Sunday, February 4, 2024

Feb. 2, 2024: Ponsacco 1421. Naibi for sale among much crockery

Dated Feb. 2, 2024, the original by Franco is at Ponsacco 1421. Naibi in vendita fra molte stoviglie (02.02.2024). This translation also appears at

Comments in brackets are mine. Franco was a big help, but any errors are also mine. The page numbers in Franco's original are in the left margin, and the notes are at the bottom of each. The title explains what it is about very well. I would add only that the essay is also of interest for what he did not find in these inheritance registers. However, this result is already somewhat superseded by a subsequent discovery, not yet, at this writing, on So stay tuned.

Ponsacco 1421. Naibi for sale among much crockery

Franco Pratesi

1. Introduction

Finally, a kind of event happened to me that can be explained by the saying that "The mountain gave birth to a mouse." In this case the mountains are in the State Archives of Florence: the registers of the section Magistrato dei pupilli avanti il principato, and in particular No. 152, at ff. 213v-217v.

This magistrature had been established in 1393 with the aim of protecting minors whose fathers had died without appointing a guardian, by assisting them with the administration of inherited assets. Usually a trusted person was found who followed the practice by administering the assets locally under the final control of the magistrates of minors. After the initial inventory of immovable and movable assets, and the long lists of current debits and credits, the economic situation was often updated taking into account the changes that had occurred in the meantime.

My research had as its main objective the discovery of evidence on naibi and trionfi in Florence in the first half of the fifteenth century, and here I report on the first of these discoveries: two packs of small naibi in a shop selling various goods, especially hardware and crockery. However, I also have the intention of continuing the discussion with the possible implications of what I have not found - in this and other registers of the same series - because I believe that useful indications can be drawn from them.

2. The general context of the discovery

In the registers in question, the locations encountered are within Florence or in the Florentine countryside. In this specific case, the places of interest are Morrona and Ponsacco, not only very far from the Florentine center but also in a rather unexpected direction, right on the border between the Florentine and Pisan territories, practically halfway between Volterra and Pisa. The notable proximity to Pisa explains that during those years there were several skirmishes and battles in the area due to the expansion of Florence and the Pisan counterattacks. Our German shopkeeper had a house and a shop in both places, about a dozen kilometers apart; in Morrona he also had land and animals. Evidently, the shopkeeper had settled in the area for some time with his family.

Morrona today is a Pisan village in the municipality of Terricciola, but it is located on a hill in a dominant position (even if the relief is not high, less than 200m above sea level), and this explains its history which dates back to the Etruscans. In the Middle Ages, it was a fortified town, and its castle was at the center of battles between Pisans and Luccans, between Ghibellines and Guelphs, and therefore, understandably, with the Florentines.

Ponsacco, a larger plain town but also fortified with walls and castle. Even around the castle of Ponsacco, there were repeated skirmishes with assaults and sieges by the Florentines, who managed to gain control of it from 1406 to 1494 and therefore practically for the entire fifteenth century. The year that appears in the inheritance registration in question is 1421.

3. The inventory of the shop

Upon the death of the shopkeeper Currado di Giovanni della Magna [of Alemagna, i.e. Germany], the magistrates of minors took care of the inheritance, according to their office to protect heirs with insufficient protection. The procedure involves initially drawing up an inventory of all movable and immovable assets, as well as all current debits and credits. The household goods present in the two houses and two shops are also listed. For our purpose, only the inventory of the Ponsacco workshop (then Ponte di Sacco) is of interest, and I transcribe it below. [For the transcription, see Franco s Italian original, online. Instead, here is our attempt at translation, which, however, is sure not to be right all the time.]

In the shop behind said house
4 oil jars with 6 or so small jars of oil inside. (The oil was sold to Mona Nobile)
19 empty oil jars with 1/2 jar of slurry (?) inside

2 barrels for containing fodder.
22 spade poles.
1 seat pad.
1 chiavarina [iron stake?].
2 basins full of zolfanelli [a primitive form of matches].
1 lib. [a kind of container?] for oil, broken.
1 earthen kind of funnel for barrels
1 grain shovel.
1 dining table with feet.
1 female donkey.
1 marrone [extra-large hoe].
1 ax with handle.
1 botticiello [small barrel] holding 4 barili [barrels, also a measure of volume] of barili inside [?]
1 old and ragged mule strap.
2 tunela [?] jugs, 1 broken.
1 basket with 30 lib. [unit of weight similar to the pound] inside of old iron.
10 loads of firewood.
1 empty basket for oranges
1 small basket with handle, broken.
1 shoe bench.

