Saturday, December 23, 2023

Sept. 17, 2023: Cards and Tarocchi at the end of the 1700s in Sardinia

This is the sequel to "Cards and tarot cards in Sassari at the beginning of the nineteenth century," the translation of which is at The present note was originally entitled "Carte e tarocchi alla fine del Settecento in Sardegna," dated Sept. 17, 2023, at As usual, the numbers by themselves in the left margin are the page numbers of Franco's original pdf. The notes are at the bottom of the corresponding page, except those to the poem at the end, "The Fool of the Tarot," where they are at the end. Comments in square brackets are mine, in consultation with Franco, for explanatory purposes to non-Italian readers.

Cards and tarot cards at the end of the eighteenth century in Sardinia

Franco Pratesi

1. Continuation of the previous study

In my previous study on the playing cards found in the University Library of Sassari, some information and descriptions were left incomplete.[note 1] Above all, there was the hope of finding more playing cards. In fact, I list separately everything the librarian Deiana and his colleagues managed to track down following my repeated requests. The manuscripts involved are more than I had found in the catalogs, but the overall number of playing cards is lower than I had hoped, also due to the failure to find the twenty-two cards that were reported as associated with Ms. 68.

However, I gave up on completing the program of presenting some figures because, following new provisions of the ministry, I have already spent enough to receive the new scans. It wasn't easy, but the state bureaucracy is getting even worse and, also taking into account the ministerial decree of 11 April 2023, the following was written to me from the library. “The reproductions will be sent for study purposes and cannot be published in any way, either online or in paper form in any medium, unless subsequently and after obtaining authorization from the Ministry of Culture.” Let's imagine. Rather, I would like to take this opportunity to correct an error in the previous description of the cards of manuscript 72/II: instead of a Queen, the card whose suit is not seen is actually a second King of hearts.

2. List of cards found in the new search

  • 10. E. 15 – 3 of clubs. Central vertical fragment. On the back, white, “Dr. Giuseppe Della Chiesa.” Another small fragment with mutilated writing that cannot be deciphered.
  • 10. C. 5(2) – Jack, with suit canceled. Top left corner cut. Overwritten in large, clear handwriting: “5 di Denari” [5 of diamonds]. Back with approx. 20x11 repeated rows of a geometric pattern like a trident without a handle. Small white fragment with the writing “Velas a quatro à libra” [Velas {Sails?} at four for a pound] with numbers.
  • III. 10. F. 15 – 10 of hearts. The ten suit-signs of hearts are more regular than usual; only the edges are not as clear as they could be if they used the stencils well. A scan of the back is missing.
  • I. 5. B.17(I) – 4 and 3 of diamonds. Multiple pages of a religious book in Latin, breviary type. A piece of paper written in Spanish.
  • I. 5. B. 16(II) – 6 of diamonds, with good design, colors partly altered. Without scan of back.
  • 10. D. 30 – 9 of clubs, design not perfect but better than usual. Thin stems. Without scan of back.
  • III. 19. C. 12 – 9 of clubs; the flower stem is almost as thick as the petals. White back with writing “Caratter Giraldy” [Character Giraldy].
  • 55. A. 5(2) – 3 of clubs (more like the second 9). White back with “Il Vescovo di Bisarcio” [The Bishop of Bisarcio – Bisarcio was a diocese in Sardinia, including Sassari, until it was merged with another in 1503] printed in the center, inserted in a rectangular frame.
  • II. 1. G. 5(IV) – Queen of diamonds. Intact, well preserved, colors included. White back with handwritten: “Dr. Giorgio Pilo Boÿl.”
  • II. 1. F. 1(I) – 8 of diamonds; the position of the diamonds is not perfectly symmetrical and the edges are not clear. On the white back we read: “Il P. Solinas Carmelitano è venuto per congedarsi” [The Carmelite Father Solinas has come to say goodbye].
  • I. 18. B. 13(1) – 8 of diamonds, only half a card, vertically, better design. Two or three words, undeciphered, high on the white back.

