Saturday, December 23, 2023

Dec. 2, 2023: 1700s in Florence: Conversations in the Casino of St. Trinita (Settecento a Firenze: Conversazione del Casino di Santa Trinita)

 Translator's introduction: The original, from Dec. 12, 2023, is at It is fairly entertaining, especially the squabble about the primiera, something like a poker hand, although the game is not poker. Perhaps here, in what were mainly academies, but also establishments exempting its members from the usual prohibitions against gambling, we see the beginnings of the casinos shown in James Bond movies, the ones requiring formal dress and barring undesirables - quite different from American casinos today, full of slot machines making electronic noises, or those of the western movies where disputes are settled by gunfights. This post can also be found at

 1700s in Florence: Conversazione in the Casino of St. Trinita

Franco Pratesi

1. Introduction

A few years ago I conducted research in the Istituto dei Nobili [Institute of Nobles] collection of the State Archives of Florence and obtained some information on card games in that environment. (note 1). On that occasion I also carried out some research in scattered documents preserved by three previous associations that then merged to form the new Institute of Nobles. For these three, I found various pieces of information on theatrical performances, academic discussions of pre-established topics, rented premises and related payments, quality and quantity of members, and so on. I didn't glimpse anything about games that could possibly be played there.

I recently resumed my research, starting with the “Conversazione” of the Casino of S. Trinita. [Note for non-Italians: A Conversazione was an organization for conversing and other interactions among members, a kind of salon. A casino was a house where such activities occur, typically a small villa or lodge.] While for the other two associations of the time in the Inventory of the Archive on the Institute of Nobles we read some news on their prevailing activities, for this Conversazione, the conclusion based on the documents preserved is the following: "The acts of the internal life of this Academy tell us little or nothing.” (note 2).

2.The documents studied

I examined the following documents, indicated as follows in the same Inventory:

No. 11 Input and output of the Institute of Nobles of the Casino of S. Trinita, 1752 to 1761 -  P.
No. 12 Envelope containing receipts (bound and loose) of the Conversazione of the Casino of S. Trinita, 1684-1761.
No. 13 First Filza [group of documents typically held together by a string or long nail in an archive] of past justifications of the Academy of Nobles, from 15 May 1689 to 1 May 1698.
No. 14 Envelope containing: files relating to various transactions of the Academy of the Casino of Nobles, 1676-1761.

No. 11, marked P, is the latest in a long series of input and output books. There are only eleven written pages, mostly recording membership fees collected, and these records do not highlight any gaming activity in the Conversazione. Even in the three voluminous files of receipts and justifications, it is not easy to find traces of what was sought. Files No. 13 and No. 14 are similar in content, but not in structure: No. 13 contains a thick bundle of sheets tied together without being grouped by subject, while No. 14 contains about twenty files with headings of relatively homogeneous content, again composed of loose cards.

The main topics are association fees, with frequent lists of delinquent members or requests for suspension of payment due to prolonged absence; exchanges of correspondence on this matter are abundant. Almost equally abundant is the evidence of the nobility of foreign visitors, for whom there is a copy of the passport and letters of introduction (usually in Latin) from the sovereigns of their states of origin or from known nobles who testify to the validity of their noble titles.

The main activity appears to be the management of an academy in which young nobles follow courses and participate in plays and presentations, especially on the occasion of celebrations at the grand ducal court. Out of curiosity, the traditional subjects were in the morning: law, mathematics, French and Italian, drawing, Italian and French dancing, fencing, jumping on horseback, pike and flag, and in the afternoon: morality, geography and history, civil and military architecture, German and Italian languages, fencing, jumping on horseback, pike and flag, and French dancing.

   Regarding game activities, in the No. 13 series I only saw a negative mention, in the sense that a draft of 1690 of a statute directs "that any sort of gaming [probably meaning what we would call gambling – trans.], even in jest, is prohibited in the House of the Academy."
As for literary exercises in any language that one


1. F. Pratesi, Giochi di carte nel Granducato di Toscana, Ariccia 2015.


might imagine to have been in frequent use, there is only an invitation to participate every Wednesday evening at the Accademia degli Apatisti, [for which see - trans.] in Via de' Pescioni.

     However, in fascicle 13 of file No. 14 we read, "Orders on Card Games, and cases followed in this matter. 1743," just what I was looking for. Opening the file, unfortunately, we find only two sheets. One is a large printed sheet, folded, with the 1743 ban on gambling: all the licenses are revoked, and from now on only new licenses will be authorized, "signed by the Tax Accountant, with the tax ordained in said Rescript, the payment of which must appear at the foot of the license. With a declaration, however, that this general revocation of licenses does not include the Gentlemen's Casinos, which are found opened in various cities of the State with the approval of the Most Serene Grand Dukes." In short, the members keep a copy of the general prohibition, as it certifies that it does not apply to them!

