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Italian Playing Cards

Italian Playing Cards

Above: detail from “La Sala de Las Batallas” mural painting in El Escorial palace (Madrid) produced by a team of Italian artists overseen by Orazio Cambiasso, late 16th century.

Above: Mitelli’s ‘Gioco di Passatempo’, 1690.

Above: Geographical and Heraldic Tarocchi cards from Bologna, 1725.

From the present-day collector's point of view Italy is divided roughly into three parts: the north and north-east where Italian suit signs are used; the southern two-thirds of the peninsula where Italo-Spanish suit signs prevail; and the north-west using French suit signs. The cards with the earliest origins come in the first category.

The first reliable evidence that playing cards were being used in Italy is from Florence in 1376, when a game called 'naibbe' is forbidden in a decree, with the implication that the game had only recently been introduced there. This is followed in 1379 by another reference from Viterbo (in the vicinity of Rome) in which it is claimed that a new game called 'nayb' was introduced by a 'Saracen' (= Oriental, Arab or Muslim). From these examples we can infer that the game was still a novelty, perhaps only hearsay, and that it's name was still something of a mystery. However, quite soon playing cards did not meet with cordial approval from the church authorities, and they were demonised by preachers who urged that they be destroyed.

One generally accepted view is that the Arabs introduced their playing cards to Europe, via both the Iberian and Italian peninsulas, in the second half of the fourteenth century, and that European cards evolved from the suit system and composition of these cards. The famous Topkapi Museum pack, made from several incomplete Mamluk packs, clearly shows four suits of 13 cards including 3 court cards. Through a process of assimilation and adaptation the original Arabic suit symbols, and even the name na'ib, became Westernised. The typical Italian suit system uses the same symbolic objects as the Spanish (cups, coins, swords and clubs), with some differences of style dating back to an early stage in their history.

Italian-suited cards from the Venice area were probably the first ones to cross the Alps and Italian-suited trappola cards survived for some time in Austria, Silesia (Poland, Czech Republic and Germany) and the Balkans. The cards from Southern Italy, including Sicily, are closer in design to Spanish cards. It is here that the Spaniards had come to Italy bringing with them their beloved playing cards and gambling habits.

A specimen of XV century Italian cards shows that the suit symbols and court hierarchy were indeed very close to the Mamluk set, and have not changed much since then. One characteristic of early Italian cards is that the edges of the back paper, which had a pattern or design printed on it, were wrapped around the edges of the card thereby providing a border around the front. This artesanal method of production is more time-consuming but produces stiff and robust cards which handle and shuffle particularly well. Some early Spanish cards were also manufactured using this technique.

Italy did not form a single kingdom; several important ducal dynasties included the Visconti's, the Borgia's and the Scaliger's. There was the kingdom of Naples, the Vatican, the republics of Genova, Venice and Florence. Italy has produced a number of variant types of extended packs. The hand-painted tarot cards, which date probably from the first half of the fifteenth century, contain 78 cards. In this game, apart from the four Italian/Latin suits, which could be said to derive from the Arabic 'Mamluk' suit symbols, there are also 22 trump cards; and there are 4 court cards per suit, including a king, queen, cavalier and page plus numeral cards 1-10, making a total of 78 cards. A variant called "Bologna Tarocchino" has only 62 cards (omitting numerals 2-5). Florentine Minchiate has a total of 97 cards.


Antonio Monasta   Archaic North Italian   Agostino Bergallo   Pedro Bosio   Giuseppe Cattino   Pavol Montanar   Brescian Pattern   Florentine Pattern   Genoese Pattern   Lamperti (Milan), c.1820   Lombardy Pattern   Mamluk Cards   Gumppenberg   Minchiate Fiorentine   Minchiate c.1850   "Etruria" Minchiate   "Moorish" Playing Cards   Napolitan Pattern   Piacentine Pattern   Piedmont Pattern   Romagnole Pattern   Sardinia   Sicilian Pattern   Spain   Spanish National Pattern   Tarocchi di Mantegna   Tarocco Bolognese   Mitelli Tarocchini   Mitelli ‘Gioco di Passatempo’   Tarocco Neoclassico   Tarocco della “Corona Ferrea”   Tarocchino Lombardo   Serravalle-Sesia Tarot   Tarocco Piemontese   Matarelli Transformation   Carte per Signora   Carte da Indovino   Modiano Cartine da Gioco   Tavaglione Stairs of Gold Tarot   Tuscan Pattern   Venetian Pattern   Visconti Tarocchi   Austrian Lloyd Steamship Co   Modiano ‘World Bridge’   Credito Commerciale  

Spanish National Pattern, Agostino Bergallo, Italy

Above: woodblock-printed and stencil-coloured Spanish-suited playing cards made in Italy by Agostino Bergallo for export to Spanish territories, 18th century. The Ace of Coins carries the maker's name and the Spanish coat-of-arms.

Italy today enjoys reasonable political unity, but this has not always been the case. The fourteen different regional types of playing cards found in Italy reflect the influx of French, Spanish and Imperial influences in the past, and the ensuing identity struggles.

Mamluk playing card

Above: the suit symbols and court hierarchy in early Italian cards were very close to the Mamluk set and have not changed much since then.

Tarocchi di Mantegna Tarocco Piemontesi Archaic Italian style Early Italian style Minchiate Fiorentine, 17th C. Italian tarot cards, Lamperti (Milan) c.1820 Tarocco Bolognese
Last Updated January 26, 2016 at 12:35pm

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