Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Saint Bernardino and the Cards

Regular cards and Triumphs in the chronicles about the life of the Saint


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, Feb. 2012

The life of St. Bernardino as described in the Acta Sanctorum (1) is based upon three chronicles written by different authors: the first, simply called Vita, comes from a manuscript from L’Aquila (xx MS autentico Aquilano) composed in 1472 (Post corporis translati composita); the second, the Vita I Antiquior, was written in 1445 by St. Barnabas (Auctore Barnabaeo Senesi coevo), who lived at the time of Bernardino (ex MS. Francisci S. R. E. Card. Barberini), while the third, called Vita II Antiquior (ex MS Vallicellano Patrum Congregationis Oratorii, Romae), is due to Maffeo Vegio (Mapheo Veghio Laudensi) who assisted personally in many events concerning St. Bernardino, as the Acta reports with the expression “in pluribus oculato teste”. This last biographer, born in 1407 and deceased in 1458, wrote the De vita et obitu atque officium beati Bernardini in the period during which he was the Datary of the Papal Court, a mission that he conducted between 1431 and 1447. Therefore, since Bernardino died in 1445, he wrote the life of the Saint in the following two years, nut not later than 1447. Some fragments of the Life of Saint Bernardino as described by Johannes of Capestrano, a companion of the Saint, are sometimes reported in a jumbled way, and also in the notes (Annotata), to comfirm the affirmations of the other authors when they coincide with the chronicle he wrote.

Michael Dummett was sceptical about the presence of triumphs in Bologna in the period during which Bernardino preached (1423), claiming that in the oldest life concerning the Saint, as reported in the Acta and dating back to 1445, they are not cited, contrary to the life written by the anonymous author from L’Aquila much time later, which is to say after the translation of the Saint's body in 1472. He hypothesizes that the inclusion of the latter into the triumphales carticellae has to be attributed exclusively to an addition by the author as triumphs were extremely popular at the time in which he wrote his chronicle. And further, he confirms his own thesis based upon the fact that the sermon by the Saint, as reported in the Quadragesimale de cristiana religione, does not consider this typology of cards. The third life written by Maffeo Vegio would not be useful for this examination, because the author talks generally about forbidden games, without citing any kind of cards.


About this matter the English Historian writes in this way: “The Bollandist Acta Sanctorum, vol. XVI (May, vol. V), Antwerp, 1685, prints three lives of St. Bernardine, whose feast-day is 20 May. Of these, the first and latest, written some time after the translation in 1472 of St. Bernardine’s body, which it records, speaks of triumphales carticellae as being brought out to be burned (p. 267, col. 1). However, the first of the two earlier lives, written, according to the editor (p. 257, col. 1), in 1445, within a year of Saint’s death, mentions only naibes (regular plying cards) as having been burned (along with dice and game boards). Furthermore, the sermon preached by the Saint on this occasion (Sermo 41 “Contra alearum ludos”, Quadragesimale de Christiana religion, S. Bernardini Senensis O.F.M. Opera Omnia, ed. PP. Collegii S. Bonaventurae, vol. II, Florence, 1950, pag. 23) mentions only regular playing cards, and not Triumphi (although it is true that St. Bernardine does appear familiar with packs having four court cards per suit, as he speaks of Queens as well as Kings and milites superiors et inferiores) (2).

The impression that the reader gets in reading the essay by Dummet is that he, referring to triumphs and cards, has compared what has been reported in the first and second life of Saint Bernardino, about the sermon he preached in Bologna, a fact that does not correspond to reality. Actually, while the Vita by anonymous talks about the typology of cards aimed at by the Saint when he preached in different cities, in the Vita I Antiquior, Saint Barnabas reports a sermon that Bernardino made in Siena. Therefore, there is no relation with Bologna.

Let’s see in detail what is quoted in the Vita by the anonymous author from L’Aquila. After an examination generally condemning women's dress, hair styles and what they put on to appear beautiful and charming, Bernardino castigated gambling: “Indumenta peregrina et lineamenta pulchritudinem vultus conferentia adulterinaeque capillaturae ac pretiosi ornatus, larvales praeterea facies, aleae, taxilli, triumphales carticellae in forum deferebantur, omnia igni tradenda atque comburenda” (3).  It deals with dice and triumph cards that were burnt in the squares after his sermons against gambling. Proceeding to the examination of the Vita by Anonymous, it is necessary to underline that in 1472 the game of triumphs was not  yet condemned by the Church and the Governments of the cities. If the author had talked it about just because they were commonly known in the period in which he wrote his chronicle, as Dummet affirms, he should have considered thatcontemporary readers would not have understood the reason for this inclusion, since the game of triumphs was still considered legal in 1472 (4). In our opinion it is more plausible that the anonymous author from L’Aquila has inferred this information from ancient sources. In the meanwhile it is possible that Bernardino, the Saint deemed the most relentless against card games in the History of the Church, had really cited them,  because at the time when he launched his anathema, triumphs did not yet reflect those dictates of the Mystical Staircase that in consequence protected them from the action of the Church, whose power in Bologna was extremely oppressive  (About this see the Addenda in the article The Order of the Triumphs).

