Saturday, December 23, 2023

October 25, 2023: Cortona 1767-1781 - Playing Cards in Customs

This essay transcribes correspondence from Florence to Cortona about supplying stamped cards from the former to the latter. The authors are Domenico Aldini, Chief Minister (i.e. official) for the playing cards stamp duty in Tuscany, and his superior Giuseppe Gavard, in communication with the subordinate Customs Office in Cortona. In this correspondence we learn something about the production and distribution of playing cards, including minchiate, in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany at that time, as well as the rather tight control that Florence exercised over that distribution, including with other public agencies.

Franco's original is at This translation was done with the assistance of Google Translate (of course with numerous corrections) and more especially with Franco, without whom anything like an accurate translation would not have been possible. Remaining errors are mine; please let me know when you see one. Page numbers on the left margin are those of Franco's pdf. Footnotes are at the bottom of the page indicated. The translation originally appeared on Tarot History Forum on Jan. 17, 2024, at, transferred here on Jan. 20, 2024.

Cortona 1767-1781 – Playing Cards in Customs

Franco Pratesi

1. Introduction and documents studied
    The material used for this study is contained in a file in the last element, the thirtieth, of the series on the subordinate customs [Dogane], a collection in the State Archives of Florence. In the relevant Inventory N/379-VII, it is indicated as follows.

No. 30 “Different contact details regarding the Cortona Customs.” Contains three files entitled: "stamped paper - letters addressed to the Minister of Cortona". “playing cards-letters addressed to the Minister of Cortona.” “Duty from contracts of Arezzo and Cortona” 1767 – 1781. [note 1]
For my research there was therefore only one file present, with around fifty letters sent to the minister of Cortona by Domenico Aldini, the person who for years had been in charge of the control of playing cards in Florence.

    One of the subordinate customs [offices] was installed in Cortona, as in other even smaller cities. The main customs was obviously in Florence, but there was a network of secondary ones in the major Tuscan cities, such as Arezzo, Livorno, Pisa, Pistoia and Siena. The subordinate customs were at a lower level, and of these there are those of Volterra, Cortona, Pietrasanta, Colle, Firenzuola, Pietrabuona, Ponte a Taviano, and a few others in smaller localities.

    The letters arriving in Cortona from Florence provide us with a variety of useful pieces of information on the control of the playing cards transferred, depending on local requests, from the main warehouse in Florence to that of the Cortona customs. We thus obtain the number of decks used in Cortona and the surrounding area, but also related information that lets us inside the administration and the control methods followed.

2. The quantity of cards
    Years ago I found a record of the cards sent from Florence to various Tuscan cities in 1791, a few years after the period of interest here, and I reproduce a summary table of the situation below. [note 2]

Screenshot 2024-01-16 at 17-46-32 CORTONA.pdf.png
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1. https://archiviodistatofirenze.cultura. ... lterne.pdf.
2. Playing Card Production in Florence, Tricase 2018, p. 36.
As can be seen, Cortona does not appear among the Tuscan cities to which playing cards had been sent from Florence; perhaps in 1791 no new decks of ordinary cards and minchiate were sent to that city. However, in general, the ratio between minchiate and other types of cards remains significant. Precisely this ratio is what interests us, as can also be verified in the data found in Cortona in previous years, summarized in the following table.
DOZENS OF CARDS [i.e. DECKS - trans.]
Year-Month / Low / Minchiate / Other 
  * Six decks of local picchetto cards [not the same as French piquet - trans.], which are used for the game of Twenty-One and will have to be sold at the rate of two paoli per deck [1 paolo = 8 crazie - current trans.].
** However, only the minchiate arrived.
^   Complete French-style – sold nine crazie per deck.
^^ In fact, half a dozen more cards and fewer minchiate are sent in compensation.
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   Some interesting information can be obtained from the table. The first is that the expectation of a 10:1 ratio between "normal" cards and minchiate cards is fully confirmed. It had been an almost constant ratio for quite a while, and we couldn't expect a very different situation, except perhaps a premature reduction in the game of minchiate. This decrease will become general throughout Tuscany, but only later. Roughly speaking, Cortona receives around twenty dozen decks of “normal” cards a year and, correspondingly, just over two dozen decks of minchiate.

    The very limited presence of playing cards other than the low ones [i.e. the “normal” deck, here of 40 cards] may be a little surprising. In more than twelve years, only a dozen French-style packs and even only half a dozen 52-card picchetto packs, which also had a fair diffusion elsewhere. Here it is said that they were used for the game of Twenty-one, which evidently had only a very brief fashion (or authorization) in the area.

