Sunday, February 4, 2024

Jan. 20, 2024: 1743-1778: Licenses for Games

 This is another essay pertaining to playing card production in Tuscany, focusing this time on the places where card games of various sorts were allowed to be played. The original, in Italian, is at The parts in brackets are mine, either after consultation with Franco or in relation to this blog format.  This essay is also posted at

Florence 1743-1778: Licenses for games

Franco Pratesi


In past years I had the opportunity to study various registers of the Camera e Auditore fiscale (Chamber and Fiscal Auditor) collection of the State Archives of Florence (ASFi) and obtained quite interesting information from them. However, there were two in the series of registers that I was unable to use, also because the data seemed too confusing and irregular. These are registers No. 3017 and 3018 relating exclusively to the registration of revenues for the granting of licenses for the playing of games The first (A) concerns the years 1743-1763, the second (B) the years 1763-1778.

Now I have resumed my study, in particular because I found information about it in an important book on games in Tuscany in the eighteenth century. [note 1] In this academic monograph, Addobbati delves into the whole topic in a decidedly above-average manner, also based on ASFi documents, including the two registers that I am examining here. Indeed, Addobbati dedicates an entire chapter of his book to licenses for games, pp. 165-194. Anyone with an interest in deepening their knowledge of the topic will be able to find in that discussion a valid reconstruction of the environment, both in general and with some in-depth analysis of particular events and personages.

In my study, I have limited myself to examining the records relating to card games and reproducing a part of them at the end in the form of tables.

Innovations of the Habsburg-Lorraines

The Habsburg-Lorraine dukes found in Florence a state that had remained centuries behind. By now entrepreneurial activity, which centuries earlier had made Florence a world-class capital, had been replaced mainly by conservative agricultural ownership, in the hands of the main families and the clergy.

As regards the limited sector of our interest, games, the Medici had already tried on several occasions to put a stop to gambling, but in the eighteenth century the situation was getting out of control. Many people complained about dangerous losses of money, with understandable negative consequences, and alongside the usual reprimands from the clergy there were even pleas from entrepreneurs who witnessed the serious losses, if not downright ruin, of their employees, especially in the frequent case of young people, beginners with work and wages.

The traditional system of the Medici dynasty of granting exemptions and privileges in a chaotic manner in response to individual requests received, without precise rules and in any case without the concrete possibility of obtaining rigorous compliance with any rule, contributed to making the situation uncontrollable.

The Lorraine grand dukes committed themselves for several generations to reforming the entire administration until the famous Leopoldine reforms, which finally gave new life to the Tuscan state; in particular, they immediately set out to combat gambling, trying to set precise rules and limits. Only indicated games could be played and only in places with a new license, granted upon payment of the relevant fee.

The process of combating gambling occurred in several stages and ended, at least formally, with the law of 1773, which prohibited card games everywhere, with rare exceptions, such as the Casini dei Nobili, which were formed in Florence and in the main Tuscan cities (those so-called nobili, noble cities - in which alone some of the main local families could obtain recognition of nobility).
1. A. Addobbati, La festa e il gioco nella Toscana del Settecento, Pisa 2002.

The contrast on the part of the revenue offices

All state administration offices were required, one might say by definition, to follow any direction of the grand dukes. A nod, a barely perceptible indication, was enough for the whole machine to start spinning at full speed. Maybe this was indeed the rule, but not for card games.

In recent centuries the money in the coffers of the Tuscan Grand Duchy available for administration was increasingly reduced. In the specific case of the department of playing cards, revenue from taxes on games was an indispensable source for the very life of the office. Thus, in the official correspondence studied by Addobbati, we encounter unexpected clashes between the rigor proposed from above and the more permissive attitude of the offices, which would have looked favorably on the authorization of games such as the infamous bambara, for the evident reason that the related tax brought much more money into the office s coffers. Naturally, the result of the prolonged consultations could not end otherwise than with a decision dictated by the Grand Duke, but this only happened after an initial restraining action on the part of the offices.

The accounting units used

In examining these registers, an initial difficulty we encounter is that all taxes are indicated with a more extensive accounting system than usual: we were used to the LSd system with 1 lira equal to twenty soldi and one soldo equal to twelve denari. This system is also preserved here, but with a larger preceding unit, the scudo (sometimes also called ducat), worth seven lire.