In the shop in front
1 old chest with 1 lock.
1 old table with feet.
1 old eating table with trestles.
More pieces of table hanging around the shop
1 empty basket.
9 spade poles.
2 cane sieves [?] to sift grain.
1 spade with handle.
4 containers [?] of tuna and sardines.
1 flax-crushing machine.
1 grain shovel.
1 packsaddle and 1 old and wrecked saddle.
1 bridle with foal crownpiece.
1 pair [paio] of half-sized scales.
12 cane ox cages.
10 hoops for small barrels
5 bushels of flax seed in 2 bags.
1 pair [paio] of children's clogs.
1 old reaping sickle.
72 black and white earthen pots.
24 strainers for tano [?] and small basins.
3 large basins.
29 wooden spoons and ladles.
18 earthen containers or small basins.
90 white painted earthen bowls.
5 earthen basins with grime [?] inside.
20 small earthen bowls.
12 earthen cutting boards.
2 packs [paia] of small naibi.
9 large painted low basins.
2 large earthenware basins.
40 large and small pans.
2 empty small baskets
1 broken earthen funnel.
24 large and small earthen jars.
2 majolica jars with butter and turpentine inside
1 pot full of spindles.
2 large basins for gelatin.
11 wrecked spindles for spinning.
More wood for the shop.
5 rows of glass cups.
77 pounds of thick and thin new rope.
4 black earthen trays.
13 black earthen lids

I transcribed the final j with i. I've hesitated about dividing words, especially when it's just moving a space like dami etere / da mietere, cho lmanicho / chol manicho, dassedere / da sedere, essottile / e ssottile, daffanciulli / da ffanciulli, and similar. In the inventory, you come across words that are not read, others that are read but not understood, objects of forgotten use; in short, there are several uncertain points.

Zolfanelli were a primitive type of matches formed, according to the Crusca [in that academy's Vocabulario], from a hemp stalk "dipped in sulfur from both ends." The marrone was a large hoe used to remove deep soil. Guncho today would be written giunco [cane, reeds], etc. Finding a donkey, if it existed, among these goods in a shop (in any case in this specific case better compatible with a warehouse) would be a strange but not rare event.

Aside from the uncertainties of reading and interpretation, all things that can be considered secondary for us, there is a very important fixed point to highlight. Today we wouldn't even know what to call this shop, because it combined goods that would be found in different shops, hardware, ceramics, tools, crockery and kitchen objects, tools for country work, and others. The fundamental fact for us is that precisely in this kind of bazaar we find the two packs of small naibi.

It is not at all the same as if we had found playing cards in a dry goods shop (like those of the silk weavers of Florence [note 1] or even in a private home. These decks were put there to be sold if a buyer appeared, and their position among various crockery items demonstrates exactly their rather low value, less than what we could have expected in such an early era for their diffusion.

In a subsequent register of the same archive, No. 154, we find an update of the same inheritance, at ff. 170v-177r. We are now in 1423, and the related inventory still includes long lists of debtors, but only a part of the household goods from the previous register (the naibi are also absent). The heirs are specified as the two-year-old son Lorenzo and "Mona Nobile, mother of said child and now wife of Antonio di Michele da Morrona and now living in Ponte di Sacho." The parish priest and another inhabitant of Morrona are still managing the assets on behalf of the magistrates.

4. The sources studied

Following what has been communicated so far, I felt the usefulness of continuing to illustrate this same research, broadening the overview to also include the cases in which it was unsuccessful, that is, practically all except the one presented above. In fact, even the absence of testimonies can provide useful information on the diffusion of playing cards at the time.

The research is based almost exclusively on inventories of household goods found in the homes and shops of deceased people who left children in need of the assistance of the magistrates of
1. F. Pratesi, Playing-Card Trade in 15th-Century Florence. IPCS Papers No. 7, 2012.

minors. In this research, I examined the following registers, as indicated in the ASFi Inventory N/60.
151 Sample inventories and revised data, 1 Oct. 1413 ? 20 Mar. 1417
152 As above for the neighborhoods of Santo Spirito and Santa Croce, 1 Oct. 1418 ? 20 Mar. 1422
153 As above for the neighborhoods of Santa Maria Novella and San Giovanni, 1 Oct. 1418 ? 20 Mar. 1422
154 As above for the neighborhoods of Santo Spirito and Santa Croce, 1 Oct. 1421 - 20 Mar. 1425
168 Sample of inventories and revised data for the Santo Spirito and Santa Croce neighborhoods, 1432 - 1439
169 As above for the Santo Spirito neighborhood, 1439 - 1454
170 As above for the Santa Croce district, 1439 - 1454
171 As above for the Santa Maria Novella district, 1439 - 1454
173 As above for the Santa Maria Novella and San Giovanni neighborhoods, 1467 - 1475
186 Inventory list, 1464 - 1510
The registers in question are large format books, folios measuring 41x29 cm, thickness from 8 to 15 cm, in short, double the size, in all three dimensions, compared to a thick book today. The number of folios varies, usually around three hundred, but they reach five hundred and correspond to twice that number of pages. In reality, the thickness would also suggest a higher number of pages, but it must be taken into account that each of these sheets had a decidedly greater thickness than what we are used to.

