Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Feb. 22, 2024: Pontormo 1479. Playing cards in a haberdasher's house

The following is a translation of Franco's number 8/06, "Pontormo 1479. Carte da gioco nella casa di un merciaio," posted Feb. 22, 2024 at Comments in square brackets are mine, numbers in the left margin by themselves are page numbers of Franco's pdf, a new one at the start of each page, and footnotes are at the bottom of the page. I have consulted with Franco and benefited from his corrections and observations.

Pontormo 1479. Playing cards in a haberdasher's house

Franco Pratesi

1. Introduction

This research took place in the State Archives of Florence (ASFi) and was based on two archival units, a book of notarial records [note 1] and a book with the statutes of the municipality involved. [note 2] In the first element, I was informed of the presence of playing cards in an inventory of various goods; in the second, I looked for traces, in the same locality, of the first local laws on games.

2. Pontormo or Pontorme

We find sufficient information on the location involved in this study even in Wikipedia. [note 3] More information can be found on a website of the municipality of Empoli, [note 4] or in two academic lectures from the late nineteenth century, [note 5] of which a digitized edition is available online. [note 6] Today an independent town of Pontorme no longer exists, as the whole village has been incorporated inside the boundaries of Empoli.

The first doubt to resolve is whether the name should be written correctly with an o or an e at the end. The correct name is certainly Pontorme, as it took its name from the bridge over the Orme stream. However, the fact that its best-known citizen, Jacopo Carrucci, one of the main exponents of Florentine mannerism, is universally known as Pontormo, from his place of birth, leads us to maintain that name here too, which we also find written like this in the documents of the time.

The ancient castle of Pontormo was located along the important road from Pisa to Florence, and starting from the castle it was precisely along the road that the village developed, surrounded in 1365 by the city walls, equipped with six towers. While traces of the walls are preserved today, the towers and the famous castle were definitively demolished in the eighteenth century, preserving only the ancient thirteenth-century bell on the new bell tower of the parish church.

A fresco by Giorgio Vasari in the Salone dei Cinquecento of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence gives a glimpse of the walled town; other representative images—including a few plans and schematic reconstructions of the old town—can be found for Pontorme in Wikimedia Commons and Google Images.

The walled citadel was very close to that of Empoli, and so together with Monterappoli a league of the three municipalities was formed that lasted for a long time. The economy, even later, was based on the kilns for the production of ceramics and on the profession of transporting, which was in great demand because in that marshy area subject to frequent floods it was necessary, depending on the seasons, to have the means and skills to allow passengers and goods to transit both on land and water.

In recent times the village underwent a long decline, then saw a slight improvement thanks to braid makers employed in the production of straw hats, while today activity essentially depends on how much nearby Empoli has prospered, which has grown to the point of incorporating the old village, which had been independent for centuries, within the territory of the city.

3. Games in the municipal statutes of Pontormo

In the past I had searched the Statutes of the Autonomous and Subject Communities [section of the AFSi in search of local laws on games; I then included the main results I found in a
1. ASFi, Notarile antecosimiano, 16831
2. ASFi, Statuti delle comunità autonome e soggette, 640.
4. ... torme.html
5. L. Rigoli, Lezioni due sopra il Castello di Pontorme, Empoli 1890.
6. ... navlinks_s

book dedicated to this historical period.[note 7] From Inventory N/9 of this section, it appears that two books with the town's municipal statutes are preserved, N. 640, Pontormo 1414-1525, and N. 641, Pontormo 1532-1767. I haven't consulted the second because it starts too late for our purposes. But No. 640 covers the time interval we are interested in, and therefore I have taken it for examination.

This book was not included in my past selection, and therefore its examination could bring us further useful information on the laws on games, and card games in particular. But what is found is not very interesting. In two extended versions of the statute, the traditional chapter on the prohibition of games is presented, without naming carte or naibi and without going into detail except for the various penalties for the players as well as those who manage the activity of the game and even the spectators.

In the book, there are few complete or almost complete versions of the statute, but many partial revisions with modifications and reforms to the individual sections. Understandably, parts of the book bound together were very different in terms of the type of paper, including some in parchment, and in handwriting that ranges from easily readable to almost indecipherable. Above all, in this case, the collection of the various texts does not follow in correct chronological order, which complicates the study a little.

The first variant of the statute, which opens the book, is from 1443 and was evidently chosen as the main one because it is the most readable and complete. At ff. 25v and 26r we read the section De pena ludentium et ludum retinentium. The penalty is 20 lire for those who play the game of zara (ad ludum zardi), as well as for those who lend the materials, for which dice and boards and any other object are indicated (among which one can only imagine playing cards), while for those who watch the game without participating, the penalty is reduced by half.

A similar section, with greater differentiation in punishments, can be found in f. 67r, in the statute dating back to 1414: no one may play the prohibited games, the penalties are 2 lire for those who watch the game, 5 for those who play during the day and 10 if at night; 10 lire during the day and 15 at night for those who manage the gaming environment; 5 lire to whoever supplies dice, and whoever lent money for the game is not entitled to restitution; 5 lire to anyone who blasphemes God and the Mother Virgin Mary or some Saint of Paradise. 

