Saturday, December 23, 2023

October 16, 2023: games played with tarocchi in the 1600s

 This essay concerns a man famous for his card tricks. In a work done with the sponsorship of no less than the last lineal descendant of the main branch of the Medici rulers of Florence, Electress Palatine Maria Luisa dei Medici (1691-1716). He is better known for his tricks than for his writing, and in fact his account of his secrets is sometimes not easy to decipher, certainly for a non-Italian such as me, but at times even for Franco. In what follows we do our best, with the aid of some parenthetical speculation. There is at least one trick that still eludes us, the very first of the half dozen or so that Pratesi transcribed. If anyone can figure out what the secret is that he is revealing, please let us know. The original, of Oct. 16, 2023, is at

Games played with cards - in the seventeenth century

Franco Pratesi

1. Introduction

Searching the inventories of the State Archives of Florence, I identified a codex in the Manuscripts collection that is of great interest for my research on card games. [note 1] It is therefore worth reporting in full what we read in Inventory N/187.

Miscellany of scientific works and erudition nos. 758-797
N-786: Alessandro Capra da Montalbotto. Games played with cards. A dedication in verse precedes it, but it is not known to whom it was addressed, as the paper had been cut. It begins: "My undefeated Lord these beautiful flowers / Gathered by one who stands [reading “sta” for “sa”] on a beautiful mountain, etc. It ends: Now Happy Signore, take so much / As a humble servant can give you, / Because the immense sea does not disdain a small stream." And then: " et / Capra da Montalbotto" [Most humble and most devoted servant/Alessandro Capra da Montalbotto]. 17th century. In small octavo with gilt leaves at the cut; without page numbering. Bound in leather with cold stamping, and a coat of arms of the Palatinate (?) of the Rhine. Provenance Guiducci, perhaps coming from the Electress Palatine. [note 2]
What I imagined I would find was a kind of manual on card games, a pioneering collection of the type of those numerous printed volumes that were recurrently published, more than a century later, for the “player in conversazione [a type of club].” Anticipating news on the rules of the main card games by several decades seemed like a remarkable achievement. Even the very provenance of the manuscript is interesting and deserves further investigation.

2. Origin

Reading "provenance Guiducci" is interesting information, because it allows us to trace back to an important family archive, and to prestigious grand ducal collections, thanks to the importance of the personage Niccolò Guiducci. In the Archivio storico italiano. Nuova Serie. Tomo Quarto for 1856,[note 3] we find three pages in this regard (234-236) with everything one would want to know about the passage of the collection of these archival units from the Guiducci family to the State Archives and about the origin itself of the collection, starting from the Medici secretariat, and especially that of Anna Luisa dei Medici, Electress Palatine.
The rare abundance of papers, owing to which the Central State Archive is precious, has recently been increased due to the generosity of the noble Guiducci family. Having inherited from their elders an archive, they wanted to know the documents; and knowing that many referred to the house of Medici, they considered it a good idea to place them in the Archive that preserves the memories of the city’s sovereigns. They wanted to place them as a free gift, almost as if they interpreted the preference of that ancestor for whom these Medici papers came into their family. Because it is useful to know how Iacopo Niccolò Guiducci was at first gentleman of the chamber of Cosimo III and then spent a long time in the services of Anna Luisa, Electress Palatine, who was grand duchess in name from 1737 to 1743.[note 4]

3. General description of the type of games

As soon as I was able to consult the manuscript, it was possible to confirm the impression obtained from the Inventory: a manuscript treated like a precious object, with a prestigious binding. Unfortunately, however, the idea of being able to find the rules of primiera, hombre and even minchiate has not been confirmed at all. At first glance it is clear that these card games are something completely different and essentially involve magic tricks.
1. State Archives of Florence, Manuscripts, No. 786.
2. https://archiviodistatofirenze.cultura. ... scrive.pdf
3. ... frontcover
4. Monitore Toscano No. 201, 30 August 1856 (as cited in the Italian Historical Archive).

The last straw is that more than thirty years ago I had done a demanding study on precisely this type of "card games,” although limited to printed books. [note 5] That research cost me a certain amount of effort, because today's powerful tools were not available for bibliographic research at the time. I imagine that those results would be rather easy today not only to find, but also to increase in number - which, however, is not part of my current plans. Evidently, the time that has passed since then has been enough to make me forget that when you come across texts from that era on card games, you regularly encounter "disappointments" of this kind.