For each inheritance registration, several pages are reserved, some filled immediately, others gradually later, others left blank. In the end, there are just under a hundred files contained in one of these registers. As mentioned, in these inheritance practices, the pages with the inventory of household goods (which are not always present) represent the part of almost exclusive interest to us, which significantly reduces the pages to be examined carefully. Sometimes we encounter homes with few rooms and furnishings, but there are also large buildings, with several pages dedicated only to household goods. However, one should not think that this is little data, because all the objects, even the smallest, present in the home and possibly in the shops of the deceased are examined room by room.

In the end, it must be clear that searching these very long lists for any gaming implement is equivalent to looking, as they say, for a needle in a haystack and really requires the patience of a Carthusian, or at least of a pensioner. What made the insistence on continuing the research possible in the face of practically non-existent results was the importance of the issues at stake; here I am only considering card games, but there is also a further interest in board games, for which contemporary evidence is similarly incomplete.

5. Questions opened

Before discussing which games we were likely to find evidence of, a digression on terminology may be in order. In any case, the context remains that of the implements necessary for the game, because only of such objects is it possible to identify some traces.

For card games, there are no complex problems. It is certainly not a problem to eventually encounter naibi written as naibj, or replaced during the fifteenth century by the corresponding term for playing cards in use to this day. The problem can only arise in the corresponding attributes, if present, because in other documents naibi are found as small [piccoli], large [grandi], middle-sized [mezzani], halved [scempi], doubled [doppi], classy [fini], folded-back [rimboccati], favored [avvantaggiati], and second-rate [dozzinali], terms some of which have a meaning that is difficult or impossible to reconstruct. [note 2]

We know that we shouldn't look for a pack [mazzo] of naibi, but a pair [paio]. This determination is not of much help, because there are many objects registered with the premise of one or more pairs, and not only of the "normal" type such as scissors, socks, gloves, or boots, but also of the most diverse kinds, such as springs, andirons, sheets, and so on, including terms for tools for particular techniques whose use and meaning have been lost. If you then move from naibi to triumphs (and you could encounter some results of

much interest, especially for early times), the context will be enough to determine their use for the game.

However, it remains to be clarified what can be expected from the research. Above all, it remains to be understood how widespread the naibi and, later, triumphs, were, and for the latter if there remain traces of a use prior to the first date known so far of 1440, found by Thierry Depaulis. Already encountering its frequent distribution, even in the poorest homes, would be a sure indication. Furthermore, the commercial value of playing cards at the time is also not clear, because very different prices were encountered.

Findings of writings that expose the details of the games that were in vogue at the time, and, with a few exceptions, even their names themselves, are to be excluded here. We therefore only search for any objects related to the game, namely playing cards. This is where the specific type of game comes into play. If it was children who played, then such players could be found in every home. In other words, if naibi were educational decks, we can expect examples of them in almost every home; if, however, they were only used for gambling, we expect to find specimens only in houses and shops that could organize gambling dens, possibly clandestine ones.

Predicting the possible house-to-house distribution therefore requires that the playing cards be associated with one of several possible types of games, and it may then be useful to dedicate a parenthesis to a summary review of the various possible uses.

6. Parentheses on the different card games

Educational games. In many histories of games there is a quote from Morelli [note 3] in which the recently introduced naibi are appreciated as useful teaching tools for children. Such testimony is very rare, because more often one finds condemnations of games, and their negative aspects are highlighted, but it is widely understandable. A first "instructive" application can in fact be that of adding small integers, as are present in playing cards and necessary to count in many common games. Or even, without a specific game, using the cards directly as numbers. Another important application is one that still has a large following - so much so that entire original decks designed just for this game are sold, Memory Game Cards - in which the aim is to associate identical cards face down in a group, revealing them in pairs and winning them when they discover two alike.

Houses of cards. Again in a predominantly children's context, cards can be used to form houses of various sizes. I have in mind an entire book dedicated to this topic, [note 4] which as a rule is not found in current manuals on card games. The advantage of such a game is that it adapts to every age of the child, from minimal houses to constructions that require skill and a steady hand.

Pastime card games. This has been the most widespread application over the centuries. It is an opportunity to meet up with some friends and spend a few hours together, forgetting the worries of everyday life. They can typically be played at the tavern with a drink at stake, or even with the family. Any objective of the game can, if desired, be made to transform an innocent game into gambling, but in this sector these are rather exceptions.

