards had precisely the trumps function in a trick-taking game, at least for capturing the most cards, but also, for some, different scores, associated perhaps with picture [i.e. court] cards, or combinations thereof.

Most likely, the deck of triumphs did not introduce an entirely new game; sometimes we read of a rectus ludus Triumphorum, as if it meant a game of triumphs played "in the style of diritta". The game of diritta with naibi had become a traditional and allowed game; if the the game of triumphs was played in a fairly similar way, despite the diversity of the deck, you can understand that very quickly it avoided the suspicion usually reserved for a newly introduced game: thanks not to the new deck used, but to diritta’s being played previously with the common deck, it could immediately qualify as a traditional game..

Indeed, control could in that way even become easier. What was the difference between playing diritta and playing triumphs? Now the deck of cards used was different and this was a clear advantage for those who were in charge of controlling the type of game. For players surprised with the cards, it would not be easy to prove they were playing one of the few allowed games. The game that was usually played with a pack of triumphs, however, belonged to the dirrita type of games, which was the first to appear in the laws as permitted exceptions among the forbidden games.

To use the deck of triumphs for the typical games of chance might have been possible but made more uncomfortable by the presence of the “strange” cards. Indeed, one can even think (thanks to the fact that here we are making a large use of the imagination) that the new deck was invented and introduced in the practice of its own players, so that the game would be more easily
5. Istoria fiorentina di Ricordano Malespini. Florence 1718.

tolerated by the authorities. If there was a pack of cards for which production and use had to be permitted, it was precisely that one, of triumphs.

In conclusion one can easily assume that the game of triumphs was accepted early on, before its name could appear explicitly in the Florentine laws of 1450; for games, a requirement that generally favored the exclusion from those prohibited was just that it was considered a traditional game of the population. It does not seem logical to assume that for that time a given game passed in a short time from being strictly prohibited to becoming authorized for all: very likely that game came to be tolerated in practice even before become formally writen into the law. There are in short the most compelling reasons to consider as very exceptional the sentences found in Florence in 1444 for two players of triumphs, those in the above quote that I foresaw would not be possible to find.

5. Minchiate

Now that I am giving free rein to the imagination I can try also to go one step further, so as to arrive at the final form of Florentine triumphs. The initial form is not known with certainty, but the finish is certainly made up of the ninety-seven cards of minchiate. If desired, it is easy to assume that the uncomfortable number has been achieved with the addition of only one card to a more reasonable deck of cards of ninety-six; there still remains the problem of explaining the reason for all that group of added cards.

As far as I know, Florentines then (and to some extent today) see a chance corresponding to a ... a reaction gesture. Evidently I am still working only in fantasy, but I like to think that the initial Florentine triumphs had fewer than twenty-two triumphal cards. I imagine then that pack of triumphs "returned" to Florence enriched to include all the traditional added twenty-two cards. The understandable reaction of the Florentines would be then: if you think you can increase our deck in order to make a more complex game, we can accept the challenge and indeed raise it so as to take back the preeminence among all competitors; no one can surpass the genius of the Florentines (at least then)!

6. Conclusion

Previously I had written, and moreover in a not very clear way, that in Florence the triumphs game could be considered allowed even before 1450, when it was approved with the provision that for the first time included it among the card games excluded from the prohibitions. In this note I have tried to justify and make explicit that hypothesis of mine. Of course I lack any document in this regard; the reasoning I have followed is entirely hypothetical: the introduction of the same triumphs would be explained as a way to make it easier to accept the deck of playing cards and its use in the hands of players. Once I permitted myself a work of fantasy, I finished by looking also for an explanation for the later use in Florence of the typical pack of minchiate, hypothesizing that it was created as a reaction to make the Florentines conquer - or perhaps reconquer - even in card games the primacy that at that time they were trying to reach in every field of production, whether in manufacturing or intellect.

Franco Pratesi – 20.11.2016

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