   More interesting, because it cannot be found elsewhere, is the other sheet, handwritten on both sides, with the only "case" present. I transcribe it below, inserting paragraphs and changing the punctuation.

The Bambara case

Playing Bambara, Tizius initiates the stake, Sempronius and Caius meet it, and the others throw theirs away [vanno a monte]. Caius makes primiera [a desirable combination], shows it to Sempronius and another who did not meet the stake, and then throws it away [getta a monte]. Sempronius pays. Tizius adds: if I have to pay the stake, I want to see the primiera, and since you, Caius, have thrown your cards away you cannot demand the stake, but rather you have to pay it to me who holds my cards in my hand; and my points, although small, are the ones that win because I hold them in my hand. A dispute arises. The Minister was called to have it judged.

    The Minister [in this case with the sense of supervisor] asking how the case is, Caius replies together with Sempronius: You should ask [players and bystanders] whether by showing a primiera on the table, and then throwing it away, it should be respected. And Tizius does not contradict this representation, although other than the case.

   The Minister inquires of it, and comes to judge, that when a primiera has been on the table it must be respected, even if it is thrown away, as there are no other primieras that can counteract it, however greater or lesser. However, since there is another primiera on the table unrevealed, the person who holds it on the table can also claim to make it count as greater by saying that his should be counted, and the other, thrown away, not. But since there are no other primieras, the one that is said to have already been on the table must be considered good, since everyone is free to look at the cards, yes or no.

   Once the Minister answered what had been decided, Tizius paid the stake without objecting. Once the Tavolino game [round] is over, Tizius goes against the Minister saying that he didn't know how to do his job because the primiera hadn't been on the table [i.e. revealed to all], and if he didn't know how to do it, the minister should learn or do some other job, and that he [Tizius?] would leave it to himself [?] to do what he thought was right.

   The Minister added to him that when Sempronius and Caius presented the case to him he should have objected and said that the case was not as presented. Tizius replied that he was not obliged to do so, but that the case should be described by those around him. And the Minister replied that Tizius's silence at the representation made by Caius and Sempronius was a sign that he approved, and that it was not necessary to hear the case from those around him unless the parties to the dispute were not in agreement about the facts.

[Explanation: the point at issue is that the primiera was only shown to two players without being revealed to all, whereas the situation was later described, and judged, as if it had been revealed.]

3. Envelope No. 12 - The Receipt Notebook [Quaderno]

I considered this No. 12 as the most promising because interesting information could emerge from the receipts for small expenses, and I was not disappointed. This archival unit actually does not present itself today in the form of an envelope but of a large binder, with two very different objects inside, at least apparently: a book covered in parchment and a thick bundle of receipts in loose sheets, badly tied with string between two wooden slats whose lateral dimensions are considerably smaller than the sheets.

   The book is also, in effect, a book of receipts. However, in this case we are not dealing with individual receipts subsequently bound in a book, but with a book or notebook [quaderno] - which is exactly what would be indicated on its cover: Quaderno di Riceute Della Conversaz.e de SS.ri Del Casino di S. Trinita. Del 1684 al 1761 - initially dedicated to recording the receipts written by those who collected money from the Conversation. On each page, two or three receipts can typically be read, signed by the person collecting the money or by someone on his behalf. Most of these receipts concern the six-monthly rentals of the premises, but there are also many receipts for maintenance work by craftsmen, especially bricklayers, painters, and carpenters.

   But what exactly did these illustrious gentlemen do in the “Conversation”? Obviously, they were conversing, by definition, but were they just talking? Certainly, the nobles also drank good wine, because receipts for many flasks are found (of different quality for gentlemen and servants). Did they play games? In this entire book, I saw a suggestion of only one game, sbaraglino, which, among other things, is a typical game of the backgammon family between two players, and therefore would not seem sufficient for a very large "conversation."

On 17 December 1712
I, Paolo Marghieri, received twenty-six Lire in consideration of a Sbaraglino with its accompanying pieces and cups, and because he said he didn't know how to write, asked me Vincenzo Zurli in my own hand to make the present [statement] under his request and presence.

All that remains is to look for any playing cards among the loose sheets.