Gambling games with cards. In every era cards have been used for gambling. What varied, depending on the times and places, was above all the control by the government, sometimes tolerant (also in view of the possible revenue into the public coffers), sometimes very rigid. In the early fifteenth century, there were certainly no places like modern gaming establishments, but if we find traces of this use of cards it is above all among convictions for prohibited gaming.

Magic tricks. This is a separate sector that has always had some followers. For a couple of centuries, starting from the sixteenth century, if in a library catalog we find a book with the title Card Games it was in practice "explanations" of magic tricks. In this case, the players
3. Istoria fiorentina di Ricordano Malespini coll aggiunta di Giachetto Malespini e la Cronica di Giovanni Morelli, Florence 1718, p. 270.
4. U. Niedhardt, Kartenhäuser einstürzende Neubauten, Reinbeck in Hamburg 1993.

are reduced to one, who performs in front of the spectators in a living room or a booth. The spectators are shocked not only because they couldn't do the same, but also because they don't even understand how that trick is possible. For these games, special or rigged decks are often required, which can be expected to have limited diffusion.

7. Answers not found

Based on the previous considerations, I expected to find playing cards in different types of homes and to be able to deduce some concrete hypotheses on the use of the cards and the type of games. Instead I found, after a long time, only one answer, and I communicated it above. Aside from what can be deduced from that finding, and that's no small thing, it also served me as "authorization" to now also comment on the absent results, i.e. the largely unexpected negative outcome of the research.

Sometimes, in research, it happens that an experiment that has a negative outcome ends up proving very useful, to the point of causing one to change the theories that had given rise to the experiment. In our case, we are not in those conditions, and the lack of results does not provide us with precise information, but only bases for further discussions which still remain rather uncertain. However, I see a big difference between playing cards not found and the same ones not searched for: if I look for them and don't find them where they could or should be, this is already a result worth discussing.

For example, in almost every house there were children and teenagers; if the naibi were used by them, I should have met a few "pairs" in so many such homes researched. If, however, the naibi were used in gambling dens, to encounter them it would have been necessary to have an inventory of one of those gambling dens. The ideal would have been to find the inventory of the shop of a playing card manufacturer, but I haven't found one yet; I only found dealers like the silk weavers already mentioned, with account books in the Ospedale degl'Innocenti, or this German shopkeeper from Ponsacco.

A possible explanation for the absence of the naibi, and then of the triumphs, from the inventories was suggested to me by an expert scholar of the period. According to him, if they really were valuable objects (and at least for the first examples of naibi and triumphs this would seem quite probable), the residents could have moved them before the magistrates arrived to have the inventories compiled. In fact, this explanation is not convincing to me, because there are many homes in which objects of gold and precious stones are recorded, which certainly had a much greater value than any deck of cards and which would also have been easier to make disappear within a suitable time.

Considering the systematic absence of playing cards in the household inventories, the opposite hypothesis appears more plausible, that is, that they were considered of no value. With some exceptions, this could be understood, because everything leads to the conclusion that a deck of cards has a short life: the nature of the material, the dimensions of the object, the extreme ease with which a card can be torn or lost in the game (and you usually can't find games to play with an incomplete deck).

In the absence of specific indications, we can think of various intermediate cases of the value of playing cards between very high and practically zero. From other sources, we know that the cards could be produced at different levels of quality and prices, even significantly different, starting from the extraordinary specimens produced for the great lords. It is not certain that decks of medium-high level cards were not present in the homes of several Florentine citizens. But if we don't find them registered, the conclusion seems to me to be that, once used, they thereby lost all their commercial value.

If we are not convinced by the hypothesis of playing cards that are present but remain absent in the registers, we must reach a different conclusion. Perhaps then playing cards didn't really exist in the private homes of Florentines, either in the city or in the countryside. To find them, you should then simply look for them in taverns where any local group or traveler could find decks of cards available, new as well as used, or in the inventories of specialized shops, obviously starting from those of the playing card manufacturers, or at least of retailers. Why then did we find the two decks from Ponsacco's workshop mentioned above recorded? Because that was merchandise for sale, new decks, with a commercial value to them, even if very small.

8. Conclusion

After long research, I happened to find the presence in 1421 of two packs of small naibi in the middle of a shop where the most varied goods were on sale: hardware, pottery, kitchen and work objects, for both home and business, etc. The locality, Ponsacco, was in a territory that was then Florentine but long disputed with Pisa, a much closer city. Already this unpredictable group of goods, together with the unexpected location, can serve to reconstruct some routes in the diffusion of playing cards in the first half of the fifteenth century. However, it must be considered equally important that no other registrations of playing cards were found in the numerous inventories examined. Possible reconstructions on the distribution of playing cards in various homes and shops have been discussed, but other findings are needed for decisive confirmation in one direction or the other.

Florence, 02.02.2024

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