As we have reported above, in the Vita I Antiquior the references to the game cam be found in the narration of the sermons that the Saint made in Siena for a period of fifty days: “Senenses vero, cum intellexerunt Fratrem Bernardinum, civem suum, jam praedicationes suas Florentiae consumasse; legatum ad eum ii, qui amplum Magistratum urbis gerunt, mittunt. Qui jam consummatis ac terminatis illic praedictionibus, suam in patriam, voluntate Senensis oratoris accepta, quam raptim venit. Ibi Senenses viri cunctusque populus lietissima fronte eum receperunt: ubi per quinquaginta dies in foro magno urbis praedicans, animosque Senensium omnium ad omnem voluntatem suam reducem, ad pristinam et vetustam consuetudinem bene et Christiane vivendi eos firmavit: templum etiam suo intuitu jam dudum inceptum, pensionibus publicis magnifice est completum. Ludi vero taxillorum non solum suo jussu deleti fuere, sed coram Gubernatore hujus Reipublicae naibes, taxillos, tesseras, et instrumenta insuper lignea, super quae avare irreligiosi ludi fiebant, combustos esse praecepit: pacemque inter dissidentes componens, cuctum populum pacatum ac tranquillum suavissima oratione sua reddidit” (5). On this occasion were burnt dice, dominoes, every wood tool (the tables for the royal flush) and naibes, or the cards we could characterize as regular (without triumphs). These sermons were preached by Saint Bernardino in 1427, after having ended his interventions in Florence.


If our thesis is accepted that triumphs were invented in Bologna around in 1410-20, they certainly could have not yet been in Siena in 1427, the period of the sermon; therefore, justly, Saint Barnabas recalls only the naibes.

Referring to the affirmation of Dummett, concerning the lack of triumphs among the games condemned by Saint Bernardino on the occasion of his sermon in Bologna as reported in the Sermon  Contra alearum ludos contained in the “Quadragesimale de christiana religione” (6), it is necessary to consider that the Saint preached in the vulgar tongue and that the Latin version of the sermon, written late compared to the date of the sermon, between 1430 and 1450, is based, as always happened in these cases, upon the oral tradition and writings that were  incomplete or not totally precise.

The quotation in the Sermon we are interested in is the following: "Et ut tantum bonum melius sortiatur effectum, ex gratia ab omnibus vobis pro munere peto, mihi per nuntios fidos transmitti omnia talia instrumenta consueta, ad talem fortuitum ludum: sicut sunt tabularia, taxilli et carticellae et consimilia ita ut adunata simul cum licentia Domini Episcopi mihi concessa publice comburantur. Quod qui fecerit, participem esse volo omnium missarum, quas in toto praesenti anno dicturus sum" (7). After having indicated cards, the text reports the words “et consimilia”, which is to say similar games. Knowing the scrupulous accuracy of the Saint in listing everything (on this matter see in the article Symbolic Suits what Bernardino writes about the meaning of the suits and court cards), the expression “et consimilia” sounds excessively summarizing.

Finally it is necessary to consider that the three lives diverge among themselves in reference  to the cards: the Vita of the anonymous authior from L’Aquila cites exclusively the triumphales carticellae and not the regular cards (that in reality he should have mentioned even more than triumphs, since at the time of Bernardino, and in 1472 as well, their use was forbidden); Saint Barnabas talks just about naibes (but, as we said, on the occasion of a sermon made in Siena), while Vegio, whose life of the Saint is practically coeval with the one written by Saint Barnabas, does not talk about either triumphs or regular cards. From what has been explained, we think that it is possible to consider reliable what has been reported by the anonymous author from L’Aquila in reference to the presence of triumphs in Bologna on 1423.


