Italian Playing Cards

Tarocchi di Mantegna, c.1465

Above: Tarocchi di Mantegna, c.1465.

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.

Early evidence that playing cards were being used in Italy comes from Florence in 1376, when a game called 'naibbe' is forbidden in a decree, with the implication that the game had only recently arrived 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). We infer that the game was still a novelty, even it's name was still something of a mystery. However, quite soon playing cards did not meet with approval from the church authorities, and they were demonised by preachers who urged that they be destroyed.

The generally accepted view is that the Arabs introduced 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.

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.

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, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany and the Balkans. 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 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.

Regional Patterns

Italy today enjoys reasonable political unity, but this has not always been the case. The fourteen regional patterns found in Italy reflect the history of French, Spanish and Imperial influences. The outcome today is that the north-west use French suit signs, the north and north-east use Italian suited packs and in the southern two-thirds of the peninsula Italo-Spanish suit signs prevail.

Bergamo Pattern   Brescian   Florentine   Genoese   Lombardy (Milanesi)   Napolitan   Piacentine   Piedmont   Primiera Bolognese   Romagnole   Sarde   Sicilian   Spanish National Pattern   Tarocco Bolognese   Trentine   Trevisane (Venetian)   Triestine   Tuscan Pattern  

Minchiate & Tarot

Tarocchi di Mantegna   Visconti Tarocchi   Minchiate Fiorentine   "Etruria" Minchiate   Minchiate c.1850   Tarocco Bolognese   Mitelli Tarocchini   Serravalle-Sesia Tarot   Sola-Busca Tarot   Tarocco Neoclassico   Tarocco della “Corona Ferrea”   Tarocchino Lombardo   Tarocco Piemontese   Tarocco Siciliano   Tavaglione Stairs of Gold Tarot

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.

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.

Tarocco Piemontesi Early Italian style Italian tarot cards, Lamperti (Milan) c.1820 Tarocco Bolognese
Italian Playing Cards
Last Updated March 22, 2018 at 12:11pm


Join the Newsletter

Editor’s Picks

Playing cards have enormous educational value, with a long history and many diverse types and graphical styles from around the world... View More →

back to top