3. Replacement of defective or missing cards – in general
    The procedure adopted to replace any defective or missing cards is clearly indicative of the meticulous attention dedicated to the matter, such as to make a simple playing card seem of great value. The following circular can be read in this regard.
Florence, 23 August 1776
    To provide as much as possible for the interests of the General Administration in relation to the defective and worm-eaten cards frequently found in the respective locations, for which the method of returning them to this General Warehouse to be exchanged has been adopted, I have concluded that in future, when one, or two, or three, or even eight of the damaged cards are found in a deck of cards, and no more, only the damaged cards must be returned to the Principal Minister as such, retaining the remainder of the deck, because they [the damaged cards] are made completely similar again and then returned and replaced in the remainder of    said deck of cards remaining in hand, etc.
    If there is greater harm in a deck, in this case the entire deck will be sent back, another good one to be sent to compensate for the defective one.
    If there are any missing cards in a deck of cards, then the defective deck must be sent back intact to the Principal Minister to be exchanged by the selling card maker.
    It is in this manner, therefore, that Your Most Illustrious Lordship must behave; and with attention to acknowledgment that this letter has reached you, I remain with perfect esteem
    Of Your Lordship
    Most Devoted Obliged Servant
    Giuseppe Gavard
A detail of this letter that is lost in the transcription is the fact that counselor Gavard, hierarchically superior, signs the letter, but his handwriting is identical to all those signed by Domenico Aldini. In short, it is clear, or at least very probable, that Gavard affixed his signature to a provision already prepared by the usual office in the main warehouse.

My personal impression is that the control over playing cards had taken on some maniacal characteristics: a playing card ends up being treated as if it were a banknote, and not of small denomination.

4. Strict control over cards
    As a rule, the minister of Cortona writes to Domenico Aldini to request the supply of a precise number of dozens of decks of [“normal”] cards and minchiate as soon as he senses a danger that the local warehouse will run out of playing cards to be transferred to retailers who request them. Again in accordance with the now usual procedures, after a few days Aldini sends a letter advising that the requested cards have been sent and asking for confirmation of receipt. However, we note some cases in which the cards sent are fewer than those requested, and when this happens it does not happen without reason. Florence meddles in the affairs of the Cortona customs and demonstrates that the request made is greater than the need. This occurs in a few cases, such as the following.
Florence 25 February 1769
. . . I sent you 10 dozen Low Cards and 2 dozen Minchiates, having limited myself in the latter because the consumption of them in the last year was of sixteen decks, with a remainder of twenty decks, it seems to me that said two dozen can be more than sufficient for you. …

Florence 23 November 1776
    Before sending to Your Excellency the playing cards which you request from me with your letter dated 19th of the current month, please tell me, upon receipt of this letter, the precise quality and quantity of the said cards which are unsold there, since from your summary of accounts for the first semester, it is noted that as of the end of July, 341 Low Card decks and 36 Minchiate decks remained in existence [undistributed]; and that the output of said Semester consists of only 100 decks of the first and 36 decks of the second. So if the output has not grown out of proportion in the current semester, it would seem that there will still be cards for a long period of time; and since it has been seen from experience that the cards then go bad due to dirt and moths, it is therefore not advisable to load the respective card storage services [posti] more than necessary, for which reason it is precisely my duty to make the aforementioned request, and for no other reason, full of respect, I invariably state myself
             Of Your Most Illustrious Lordship
            Most Devoted Most Obliged Servant
            Domenico Aldini
5. Replacement of defective or missing cards – a special case
    It is worth reporting the documentation on a particular case in which the distance between the "theoretical" provisions and daily practice is felt. Despite all the prescribed attention, some errors become inevitable, and the bureaucracy enters into crisis.
Florence, 9 December 1776
. . . so said cards remained in Customs, where the appropriate shipment could not be made. Therefore you will receive them in the current week, and I will ensure that among them there are still six decks of Low Cards and two decks of Minchiate, which were returned to me due to being damaged. But if by chance they cannot be brought to good condition in time to be able to join them with said cards, do not worry, because in this case I will be concerned to get them to you as soon as they are in order. . . .