  ASFi, Statutes of the autonomous and subject communities, N. 640 f. 67r,

(Reproduction prohibited)

7. F. Pratesi, Giochi di carte nella repubblica fiorentina, Ariccia 2016, pp. 129-136. [These pages, in the book in Italian, appeared in English in The Playing Card 18, no. 4, 1990, pp. 128-135, as "Early Laws on Card-Playing in Towns under Florentine Influence," now online at]

This association of the game with blasphemy is found in various places and at various times, to the point of remaining the one punishment stipulated even when various games are permitted: not only will blasphemy always remain condemned, but the corresponding penalties will be greatly increased. I reported an example for minchiate in 1477 in Cortona [note 8]: that game was permitted, and therefore we would not have had the information that Bartolomeo di Giovanni da Vaglia played minchiate for months in Cortona if he had not also blasphemed and been sentenced for that and only that.

Unlike other municipal statutes, I have not noticed here any brief further reform in this regard, with clarifications of the games or variations in the relative penalties and the like. Evidently the main concerns of the citizenry in gradually reforming the statute, in addition to the organization of the government and municipal administration, concerned the control of water, with the numerous streams that required regulation and careful and frequent surveillance. The territory was subject, in fact, to frequent floods which constituted on the one hand a scourge for the crops and on the other a job opportunity for a significant fraction of the citizens, who lived by working as local transporters of goods and passengers, in order to ferry them by water in the area when it was not passable by land.

4. The inventory of goods

Still in the ASFi, we now move on to the section Notarile antecosimiano [notarial records before Cosimo, i.e. Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany]. As regularly happens in these large books of notarial registers the writing is difficult to read. The language itself is more often Latin than Italian. My classical high school diploma was in 1959, still a good year for that, and Latin still creates no difficulties for me, but I must admit that in paleography, I lack an adequate university-level basis.

When these notaries write lists of people's names, or even lists of objects, as in this case, they try to make the text more readable. If I had leafed through the entire volume, I would have been able to locate this inventory, along with a few other pages with lists of people, while all the "normal" pages are practically indecipherable to me.

Incredibly, there are scholars who read these pages as we read a printed book. One of these, who knows what I'm looking for, pointed out a "useful" inventory to me. [note 9] This is the inventory of household goods found in 1476 in the house of a haberdasher [American English: dry goods store proprietor], the late Luca di Antonio di Pontormo. I reproduce and transcribe the final part below, which is of interest to us.  

ASFi, Notarile Antecosimiano, 16831, f. 78v, detail.
(Reproduction prohibited)
8. L'As de Trèfle, No. 52 (1993), pp. 9-10;
9. ASFi, Notarile Antecosimiano, 16831, f. 78v.

1 chest with drawers at the guardian in Florence
6 pieces of silk fringe . . . of several colors
7 pieces of wide silk ribbon of several colors . . .
10 pieces of assorted wide silk ribbon of several colors
40 arm’s lengths [braccia] of silk cord of several colors
40 arm’s lengths of ribbon of several colors
40 arm’s lengths of yarn cord of several colors
6 oz of silk for sewing of several colors
30 arms’ lengths of fringe of thread and 30 of silk of several colors
12 pounds of yarn of several colors
4 new charnaiuoli [note 10] without straps
200 brass and silver eyelets?
2 dozen of playing cards [charte da giuchare]
1 dozen of parchments
2 dozen of mirrors in wood and 2 dozen dolls [note 11] out of the wood
Of course, two dozen of cards can't just be 24 playing cards! These are, as in other cases of this kind, two dozen decks. Among other things, it often happened in those centuries that only a dozen decks had a price expressed in whole numbers, of florins or lire. Having a reserve of 24 decks of playing cards for the haberdashery indicates that the trade in such items was quite abundant at the time.

Another significant fact for us is that carte per giocare, even if it has been in use for some time, is already commonly said for playing cards, as it is still used today after more than half a millennium. Probably the term Naibi, which had arrived a whole century earlier, was even forgotten. It remains a bit of curiosity if the name change had also accompanied some changes in the cards themselves. One could in fact imagine that the naibi coming from the East had been adapted to local customs with modifications to the material and figures, until obtaining a new model recognized as standard.

Another useful and clear piece of information, however indirect, concerns the value attributable to playing cards. and it comes from the goods listed together: there are many objects of trivial haberdashery, without any appearing of superior value.

5. Conclusion

Two documents from the municipality of Pontormo, the village from which the famous mannerist painter took his name, were examined: the chapter on games in the municipal statutes, in two versions separated by thirty years in the first half of the fifteenth century, and an inventory of objects of haberdashery from 1479.

The typical prohibition on gambling appears in the statute, but without any explicit information on card games; the relative pecuniary penalties in the two statutes are considerably different: the first more differentiated, the later more burdensome.

In the inventory, however, we are interested in the presence in the list of two dozen decks of playing cards, a notable quantity, especially considering the limited size of the town. From comparison with the goods found together, there is an indirect but reliable confirmation that the playing cards were, at least then, completely ordinary objects, with small commercial value even when new.
10. Old fashioned term for game bags.
11. The word doll [bambola] refers to the glass of a mirror without the frame.

Florence, Feb. 22, 2024

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