I don't know the origin of this system, but at least two advantages can be seen to compensate for the greater complexity: the first is to reduce the size of the calculation, in the sense that 6 scudi are expressed with fewer numerals than 42 lire, and this can be useful to facilitate calculations in the case of large amounts. Even more useful is the fact that so expanded this system can facilitate the divisibility of the total amounts calculated into equal parts. The decimal system, for example, involves digits that are not divisible into exactly three parts, a drawback already overcome in the LSd system, but with scudi, perfect divisibility extends even with a divisor of 7; I don't know of any accounting system more "suitable" for this purpose.

The variety of taxes paid is quite surprising. The figures that are most often encountered, especially within Florence, are 6 scudi for minchiate and 17.3.10.- for low cards [ordinary 40 card decks]. The frequent appearance of a complex figure like the last one already seems a bit strange, and in fact the annual fee for low cards was double, precisely 35 scudi, a round figure like the others. In some cases, the annual tax was simply paid in two installments, but Addobbati suggests that many shopkeepers paid only one semester [six-month period], when there was more crowding at the tables, and in the other they did not hold games, or held them secretly.

Furthermore, especially when leaving the city of Florence, taxes were reduced in several ways. This occurred partly due to a generalized reduction and partly due to the maintenance of ancient privileges which were left to the negotiation of individual cases.

The changes over the years

Leafing through the registers we find unexpected differences from one year to the next. Especially at the beginning, the procedure was clearly being fine-tuned and the problem of the game of bambara had not yet been resolved. In fact, there were two different fees for the low card game license, one with bambara and one without. A few months later, bambara was included among the prohibited games and for a while, again in the license for low card games, it was specified that it was not included.

Next, for the permitted low card games, is the general formula of "deal games" [games in which all or most of the cards are dealt out -given to the players, mostly of the trick-taking variety]. For the territories of Livorno and Pisa, it is preferable to introduce a contract with concession holders who, for an agreed annual sum, deal with the granting and control of licenses and collect the amounts. Indeed, at a certain point this system ended up being extended to the whole of Tuscany, typically in the year 1751 (see relevant table at the end), but the result was not encouraging, and the traditional system was soon resumed.

For the Tuscan bureaucracy, 1750 is a very important year, involving all the registers and account books of the administration. In fact, in Tuscany the law changes the beginning of the year to "our" January 1st instead of the traditional March 25th. In these registers, we thus also witness clear innovations. The first months of the year, from January 1st to March 25th, now have the same year number as the following months and no longer that of the previous ones. However, for several years, the final annual balance sheet continues to be set at the end of February.

Of all the variations that we encounter from one year to the next, the most impressive is the one that we read in the second of the two registers, the one marked B. In fact, inside it, we go through the "revolution" with the victory of the rigorous approach towards games of cards, as commented below.

Annual budgets

These books are kept as revenue journals, and hence the taxes collected are recorded on the same day of payment. (For simplicity, in the tables added at the end I limit myself to transcribing only the month.) However, each year the final account is entered for the entire previous year. This happens with a few summary lines after the income for the month of February, and this continues until 1776, despite the fact that from 1750, the new year begins as today, from the first of January. In 1776 the budget relating only to the last ten months was reported, in order to match the new limit of the year. The last entry is from March 1778 and is calculated only for the first three months of that year.

We have glimpsed that there were notable changes in the laws on games during that period; correspondingly, it is natural to expect a clear change in revenue corresponding to the taxes for the related licenses. However, if you look at the following table and graph, compiled with data from the registers, the conclusion is rather unexpected. The dotted line in the graph interpolates the data and actually indicates a general decrease, but a small one, much less than we would have expected. In the following data, no sudden changes, and in particular no permanent decreases, are observed either; at most there were individual deviations from the average values which were then quickly reduced in subsequent years. Perhaps there was also some compensation between the increasing number of licenses and the decreasing individual tax. [For a larger and clearer version of this and other tables here, click on the link below them.]

Information on games

We need to reflect for a moment on the games and players of the time. On the games that were played, we actually don't get much from the licenses. There were games of chance that were always prohibited - already in the time of the Medici - such as bassetta, pharaoh, and thirty-one, but these, too, were probably widespread because many game rooms were in practice inaccessible to controls. The extreme case, however, at that time was that of bambara, a game that derived from primiera (and which can roughly be considered an ancestor of poker), which created problems because it was the favorite game in every club, or at least it would have been if they had allowed it.