Florence, 26 December 1776
    Your Most Illustrious Lordship sent back some time ago six decks of Low Cards and two decks of Minchiate, which were damaged, for me to return them to you in good condition.
Mr. Giuseppe Blais of Firenzuola sent me eight decks of Minchiate at the same time for the same reason.
    In returning said cards, a mistake was made, because those that were supposed to come there [Cortona] went to Firenzuola, and those of Firenzuola came there.
    In this state of affairs, I ask Your Excellency to send me six decks of Minchiate so that I can instead send you six decks of Low Cards, and in this way, the mistake made will be remedied, your attention to which I will be much obliged. I state myself                                  Of Your Most Illustrious Lordship
Most Devoted Obliged Servant
Domenco Aldini

Florence 13 February 1777
    Since the 26th of the month of December past, I wrote you another letter, of which you will find a copy attached. And since I have not yet received the appropriate response, I ask you to be pleased to give me said response and to implement the contents of the same, so that we can rid ourselves of the error that occurred in returning the cards there that were supposed to go to Firenzuola, instead of the ones you sent me; . . .
There is no end to this practice, also because in the meantime the minister Luigi Sergiuliani of Cortona customs had changed, so that it became necessary to summarize the general provisions regarding defective cards to the new minister Giuseppe Ruggeri. It seems that the relevant bureaucracy perhaps had to start from scratch.
Florence, 25 May 1778

    With respect to worm-eaten and missing Cards, your Predecessor must have left you a Circular dated 23 August 1776 from this Counselor Gavard, in which it was essentially ordered that when in a deck of cards one or more defective cards, is found, up to the number eight, such defective cards must be sent to me, as they are to be redone, and returned to their respective location to be replaced in the remainder of the deck, which remains in the hands of the Minister or seller. If there are many defective cards in a deck of cards, the entire deck must be sent back to him to exchange, and a good one must be returned in compensation for the defective one.
    Finally, when there are some missing ones in a deck, it is appropriate to send the whole deck back to me, if there are many missing, to be, as above, exchanged, etc. But in the case of a small shortage, it is sufficient to send back a card from the same deck, wrapped well in a sheet, explaining on the same sheet which cards are missing, and in this case these are redone here, similar in all respects on the reverse side to that sent to me as a sample; and then to return to the whole, to put it back in your respective deck.
    In this manner, therefore, will you be able to behave when necessary; and full of esteem I state myself invariably
    Devoted Obliged Servant
    Domenico Aldini
6. Cards and minchiate outside the state
    In the documentation of the file we also find useful information on the exportation of playing cards. In a letter from Aldini, the different procedures for ordinary cards and minchiate are clarified: the former must be exported already stamped, with the subsequent advantage of crossing the border with a minimum tax, like any goods; the latter can be exported without stamp duty, but it must be demonstrated that they left the State within 15 days of taking charge of them.
Most Illustrious Lordship Signore Prone [surname or abbreviation for a title?]

    For [going] outside the State, cards without stamp duty are not allowed outside of Minchiate, and these are granted with a license from this Royal Fiscal Office, where whoever wants them must provide the Guarantor to bring within the prefixed deadline of 15 days the appropriate justifications that the said Minchiate were made to leave the State, under penalty of 300 gold scudi. So if Monsignor Mancini of Rome wants the said Minchiate, it is best for him to give the task here in Florence to some one of his correspondents, who, if necessary, will be directed by me to do what he needs to do. If you then want Low Cards, it is necessary that you take them stamped and have paid the appropriate duty on them, which is reduced to a small thing; because they are charged as goods, they have free transit. Which is what I owe to your Illustrious Lordship in reply to your letter of 9th December. And with all respect I state myself invariably
    Of Your Most Illustrious Lordship
    Florence 12 October 1771.
    Most Devoted Obliged Servant
    Domenico Aldini
Even in this case, it becomes necessary to send a copy of the letter again on October 22nd - which we then find together with the original.

7. Conclusion
    From the examination of around fifty letters addressed between 1767 and 1781 to the customs minister of Cortona by Domenico Aldini, who manages the playing card warehouse in Florence, new information is obtained on the quantity of cards used in Cortona and its surroundings, and in particular on the maintenance of a ratio of approximately one to ten between minchiate and other cards (respectively approximately two and approximately twenty dozen per year). Furthermore, the functioning of the bureaucracy can be seen up close, with the more or less rigid compliance with detailed rules both for the replacement of defective cards and for the possible export of playing cards outside the Grand Duchy.

Florence, 25.10.2023

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