  • 10. C. 5(9) – 3 of clubs, thin stem, overwritten with numbers and “unger.” The white back has been entirely printed with, within two frames, "GIAMMARIA COLLI CARBONI prega V.S. si degni onorare il suo atto pubblico di Licenza in Medicina il dì 14. Luglio a ore 7. di mat. 1790 [please Your Lordship deign to honor his public act of Licentiate in Medicine on 14th July at 7 in the morning. 1790”]
  • II. 21. F. 25 – 10 of diamonds. The edges of the ten diamonds were highlighted with a dark line, and an empty and less regular eleventh diamond was added in the center. On the white back we read “Il R. re del Sem. rio In Congedo” [The Rector of the Seminary on Leave] and some numbers.
  • I. 22. N. 8(I) – 2 of hearts and Queen of spades. Well preserved. Respectively on the white back we read, on three lines drawn with the ruler like others at the edges as a frame: “Dettori d.e S.le Pie prega VS. / / dell’intervento alla sua prolus. pub. / in il di 6. 9bre” [Dettori of the School Pie prays Your Most Illustriousness for intervention at his public prolusion / in Mathematics on the 6th October”]. The other, on three fairly well aligned lines “Francesco Paý prega V.S. / dell’intervento alla sua pub. prelus. / in Js. Canoni il giorno 5 9bre [“Francesco Paý prays to your Most Illustriousness / for intervention on his public prolusion / in Canon Laws on 5th March”].
  • 9. C. 5(1) – 8 of hearts plus fragment. On the white back we read “ Cavag re Guibert” [Knight Guibert] and perhaps “ Cavalleglieri” [Knights] scrawled above.
  • I. 14. A. 4 – King of an unrecognizable suit. All the card, although complete, is very worn. The back, also poorly preserved, is decorated in six not exactly parallel rows on the long side, of about 5 flowers [each] with four cross-shaped petals, without color.

3. Comments and hypotheses

I will not repeat here what has already been written in the study cited on these manuscripts, on their restorations, on their author. This time there are no explicit clues about the production of these playing cards: no name of city or factory. Both for their appearance and for some dates that can be read in the added writings, it must be concluded that in general these cards were produced before the Draghi tarot already encountered: from around 1805 we jump here at least to the previous decade, up to the year 1790 expressly indicated in one case (which however suggests a few years earlier).

In the previous study I had stopped at this point. “On the specific situation in the convent of the minor friars of Santa Maria di Betlem in Sassari, without studying it further, I can now only imagine something plausible.” An open question then was what could have induced the Friars Minor to restore many, or perhaps all, of Antonio Sisco's numerous manuscripts in a very limited period corresponding to the dates of those playing cards. Now the period in question expands and there is no longer a single event to search for; the other question then becomes prevalent, that of the origin of the playing cards.

In any case, I tried to find out more about the environment, and in particular I consulted two fundamental books on the Friars Minor in Sardinia and on the Convent of Santa Maria di Betlem itself (see Figure). The information collected in these two books is innumerable, and among other things we even find information on the author of the manuscripts, Antonio Sisco, on his life and his activities. However, I have not found the answer to my two perplexities: what happened to have the manuscripts restored, and where the playing cards came from. Later I even wrote to the library of the same convent asking for information on the matter; I haven't had any answers from there either, at least so far. So let's leave aside the opportunity for restoration and limit ourselves to the use, or rather uses, of the playing cards.

The cards listed in this study forced me to take some steps forward compared to previous hypotheses. The uncertainty that I had encountered regarding the origin of the cards, from the workshop of a craftsman or from the convent, I now have to resolve in the sense that what is read on the cards cannot have come from the workshop of any craftsman outside the convent, and therefore we just have to understand better the use of these cards within the convent itself. The visible use is mainly as business cards or, in any case, blank cards on which to write any useful information. This is not a strange thing, and there are many examples of this kind known. Of course, however, no one buys a deck of cards to use as business cards! That is the logical end of a deck that has already been used for a long time, with worn and recognizable cards, and perhaps now devoid of some cards and unusable for games. In short, it can be explained, especially if you consider that the cards in various decks of the time

actually had white backs. One problem remains, however: the fact that the subjects of the action are the friars minor, and their environment in Sassari.

A hypothesis that could hardly find explicit confirmation from the environment today is that in some period of time and in some way those clerics had become fanatical card players. In itself this would not be surprising; among card players, clerics are mentioned several times, in news and fiction, also from that historical period. I found a symptomatic example in the rules of the Stanze del Cocomero in Florence of 1796, and therefore practically in a time very close to the one implied here: the gaming rooms had become so crowded with clerics that it was decided to limit access. “With the object of removing the intolerable abuse and indecent manner that has been introduced, as is clear from seeing almost every evening the Academic Conversation held in the rooms attached to the Royal Teatro del Cocomero filled with priests admitted to the same always dressed in country attire, and with sometimes very torn clothes..." [note 2]

Those from Sassari, however, were not "normal" clerics, they were friars minor [Franciscans]. It so happens that the most typical and famous example of their approach with playing cards was already that of Saint Bernardino of Siena: he too used playing cards and taught the world that the most appropriate use, however unusual, was to make a rich collection of them and then burn them in a beautiful bonfire in the main square of the city. This was the typical use of playing cards by the Friars Minor! Bernardino would turn in his grave if he discovered that some of his brothers were using cards to play. Image
So perhaps the hypothesis that remains the most suitable is to assume that the friars obtained used decks of cards, no longer usable for playing, and transformed them into objects of stationery, to be used as tickets for announcements and various information. Among these uses, the use of the white backs of the cards as printed note cards appears significant; a note card with a printed announcement is not produced in a single copy, and so it is even better understood how the demand for that specific material for such use could even be considerable.