Another sermon preached by the Saint in vernacular in Siena in 1425 (8), is useful to understand the meanings attributed by Bernardino to the suits and numeral and court cards: “Breviari del Diavolo so' le carte e naibi. E li ricciuoli de la donna sono e naibi piccoli. El prete è chi giuoca. Tu sai ch’e breviari so’ miniati; così sono naibi. Le lettere so’ maze, cose da pazi; coppe, cose da ubriachi e tavernieri; denari, cosa da avari; spade, cosa da quistione, briga e ucisioni. Le lettere miniate sono: re, re de’ ribaldi; reina, reina delle ribalde; sopra sodomitto;  sotto è lussuria” (Playing cards - note that here Bernardine employs the two synonymous words – are the devil’s breviaries. Small playing cards are the lady’s curls. He who plays is the priest. As you know breviaries are painted; so are playing cards. The batons (here ‘mazze’, another name for bastoni) are the letters, foolish things; cups are for drunkards and innkeepers; coins are for misers; swords are to cause quarrels, fuss, and murders. The painted letters are: king, king of the ribald; queen, queen of the female ribald; above is sodomy, below is lust). We find these concepts also in the corresponding Latin texts of Bernardino’s official collection of sermons: “Nec deficere volo ecclesiastici meis breviaria ac diurnal, quae esse iubeo charticellas seu naibos in quibus variae figurae pingantur, sicut fieri solet in breviariis Christi, quae figurae in eis mysticam malitiam praefigurent, ut puta denarii, avaritiam; baculi, stultitiam seu caninam saevitiam; calices sive coppae, ebrietatem et gulam; enses, odium et guerram; reges atque reginae, praevalentes in nequitiis suparadictis; milites inferiores et superiores, luxuriam atque sodomiam aperta fronte proclament” (9).  


To conclude we quote the passage taken from the Analecta (10) in which Bernardino counsels the father of a family who produced forbidden games, to substitute those objects with the monogram of Christ, reassuring him that he would earn much more money: “Cum in quadam civitate magna tam ferventer praedicasset, ut asseres ludentium et tesseras frangerentur, et corburerentur; indignatus ille, qui eos et eas, scilicet asseres et tesseras, facere solebat, ad Sanctum venit, conquerens quod jam pauper efficeretur. Sciscitanti vero S. Bernardino si aliud officium nesciret, respondit, Non. Ad quem Sanctus ait: Dabo tibi sanum consilium: et accipiens circinum, fecit circulum rotundum, in quo solem pinxit, et in medio solis nome Jesus descripsit: quod sicut decuit in summo honore habuit…Quia hoc nomen Jesus in tali figura solari supra se apparuit, et ideo prae magna devotione hanc figuram composuit, et querelanti dixit carpentori, ut tales figuras de cetero faceret. Qui magister sive carpentarius aut artifex hoc faciens, dives effectus est, et majorem quaestum quam prius acquisivit” (11). 


 - The version of the Acta Sanctorum we have examined is dated 1861 (Paris and Rome), Vol. 18, Tome V, Month of May.
2 - Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot,  London, 1980, page 142.
3 - Caput II: Profectus in vita monastica. Fructus concionum, Col. 2, page 95.
4 - Generally the game of triumphs was tolerated during all the XV century. In the following we report some documents.

In the 1483 Statutes of Crema we find (63): “Nullus ludat ad bisclaciam taxillos vel ad cartas in nundinis et si qui contrafecerit quod poena duplicetur. Ibidem. (64): Ed intelligatur bislacia ominis ludus taxillorum et cartarum: et  exceptis ludis triumphorum et schachorum", and, still from the Statutes, of 1534 (89) of the same city we know that the game of triumphs and that of tarot * and chess as well were still legal: "Quilibet possit ludere ad tabulas et schacos et triumphos et tarochum de die et de nocte".

* The game of Triumphs and that of Tarots were then two different games. Actually in the sixteenth century Ludus Tarochorum meant the game composed by 22 triumphs and 56 regular cards (ie the numeral cards and court cards) while in that of Triumphs the regular cards were used. In this game, the trump suit was chosen at random. The variant had been imported  from Spain. About this subject read our discussion in the essay Triumphs, Trionfini and Trionfetti.

On the other hand, in 1491 the Statutes of Bergamo (Statuta Magnificae Civitatis Bergomi) said, in the following two chapters:

De pena tenentis ludum, vel ludentis in domo. Cap. CLXXI - Si quis in domo, curia, horto, brolo, vel aliqua alia parte Civitatis, vel districtus Bergomi tenuerit ludum aleae, biselantiae, vel reginetae, sozi, santii, ochae, vel alterius cujusvis generis ludi, alea rum, vel cartarum ad tertiam, & quartam, fluxi, ronfae, vel crichae, aut alterius generis cartarum, exceptis triumphis, scachis, & tabulerio, cadat in penam libr. quinquaginta Impérial. Et intelligatur tenere ludum ut supra, sietiam inde fuerit publica vox, & fama: quae pena applicetur pro dimidia accusatori, & pro alia dimidia Com. Berg.

