What about those card and dice games played in the taverns?

Gambling was illegal in Renaissance Florence but if we are to believe the plethora of primary sources, it was rampant.

A fourteenth-century Florentine named Buonaccorso Pitti made a name for himself by gambling his way across Europe, chronicling his exploits at card tables in the French courts in his widely read Cronica.

In Florence, rich and poor laid down their coins in taverns, shops, private artisan studios, inns, brothels, and on street corners across the city.

If the authorities (the otto di guardia or just the guardia) caught you, you could be fined twice what you bet. You could also be shackled in the pillory or thrown into the debtors’ prison–the illustrious Stinche jail.

Dice game. From a manuscript in the Morgan Library, New York. Tyrol, last quarter of the 15th century. M.763 fol. 131v. Note the small devil flying out of the mouth of one of the men on the right…

Still, these games held their allure, and not just for the lower and artisan classes. A popular carnival song, the Canto de’ giuocatori  (“Song of the Players”) lamented:

“To have money we will cast aside every virtue and even heaven;
for the dice and cards are our god.
Gambling is indulged in by both master-weavers and their cashiers,
and every worthy prelate nowadays makes a profession of it.
Bishops and cavaliers follow this standard;
the layman plays, so do the priest and monk,
even to the abbot with his friars.”

Sheet of “tarocchi” cards from Italy, c. 1500. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Popular card games

Among the most popular games was frussi, a card game that survives today under the name primiera. In this game, four cards are dealt to each player. The first to lay down four cards of a kind is the winner.

Caravaggio, The Cardsharps, c. 1595, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX

In one of his carnival songs, Lorenzo de Medici refers to this game as cursed (maledetto) and advises players to take it slow and gamble sparingly.

Taverns in Renaissance Florence

Florentine taverns of the Renaissance (many near the Mercato Vecchio) had colorful names:

  • Bertuccie (Monkey / lady parts / Ugly Whore)
  • Chiassolino (Little Whorehouse / Little Outhouse)
  • Fico (Fig / lady parts)
  • Malvagia (Wiked Woman)
  • Panico (Panic)
  • Porco (Pig / Depraved)

I hope you’ve enjoyed immersing yourself in the world of Renaissance Florence! Research is one of my favorite things about writing a book. I hope you’ll take the time to explore more of this behind-the-scenes section of my web site to learn historical tidbits related to The Giant.

And don’t forget to drop a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!