4. The Poetic Freddura [witticism, especially one using plays on words]

I intend to conclude this study by introducing a new topic, which brings a further contribution to the diffusion of the tarot in Sardinia, which is still little studied. The new document presented here, Il Folle dei Tarocchi, is a poetic composition, also preserved in the University Library

of Sassari. The collection in which it is found is the Devilla Donation, made up of the collection assembled by Giuseppe Devilla (1869-1955), head doctor at the municipal hospital of Sassari.

The manuscript in question ‒ DD ms. 6 ‒ is a small fascicle of twelve sheets stitched together, about which we read the following internal description in the catalog: “ff. 1r-7r: Manifesto Justifying the Popular Emotion that occurred in Cagliari on 28 April 1794; f. 7v: “Copy of Vittorio Amedeo's deed”; ff. 8r-9v: copy of the “Questions of the Ecclesiastical, Military and Royal Parliaments of the Kingdom of Sardinia”; f. 10r: poetic composition “The Fool of the Tarot”; c. 12r: “Circular of the Royal Audience of Cagliari to the Ministers of Justice of the Kingdom of Sardinia”; Attached are a double folio and a sheet of paper with notes also relating to the Cagliari riots.”

The documents preserved together would therefore also indicate a date around 1794 for the poetic composition and Cagliari rather than Sassari as the provenance. Due to the very conflicted political situation of those years, I imagined that a poetic composition on the Fool of the Tarot would be based on a rigid criticism of some ruler or military commander, possibly in sarcastic form. Instead, we read at most a rather uncertain reference to the "madness" of the rioting crowd. Perhaps the reader of the time could glimpse one or more personages and related underlying facts, which today are difficult to derive from these verses for anyone other than a scholar specializing in those local events. In short, it may be that the poet's reflection was triggered by the madness of the events, or even of some personage involved, but in this case his reaction is not sufficiently explicit for us.

We are therefore all the more interested in the Fool of the Tarot in itself, as a tarot card, whatever the underlying references. It must then be recognized that no important information can be gleaned from poetry about the game of tarot. Certainly, there are references to the manner of play, and obviously to the role of the Fool in the game; we come across details on the value of the cards (such as, for example, the five points for the Fool versus the single point for the Virtues); however, it is already known from numerous other sources. What ultimately remains of interest is the association between tarot and Sardinia: surely, this same poem would not have made sense if the game of tarot in Sardinia had been little or not at all known. Tarot in Sardinia is a topic that has received very few studies, and it is not clear whether the studies are few because there are few known documents of the time, or vice versa, if the known documents are few just because the topic has not yet received enough attention from scholars.

Florence, Sept. 17, 2023
The Fool of the Tarot

Poetic Freddure [witticism, especially involving plays on words]
[Translator's note: Franco's notes a-f appear at the end. In the original, lines periodically start further into the left margin. That doesn't work on THF, so I have made stanza breaks there instead.]

Ride, si sapis - Mart. [note a]

I do not ask you, oh friendly Muses
Golden plectrum [lyre pick], noble inspiration;
Stay also please on the open
Peaks, Apollo my Master;
Because I don't sing about loves, or weapons,
Topics too good
Of sweaty heroic poems,
But for now in the Brain
Quite the opposite boils over in me
And I want to sing about a Fool

Don't let anything fly in your nose
By mistake, or foolish doubts,
Let everyone be persuaded,
That of the fool of the Tarot
I'm just speaking of here,
Nor of any living fool
I think to make an apologia [i.e. defense],
And I swear to you by my faith,
That I keep inside my chest
For the fools also respect.

The Fool was born . . . we don't know
How, when, which country
Gave birth to such a rarity,
No disputes ever arose
Of his homeland, of his cradle,
This has so far mattered not at all.