From what we can glean from various testimonies, we could immediately conclude that playing cards were preferentially used for games of chance. The complaints were especially against young gamblers who preferred fast games of chance. Bambara was understandably the most popular game; when it was decided to ban it, buia [current meaning = dark] was introduced, a variant that was only different enough so that its name was not present among those of the prohibited games.

It was not easy to distinguish between pastime games and gambling, especially when using low cards. Could you play pastime games of the minchiate type also with low cards? Certainly yes, and in fact in the early years, deal games were spoken of, and among these, tressette explicitly appeared, albeit rarely.

However, making sure that players used low cards only for permitted games and not for prohibited ones would have required control that was impossible due to the limited number of agents and the frequent possibility of bribing them so as not to be reported.


The oldest and most traditional game was naturally that of minchiate, which was played in cafes, but also in barber shops, and specialty shops [apothecaries, spices sellers], and private homes. In itself, it is a game very suitable for spending an afternoon or evening in the company of friends and acquaintances. The game is slow, requires reflection and patience, and is therefore suitable for older people with sufficient free time available. These characteristics merited the recognition of a considerably lower license fee, typically only six scudi instead of thirty-five, and even less if the venue was located outside the city.

However, we have a sort of demonstration of the preference of the Tuscans of the time for games of chance, starting from the same minchiate. Why did minchiate have preferential taxation? Because it was the most traditional deal game : this typology could also be present when playing with low cards, but in contrast to all the others, minchiate had the advantage of a single deck associated with that traditional game and not those of games of chance. With all those cards, you couldn't play basset or pharaoh!

However, the situation was not that simple. In particular, it can be assumed that gambling was also done with minchiate; indeed one can even think that at the time minchiate was used preferably to save on the license fee, while still allowing players to practice some new games of chance to their taste. No agent could claim to find players engaged in a game of chance if they had the typical minchiate cards in his hand.

There may have been many cases, but a precise testimony was preserved for us by Biscioni who in the additions to Minucci's notes to the Malmantile Reacquired [note 2] even gives us the rules of a couple of games of chance played with minchiate. Michael Dummett includes them among the games of his monumental book,[note 3] while they are judged to be so extraneous to the general characteristics of tarot games that in the re-edition with John McLeod they are only present in an Appendix to the second volume. [note 4]
2. (L. Lippi) Il Malmantile racquistato di Perlone Zipoli colle note di Puccio Lamoni e d’altri, Firenze 1731.
3. M. Dummett, The Game of Tarot, London 1980, pp. 353-354.
4. M. Dummett, J. McLeod, A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack, Lewiston 2004, vol. 2, pp. 848-850.

The inventiveness and cunning of Florentine players were truly uncontrollable. How could any tax or police officer have recognized, for example, a sequence counted again for the score at the end of a traditional game from an identical sequence used as a combination in a poker-like gambling game? Not only the same unique cards, but even the same combination. So you could gamble in complete safety.

Other games

Probably in each individual license the various permitted games were listed; in the register in question, reference is always made to the license for the details, necessarily omitted from the summary registration of the day.

For example, the game of chess is perhaps only written on one occasion, but we certainly cannot consider it a forbidden game. Among the games of this genre, checkers never appears, although it must have had a certain following (at least in barber shops, and I am old enough to have a personal memory of this from the mid-twentieth century, when minchiate had been forgotten, even the name).

At the other extreme, among the games of chance, a sideshow game also appears. The case is very unusual, because it does not involve a cafe or similar establishment, but a type of traveling attraction which had previously required special authorization from the Fiscal Auditor himself. On 9 August 1847, Mr. Domenico Cocchi paid 100 L (14.2.-.- scudi) to allow the public to play Girello, also called Alla bianca e alla rossa - To the white and to the red - "but outside this city of Florence". Without knowing it in detail, I imagine that it was a primitive kind of roulette, which could be transported from one fair to another.

The places of games

The first substantial distinction between the places where the license for games was granted is between the premises within the Florentine walls and other locations. Inside the city, the rates were relatively uniform with few exceptions to the usual rates of 6 scudi for minchiate and 35 for low cards. The higher fee appears almost exclusively as a half-payment, whether the entire fee was paid in two parts or only the part relating to one six-month period. Leaving Florence, the fees usually appear lower and less regular, with fluctuations that are difficult to understand. Each license contained the precise terms of the concession, and therefore it is possible that there were also differences in the games allowed or otherwise, but in the registers, only "according to the license" is regularly seen, and no additional conditions are reported.