4. Envelope No. 12 - The loose sheets

    On the sheet containing the receipts we read, “Various Receipts relating to the Accademia del Casino from 1731 to 1760.” These loose sheet receipts are also partly actual receipts from craftsmen which list the work done and the amount paid, separately on their own sheet. Receipts of this type are mostly added in bulk, separately, after the normal receipts. There are also some revenue receipts, for example, one in 1749 for Payment of Taxes current and Arrears, in which the following names of members can be read:

Ill:mo [Most illustrious] Sig:re [Lord] Alessandro Orazio Pucci
Ill:mo Sig:re March.e [Marquis] Andrea Bourbon Del Monte
Ill:mo Sig:re March.e Ferdinando Incontri
Ill:mo Sig:re Alfonso Marsili
Ill:mo Sig:re Count Guicciardini
Ill:mo Sig:re Prior Giulio Orlandini
Ill:mo Sig:re March.e [Marquis] Andrea Alamanni
Ill:mo Sig:re Caval.e [Knight] Bened.o Tempi
Ill:mo Sig:re. Ferdinando Nerli
Ill:mo Sig:re March.e Scipione Capponi
Ill:mo and Sig:re [Senator] Anton Francesco Acciaiuoli
This is only a part of the company; in other documents are much longer lists; in any case, as expected, they are certainly not the names of popular Florentines!

   However, the typical receipts are nothing more than a list of small expenses that the servant presents on the first of the month for what he had paid in the previous month on the most diverse occasions. In fact, here you can read about everything; fortunately for us, we also find those playing cards that we were looking for as an explanation of the activity of the “Conversation” of Santa Trinita.

    There are also obviously recurring expenses, such as candles, lighting oil, brooms, canoes, stationery, and in winter firewood and charcoal; there are also occasional expenses for small jobs, repairs, and alms. Of the two types of expenses, playing cards appear among the recurring ones, in the sense that there are not many monthly receipts where playing cards do not appear at all. Unfortunately, there are many years when playing cards do not appear for the simple reason that monthly receipts were not kept. I have gathered together, in a single table below, all the occurrences that I found in this bundle of receipts.

[Below, “low cards” means cards of lower dimension, smaller or shorter than minchiate and “grandi” cards, and with 40 cards per deck.]



 *  Purchased together :180 gettoni [small round chips] and 3 dozen white fiscie [modern fisci = larger chips, often rectangular, with a value of an agreed number of gettoni].

    As can be seen, the series is fairly continuous over time, with the exception of a first scattered receipt from 1841, the range covered is smaller and more recent than we could have hoped for. The data for 1841, as a single value, does not allow us to extrapolate the absence of a minchiate deck or the rather high number of low cards to the entire year; however, it serves at least to confirm the long-term consistency of card prices.

   As noted in previous research, the prices of the cards were expressed in a simple way by dozens of decks: thus, in this period of time, 14 lire per dozen for the low cards, 22 for minchiate, and 16 for rovescino. To go from this base to the prices of various numbers of decks has become quite difficult today, due to the subdivision of one lira into 20 soldi and one soldo into 12 denari (or into three quattrini, as was usual in practice).

   The decrease in the decks of cards used each year is evident and can be verified at a glance in the following graph for low cards (1) and minchiate (2).

Decks per year

   We don't know exactly what the favorite game with low cards was, perhaps hombre or tressette, certainly suitable for a “conversation” of the time, but more probably the bambara already encountered in 1743 and better compatible with the subsequent appearance of rovescino. For minchiate and rovescino, the games are those linked to the deck. At first glance, one would conclude that minchiate disappeared after 1754, but in fact the ratio between ordinary and minchiate decks never differed too much from the 10 percent also found in other companies of players at the time.

   As far as rovescino is concerned, the situation is different. The name of the game has been retained locally still today, in particular for variations of tressette, but in general the name was and still is sometimes used for non-trick-taking games of various types. However, in this environment

and era, rovescino was the Italian name corresponding to the French reversis, a game of chance whose rules can be found described in detail by one of the leading experts on the subject. (note 3.)

   Due to the nature of this game, in this case there are additional costs for the purchase of small and large chips, but if looked after with care it is only a one-time expense, because they are objects that do not wear out, unlike cards. It is therefore not surprising that in the few times in which we subsequently find the purchase of rovescino decks, we no longer find the costs for the associated tokens and chips.

5. Conclusion

   It was reasonable to suspect that in the “Conversations” of the Lords of the Santa Trinita Casino, time was spent playing cards. However, no information on this activity appears in the minutes and accounts books that were kept. In a receipt book can be found only the purchase of a sbaraglino board. Only in the loose sheets with the lists of incidental expenses made during the month by the servants were the expenses for decks of playing cards identified, actually rather many. We thus obtain a complete list of their purchases for the period from 1752 to 1759. For the following years, we know that this “Conversation” converged into the new Casino dei Nobili, and therefore it is logical not to find other receipts here. Less obvious is the absence of previous receipts, with one exception, from 1741, but one can imagine that receipts of this kind, reserved only for small expenses, were easily dispersed.

Florence, 02.12.2023



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