Nor like in times gone by
For Homer, for Torquatus
Tomes were printed in folio
Without ever resolving the dispute,
I will answer you as soon as possible,
That he was already of this World
By secure tradition
A citizen, my Champion,
No one dares to doubt,
Of the Most Noble House
Of his very famous blood,
And although the times and troubles
Then tore him up a lot,
An undeniable argument
I feel like producing for you here,
That will make you experience first-hand
The splendor of this Insane one.
He has nothing, everyone sees him
From his tattered trousers,
He knows nothing, everyone believes this,
What did he ever write? What did he ever read?
He goes away like a Rascal
Poorly dressed and penniless

For companion having a Cat [note b]
That follows him at every turn,
He makes a ridiculous impression,
He even lacks imposture
Yet despite this he shines
Among the primary seven honors [with the Bagatto, the Angel, and the four kings]
Of the Tarot, nor does he depend
On any of the Superiors;
Therefore in just consequence
Of being without any merit
It is suitable to say that he is raised up
For his Lordship alone.

While one day in Parchment
I was reading certain annals
So ancient, that with great difficulty
The Characters were visible,
I found that this Crazy One
Was already a man of the Palace
Who also had the good luck
To serve in a Court.

That this story is true
I dare not assure it,
I know that [the story] says King Midas
Had the pleasure of honoring him
With a discreet Charge,
And he made him his Poet.

It says more, that on that great day
That the great Jupiter adorned him
With two donkey ears, [note c]
Between joy and between affairs
Spitting in someone’s face,
He recited spontaneously
Beautiful Sonnets and Madrigals
On the Royal ears,
So that among wreaths, gems, and gold
Four handsbreadths came out,
And then thanks to this
Good Midas deigned
To place him among those seven
Which the Tarot puts first
With distinguished privilege.
May no one dare to insult him,
And although full of audacity

No one accuses [also = declares, in the game] him, although he does
Good or bad, as he please
He can never be captured.

Three virtues in the gathering
Of the Tarot are in use
That is, Justice and Temperance
And she who with a strong arm
Tears the muzzle of the Lion.
But my famous little Crazy one,
Despises them, tramples them
He doesn't let them raise their crest.
Those only count for one point,
He for five, wretched ones,
They moan under sad laws,
By the Bagatto [Magician] finally seen as evil [he fears being taken by these lesser-counting cards].

Oh wretched custom!
Of the Regiment of cards
If the stupidest is lucky,
It's a sin to be talented,
While a man with a shaved head
Is the Master of the House.

What's worse is this unworthy one:
He is an unbelieving, profane one,
He turns to the Pope, and to the Triregnum [papal crown]
Often indeed his backside.
Also to the Angel, who from the Tomb
Extracts the dead with the Trumpet [note d]
He laughs in his face, and turns away,
And he doesn’t listen to the words

Of the Empire, the four Kings;
Wretched as he is,
He doesn't deign to obey,
So he wants to come to the square
In universal spite
With a National cap [note e]
Instigated by the Devil
This madman makes mockery
Even to Holy Matrimony
He’s causing trouble,
So that if the King husband
Sometimes feels a little itchy
To hug his wife
He takes her away from his embraces,
Even the most allowed ones;
These are things for stoning.
Even though suffering such a scoundrel
As the Page and the Knight
Now he joins, now he separates,
Wherever he touches he always stings,
And he distorts other people's accounts
Between twenty-one and twenty-two.

How many messes does this one cause
To one who plays too quickly:
Not paying attention to the future
He leaves him in his hand to die; [note f]
Or by too much greed
For a little woman or for a Page
He gives place to his companions
To save some ruler
Among the bile, among the laughter.
Then when in two divided
The power lies in the game,
This man without manners,
If whoever plays has no head,
To the party goes the money [The money gets lost].

This is so true, or rather too true,
That even fools of Cardboard
Are a harm, are a hindrance;
To wise and good heads,
The example lies in this game:
Whoever extracts himself doesn't do little.

(University Library of Sassari,
Dono [Donation] Devilla, DD ms. 6)
Notes on the Poetic Freddura

"Laugh, if you know," from Martial, with the meaning that those who know the situation thoroughly are also allowed to laugh at it. There is also the play on words of reading si sapis as sis apis, be a bee, become active and industrious like a bee.
b. In many decks the cat, or an animal that resembles it, is actually seen; in some cases, it follows the Fool closely, in others, it even bites his calf or buttocks.
c. This detail could be typical of the tarot if similar objects, such as locks of hair or cap rattles, were seen as donkey ears.
d. The Last Judgment card, with the dead being resurrected; in other regions it had become the Angel [and perhaps also here?], or [in minchiate] the Trumpets, depicted standing above the world.
e. This seems to be a reference to the local political situation in those years.
f. The Fool cannot be captured, but if in the end the losing pair has not made any tricks it also loses the Fool.

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