De pena ludentium
. Cap. CLXXII  - Nullus audeat vel presumat ludere ad azzarum, nec ad aliquem ludorum predictorum de die in Civitate, vel districtu Berg., sub poena libr. duodecim Imp; & si de nocte poena duplicetur: & intelligatur ludere, si reperti fuerint habere antè vel iuxtà se discum, taxillos, vel cartas vel aliud praeparamentum ad ludendum: salvo quòd non comprehendantur in praesenti capitulo ludentes ad triumphos, ad tabulerium, & schachos, usque ad  lib. quinque Imp., in uno die. Et quòd in praedictis, & quolibet praedictorum possit Magn. D. Potestas, & ejus Judices procedere per inquisitionem, & per praesumptiones evidentes, & urgentia indicia, & repertos culpabiles ita condemnare: quarum pœnarum medietas sit Comunis Bergomi, & alia medietas accusatoris. Et vincentes teneantur ad restitutionem pro medietate perdenti, & pro alia medietate Com. Bergomi. Et quòd Comunia, & Consules locorum, Viciniarum, & Burgorum, & Consules Vilarum, & Terrarum teneantur notificare ipsos ludentes, & praestantes domos, vel loca ad ludendum, sub pęna lib. quinque Imp. Et quòd possìnt, & debeant fieri denunciae, querellae, accusae, seù conscientiae; & formari inquisitiones de praedictis infrà unum mensem post ludum; alitèr non admittantur accusationes. 

In Statuta Civitatis Ferentini (Ferentino, province of Frosinone, dated to XV Century), Rubric CXX "Quod nullus ludat ad taxillos" (c. 24r), together with the prohibition on playing  dice (Item statuimus quod nullus presumat ludere ad aliquem ludum taxillorum) or gambling games in general (ludere ad azardos pro velle sine pena) and with an absolute ban on playing in churches under penalty of twice the amount expected for the other cases (Et nulli liceat in aliqua ecclesia ludere ad taxillos ad penam dupli), allowing from the beginning of May to the end of September in the streets and public plazas, without incurring any penalty, [playing] at cards, "three  of a kind," ronfa, triumphs, etc, with the warning not to curse or blaspheme God or the Saints (1) providing in case of contravention a penalty of twice that indicated by the blasphemy rubric in general:  "Adiicientes quod a kalendis mensis maii usque ad finem mensis septembris possit quilibet ludere sine pena per vias et plateas publicas ad ludum cartarum, videlicet ad criccham, ad rumpham et ad triumphos, ad spiczicum et ad ludum directum, videlicet «chi fa più giochi» tantum et non [ad alios] ludos; contrafacientes pena supradicta pu[nia]ntur. Et, quicunque maledixerit seu blasfemaverit Deo vel sanctis eius in ludo, solvat penam dupli que in statuto de blasfemationibus continetur et nihilominus solvat penam de ludo".

(1)  Blasphemies by the players were one of the many reasons that led the Church to condemn card games. In many cases, for the formulation of the statutes the secular Governments used clerics, such as, for example, in Rieti, where in 1489 the City Council accepted the proposals of Friar Andrea of Faenza (the architect who collaborated in the construction of Saint Petronius in Bologna) for a series of reforms in the civil and moral life of the city, including a hard stance against those who blasphemed while playing: "Item contra ludentes ad ludos vetitos et prohibitos et vendentes et retinentes cartas et taxillos ac etiam facientes illos et blasfemantes Deum et sanctos dixit et consuluit puniendos esse secundum formam statuti et reformationum civitatis Rheate" (Rieti, Archivio di Stato, Riformanze 47, 1488-1492, c. 93). 

The game in the Statutes of San Ginesio, Sarnano Urbisaglia (Marche)

These statutes, during the Christmas festivities and within certain spending limits (one drink), allowed the playing of games that  were not allowed during the rest of the year. Gambling games were always prohibited and players coming from other municipalities expelled: In San Ginesio (IV.78, V.6 and 7), for example, ludus tabularum and taxillorum sive cartharum were prohibited, but one can play the former game in the town square, which is under the control of all, Ludendo aliquem scoctum, and no more (1).