Various licenses were granted for nearby locations, such as Peretola, Campi, Settignano, Baccano (a miniscule village just above Fiesole). It is easy to imagine that in such places local players gathered with some stranger, such as a city-dweller on holiday or a professional in full "working" activity, with the intention of making large profits at the expense of people less expert in the tricks of the trade.

In the smaller Tuscan towns, compared to what we might suppose, some appear and others do not, without an apparent criterion of regular geographical distribution, up to the Tuscan Romagna, almost touching the Adriatic. Then arriving at the larger cities, we can notice the absence of Siena, but we know that in that area, control over games was reserved by ancient tradition to the local Casino dei Nobili. However, for Pisa, and especially for Livorno, we find few licenses registered because in those two territories, there were contractors who paid an annual fee to the tax authorities and directly collected the fees for the licenses they had the right to grant. This delegation of the granting of licenses was sometimes also present in occasional cases, as happened in 1761 for the Prato Academy when, as a counterpart to the fee paid, it was in turn able to grant two minchiate game licenses.

The second register, No. 3018 or B

At the beginning of the second register, there are situations quite similar to those of the first for a few years; however, shortly after, the situation changes profoundly: card games appear only as

very rare exceptions, while now the rule is to grant licenses for billiards, trucco, and other similar games, among which the spinning top is sometimes found mentioned. At the end, I have only reported the year 1774 in table form, but it can be considered representative of a situation that also occurred in a similar way in nearby years.

We have a lot of information about the technique and diffusion of billiards, but trucco has been completely forgotten for many decades. It was a kind of billiards in which, however, the balls were pushed by long mallets along certain paths on the table, with rings to cross and obstacles to overcome, which could recall similar games played on a larger scale on the ground, outdoors. The spinning top, on the other hand, is better known as an outdoor game for children. I don't know how it was played inside. The potential game possibilities vary between wide limits. At one extreme, a game of skill: two players compete to see who can make the rotation of their top last the longest. At the other extreme, one uses a multifaceted spinning top with its facets marked with numbers or colors and bets which one will land on at the end. The second type would seem to be the one favored by Tuscan gamblers of the time, but as a game of chance, it would have been prohibited.

Since there is almost no more information on playing cards, from our point of view this data could be completely overlooked. In addition to the rare cases of card game licenses, however, there is other useful information. Meanwhile, it can be verified that those who ask for the license are often the same cafes and various venues that requested it for card games. But there are some necessarily different aspects, including one of some interest, already indicated by Addobbati in his book. Mainly, it is not possible that all players who usually played cards would find the same possibility with the "new" games. If previously twenty people played cards on multiple tables in a room, now only two or four typically play billiards. What do the other sixteen-eighteen do? Are they just watching? Certainly not: they bet on the outcome of the current match, and they even commit large sums to this. So it was always gambling that won.

Florence, 01.20.2024



In selecting the years to summarize in the final tables, I based myself on a few series of subsequent years and chose other single years that seemed more representative to me. I have always set the limits from January to December, and until 1750 I did not respect the old numbering of the years (for the months from January to March). Instead, I have kept the spelling of the names of the places, even when they appear unusual today, such as reading, for example, Ponteadera or Pontadera for Pontedera. In some cases, we come across slightly curious spellings, but closer to popular pronunciation, such as Domo next to Duomo, and similar. With rare exceptions, I have not written down the name of the person who obtains the license, nor that of whoever eventually goes to make the payment on his behalf.

When I report the numerical data of the amounts paid, if it is a whole number of scudi I do not usually indicate the following zeros, i.e., I write for example 6 instead of, or, as more usual , 6.-.-. -. The tendency for these taxes is precisely to be based on whole numbers of scudi. When non-integer values are encountered, an explanation is usually also found: either it is half the tax, typically 17.3.10.-, half of 35, or it is a balance after a fractional down payment, or it is for other reasons that usually are reported explicitly in the register. Often these are adjustments (and therefore I add "adjustment" in the tables), such as the payment of a higher tax deducting what has already been paid for the lower tax. In 1747, there are figures that must be calculated differently from day to day, depending on the time remaining before the deadline, and in this regard it is easy to imagine that the assistance of an expert accountant was indispensable.

When only the address or name of the shop is found without indicating the city, it always means that it is Florence, in the registers tacitly understood. [Here m means month or months; dd - originally gg - means days, the time remaining for which the license is valid.]



[For a clearer view of this table, go to Similar links are provided for the other tables here.]













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