However, the first opening of the book was enough to immerse me again in that environment, which I had not encountered since then. The problem is that this sector is not mine: I lack the necessary expertise to affirm that the value of the content is equal to that of the binding. I will therefore limit myself to giving a general idea and copying some "games" as examples.

First of all, it should be noted that these are not just card games, even if understood that way. There are tricks done by other means, and there are also examples that are not games, such as various “secrets,” a name which in these cases refers especially to home economics instructions, as well as medical prescriptions and recipes. The magician in question was, in short, something more than what we know today; evidently among his skills was also that of chemist and pharmacist, preparer of potions capable, for example, of relieving toothaches or making those who had difficulty urinating do so easily.

On the first page, we find the poem of dedication, unfortunately with the upper part of the sheet cut two or three centimeters from the margin, in order to eliminate the data and even the name itself of the recipient, which would have been useful to know. I can complete the lines cited in the Inventory with the complete copy of the poem.
My undefeated lord, these beautiful flowers
Collected by one who stands on a beautiful mountain
At the bang, at the sound, in good accord and ready,
Of well-composed words, facts and works
Taken from ancient or modern authors
They are not, but their birth and source is from him who offers them.
Welcomed by great Kings with a happy face
By ladies and knights, by great lords,
These are those that with a skilled hand
Are shown in a thousand and a thousand ways
And not by shrewd knowledge seen or understood,
Now here collected with courteous and human
Will, he offers you a part and unties the knots
Of his secret operations not previously evident.
Now, happy sir, take so much
As a humble servant can give you,
Because the immense sea does not disdain the small stream.

Most humble and most devoted servant
Alessandro Capra da Montalbotto

 There isn't much to comment on. The author, Alessandro Capra da Montalbotto is the one "who stands on a beautiful mountain" and his mountain - only 188 meters!? should be Montalboddo, today Ostra, a town in the Ancona area, which enjoyed considerable prosperity in the seventeenth century. As a writer, both in verse and in prose, he appears very ungrammatical, but it must be recognized that for his profession
5. L’Esopo, No. 50 (1991) 67-76.

a superior literary culture was not necessary; and moreover, on the specific subject, even the various printed pamphlets of the time are written equally crudely.

Taking as valid its presentation as a personal and entirely original work, one must recognize the variety of games and secrets. We move from one trick to another, very different in terms of idea and means used. This variety contributes to giving us a glimpse of a personage with remarkable technical ability and extraordinary inventiveness. Certainly his judgment "Welcomed by great Kings with a happy face / By ladies and knights, by great lords" sounds exaggerated as well as immodest, but for us the very fact of how his book was preserved - and by whom!? - confirms the esteem enjoyed by the author.

4. Selected examples copied in full

The game of guessing how many points will be under 3 piles [monte for montone] that will be made by a third party. You take a pack of primiera cards numbering 40 and tell the third party that he can shuffle the cards as much as he wants and that he will secretly make piles of cards, i.e. by counting the first card for what it is [and going on counting] up to 15, understanding that the court cards say ten, and all the other points by what they are, and counting the first card for what it is, as I said, and all the other cards as one up to 15, and after having made the 3 piles, let him give back the cards that remain, and secretly you count the first card as nine, whatever it is, all the other following cards as one, so many cards will be, counting the first as nine, so many points will be under the 3 piles. [Neither Franco nor I can figure out an interpretation of his words that will yield the promised result!]

The wagering game is done with 3 rows of cards as seen below. You will make the said 3 rows of cards 3 cards per row so that one touches the other, that the 3 rows are nine cards 3 per row and you will hold 3 in your hand which are twelve, and you will tell a third that you want to add the 3 cards, and make 4 cards for each direction, you will place one on top of the other as you will see below which will be 4 for each side both straight and across, keeping in mind that this is a wagering game to bet on, because when you see it you learn [the trick].

The game of 3 Kings is done with 4, that is, one is placed on top so that no one knows, and you will show 3 and say that you want to place one above, one below, and one in the middle, and that by raising them once you want to make them fall all 3 together, and this proceeds from having secretly put one on top, the third thinking that you have done it with 3 and you have done it with 4. And it is necessary not to do it more than once; the same can be done with 4 aces or other cards as long as they go with 4 things.