The statutes of Sarnano (2), ludi crimen satis Deo detestabile et hominibus pernitiosum fore arbi­trantes, ex quo furta, caedes et blasfemiae quotidie exoriuntur,  prohibited ludi alae, azardi, taxillorum, tabularum, cartarum and all others in which the stake was a sum of money, excepto ludo scachorum, pilae, plastrellae, saltationis, iaculationis et aliis huiusmodi ludis, qui virtutis seu fortitudinis alicuius ostendendi gratia fierent (IV. 4), where one could even play for10 bolognini. However ad ludum tabularum et triumphorum (3) it was possible to play for something to eat and drink, as long as the game takes place publicly, in the square or in the City Hall (evidently outside) and the total amount of the game did not exceed 8 bolognini, and finally, with the condition that all participate in eating and drinking, certainly not very richly. For the offenders,  10 pounds fine and 3 days in jail.

In the Statutes of Urbisaglia (I.1, III.7), among the forbidden games are listed, - besides ludus azardi, taxillorum vel tabularum - ludus alearum, ciono­rum, laquearum, piolorum et virgittarum and others (games with pins, cards, dice and rods); Ludus tabularum de totis tabulis and chess, on the contrary, are allowed. All games were prohibited in taverns and wherever wine was sold. During Christmas time, permission was granted by the Podestà  [Mayor].

(1) The Statutes of San Ginesio date back to XIV century.
(2) The manuscript of the Statutes of Sarnano, which dates back to 1507, contains some sections already present in previous Statutes of the city.
(3) In our opinion this indication on Ludum Triumphorum was reported in a  rubric already existing in a previous law of the city, dating back no later than the second half of the XV century.

The Statutes of Fiume, granted to the city by Ferdinand I in 1530, were very permissive: cards, dice, table games, ronfa and triumphs were allowed with the exception, along with others, of  basset: “Liceat tamen tam in terra Flùis quam in districtu ludere ad ludum tabularum seu alearum & ad ludum cartharum ac runfe & triumphorum vel ad alium similem ludum, excepto ludo bassette...".

We find isolated cases of condemnation of the game of Triumphs in Assisi with a public announcement dated at 1470 (on this regard see, in Italian, the essay Trionfi permessi, Trionfi proibiti) and in Padua with a sermon that the preacher Roberto Caracciolo of Lecce gave in 1455 (see, in Italian, the essay Laudabiles et Vituperabiles). 

Thanks to the researches on the Statutes of different Italian cities made by historians such as Pietro Sella, Ludovico Zdekauer and Gherardo Ortalli, we know that the legal games were called thusly: bàzega, gilenum, primera, tarochum, triumphos. The forbidden ones were called: abbales, banco fallito, bassetta, cricca, erbette, fluxum, lanzichinech, reginetta, ronfa, taglio, tertia et quarta, trenta e quaranta, the “bislacia cartarum”, and the “carte del suit”» (page 425). For nearly complete information about the documents of the XV century concerning the game of Triumphs, visit the link  at the site

5 - Caput II - Constitutio Naturalis. Amor ergo Deiparam. Loca plurima concionibus illustrata. Col. 2, page 111. 

6 - Actually the sermon Contra alearum ludus is not the 41st as reported by Dummett, but the 42nd (XLII). 

7 Quadragesimale de Christiana religione S. Bernardini Senensis, Opera Omnia, Sermo XLII, Art. III, Chap. III.

8 - Quoted by Thierry Depaulis in his article Breviari del Diavolo so' le carte e naibi: How Bernardine of Siena and his Franciscan followers saw playing cards and card games, in Jörg Sonntag (ed.) “Religiosus Ludens: Das Spiel als kulturelles Phänomen in mittelalterlichen Klöstern und Orden”, De Gruyter, 2013, pp. 115-134. See also: Bernardinus Senensis, Sermo 12: Questa è la predica del giuoco (This is the sermon on the game) in “Le prediche volgari di San Bernardino di Siena. Predicazione del 1425 in Siena”, ed. Ciro Cannarozzi, Vol. I, Florence, 1958, pp. 173-186.

9 - S. Bernardini Senensis, Sermo 42: Contra alearum ludos, op. cit.

10 - Analecta (Ex duabus Vitis Mss. & totidem excusis, aliisque tractatibus & auctoribus) in “Acta Sanctorum”, Chap. II: Fructus Concionum ejus, emendandis moribus, haereticis coercendis, sedantis contentionibus relati, Col. 2, page 137.  

11 - Read in the essay Playing Cards and Gambling, the tale in English language of the passage in question as reported by a theologician of the XIX century in one of his works about the life and works of the Saint. In the same essay and in Symbolic Suits can be found other passages taken from the three lives of St. Bernardino.

Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  - © All rights reserved 2009