The game of making one King be taken instead of another. You will have half a King of Hearts [i.e. the top half of the card cut in half], and you will place it over the head of any other King of the cards and with your two second fingers you will cover the border of the half King, but the half King is with the head towards the ground [i.e. so that the “third” will not naturally grab it by the head]; and showing it in the face of the third, say to him, which King is this? Everyone will say, the King of Hearts. Making him grab him by the feet, he will think he is taking the King of Hearts and will take another King which you will have placed under the half King of Hearts.

The game of sticking the tip of a knife into a card which a third will have taken out. You will have a deck of cards all of one sort, that is, all aces or all kings or whatever other sort you want, and in front of the deck there are two different cards to make it clear that the cards are not all of one sort, and you will tell a third person to take out one card and then after taking it out to put it in the deck, and shuffle without looking in the deck, and after he has shuffled you will take the cards back into your hand by telling the third person to put the tip of the knife inside the deck, so that he will place it on the back of the card that he has taken out, and having put it [the knife] in the deck which, due to everything being of one sort, he cannot put it in another place, and it is a most beautiful game.

The game of showing a deck of cards, there not being any primiera or accompanied cards and then shuffling the cards and having the third person cut and place the cards 4 by 4 on the table in two parts five sets of 4 by 4 [i.e., 2 rows, 5 piles, 4 cards per pile] and revealing then the cards will be 10 primieras of 4 things each. You must first select the 10 primieras, that is, all the 4 aces, the 4 twos, the 4 threes, the 4 fours, the 4 fives, the 4 sixes, the 4 sevens, the 4 Jacks, the 4 Queens, and the 4 Kings dividing them into two sets, and then you will begin to take a card for a primiera of whichever side you want, one on top of the other as long as there are cards that, looking in the deck, there will be no primiera stacked together, by letting whoever wants cut the cards, and then starting from the bottom, in each of the 2 things, you put the cards one by one as you did the first time, 10 primieras will come out, and it's a most beautiful game. [It appears that a primiera here includes a four-card hand of four of a kind, usually called a “chorus,” as well as one with all four suits. If so, perhaps he means that the deck, after being shuffled, should be arranged so that it forms two half-decks five fours of a kind each. He has omitted that the fours of a kind all have to follow the same order of suits; the trick won't work otherwise. Then, if each half-deck is cut by the “third” and dealt into five piles of four, dealing from the bottom of the deck as the writer says, each pile will have four cards in all four suits.]

The game of guessing what someone will have with 3 dice, that is, how many points: you give 3 dice into the third party's hand and tell him to roll once and count how many points he gets, and then turn one of the 3 dice upside down, whichever he wants, and Count that point turned over together with those rolled the first time, and roll the same die that you turned upside down again, and see how many points you will have scored in all, leaving the dice on the table without moving them, and say you that you want to guess all the points he rolled in those three times. I say that the points he will have rolled in 3 times will be seven more than what you see on the table.

The secret is to play a prank on any person by having them wash their hands and face with clear water; and once dried their hands become as black as coal. Take the fresh skins of unripe walnuts [when unripe, these cover the shells], give them a soak, and then distill them in an alembic, like rosewater, which will make clear and odoriferous water, which when washing the hands and seen with said water will become black as coal, nor will it be removed by washing with water, but well with hot vinegar, rubbing your hands and face with a piece of wool will remove the blackness and return the flesh to its original state.

5. Conclusion

It is easy for me to conclude that the discovery of this manuscript did not bring any useful information in the area of my research on playing cards. Certainly, something can be concluded about the value given to the manuscript. First of all, by the author himself, who would have compiled a collection of original games, without copying them from the specialist literature already abundant in those years, even with popular printed brochures of very few pages. It seems probable that the binding, so unusually rich, was commissioned by the Electress Palatine herself. In short, we are faced with a work considered not only original and interesting but almost precious. However, another matter is to insert this text into the specific literature and check, game by game, whether we can talk about a development of the sector or just a repetition of known tricks, possibly introducing only variations in the procedure. For this part of the judgment I am not able to intervene, but perhaps my presentation will attract the attention of some scholars of the subject. In short, for an exact evaluation of what is contained in this book, a sequel will be needed, written by an expert in the specific sector.

Florence, 16.10.2023

No comments:

Post a Comment