Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Christ, the great gambler

A cantata "For the birth of Our Lord" of Baroque Naples


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, June 2013

Cristofaro Caresana, together with Francesco Provenzale, was one of the greatest composers active in Naples in the seventeenth century. Born in Venice in 1640, he began his musical career as a tenor, and when his company of Febi Harmonics came to Naples to perform, remaining there for the rest of his life. He became a teacher at the Conservatory of S. Onofrio, one of four musical institutions of the city and in 1688 succeeded  Provenzale as a teacher at the Treasure of San Gennaro.


He composed musical dramas and much sacred music, among which were charming Christmas cantatas. One of these, The Vigil (Cantata for 6 voices with violins "For the birth of Our Lord", 1674) has attracted our interest by its special theme, that of gambling, practiced with the game of Ombre [Shadows] (1), much in vogue at the time of Spanish Naples, from which the cantata contains terms used in that game: mattatore, godiglio, faglio rozzo fieno, sbadiglia, palo .


Speaking of vigils, one of the most famous texts that mentions the use of the tarot as a courtly pastime is the Dialogo de’ Giuochi [Dialogue of Games], which uses old Sienese, by Girolamo Bargagli (1572), of which the text of the cantata of Caresana appears as a belated thematic reprise. The expression “veglie alle senese" [vigils in Sienese style], adopted by almost all Tuscan works of the 16th century, indicated an entertainment in which music, dance and other entertainment alternated, for the pleasure of noble society. In the Dialogo we find the use of tarot in the sense of  "appropriated” (2): “Et io ancora (soggiunse il Mansueto) ho veduto fare il giuoco de’ Tarocchi, ponendo a tutti li circostanti un nome di tarocco, e qualcun di poi à dichiarar’ chiamando, per quale cagione stimasse, che a questo e a quello il nome d’un tal tarocco fosse stato posto”.  (And I still - added Mansueto - saw done with of the game of tarot [tarocchi], giving to all those around the name of a tarot card,  declaring for what reason was judged, to this one and that, each had been given  the name of such card).


The alternation of music, dancing and games of the "vigils in Sienese style" is reprised by Caresana with archaic and contemporary dances ("Turn on turn / dancers flying / and with jumps and with carols / bow to revere the Sun", after which the Dance called Barrera follows, with instrumental and vocal concertos  (Love makes on the golden harp / sweet majestic flights / of harmonious chords), and finally with the card game of Ombre. An extraordinary element inserted by the anonymous versifier is the attribution of "gambler" to the figure of Christ, who puts his own life as his wager and, in dying, wins (Then at the end, playing, he dies/ to see death extinguished). His work of the salvation of mankind is equated with the gratuity left by the winner to those who watched the game (it is the trophy of a winner / to give a tip to those around).

Although here the tarot, very popular in Naples of the time, is not mentioned, there are various symbols that remind us of them: the Devil, the Stars, the World, Faith (Popess), Fortune (as the Wheel, which is asked to interrupt its turning by becoming still, allowing Jesus to triumph in the cradle, that is, its upper part), Love and the Sun (an attribute of Christ as "Sol Invictus") (3). [And also  foco = fire (Tower), mondo = World, morte = Death, forze = Strength, as well as the word “trionfare” several times,]


The full text of the Cantata is below.


The Vigil

Cantata "On the birth of Our Lord"


A 2

Una dama la più fortunata

che diede a la luce del Mondo

agli applausi del seno fecondo

pregava la veglia di nobil serata.


A lady the most fortunate

who gave to the light of the World

the applause of her fruitful breast

prayed the noble evening vigil.


Solo 2

Ai suoni ai canti ai balli

schiere armoniche e liete

sciogliete su sciogliete

la man la voce e 'l pié

s'applauda s'onori la fascia del Re.


At the sounds of the songs at dances,

ranks harmonious and happy

release on release

hands, voice, and feet

applaud and honor the swaddlings of the King.


A 2

Girate su girate

ballarini volanti

e con salti e carole

chinate i piedi a riverire il Sole.


Turn on turn

dancers flying

with jumps and carols

bow in reverence to the Sun


Ballo detto Barrera

Dance called Barrera


[Aria] Solo

Non e vero ch’è notte no:

se al corno del giorno

l’alba lucida appari,

un Sol partorì si degno

ch’in segno di Vergine sta;

più rara beltà mirar non si può.

Non e vero ch’è notte no.


It truly is not night:

if at the horn of the day

shiny dawn appears,

a worthy Sun is born

in the sign of Virgo;

rarer beauty you could not see.

It truly is not night.


Con pié di nettare

corrono i rivoli;

al nato Re

di latte i murmuri

la fede giurino

al Regio pié.


On beds of nectar

run the streams;

to the newborn King

murmurs of milk

swear faith

at the Royal feet.




Basti, sospenda il ballo i suoi sbalci

fugaci: fermi il pié, non la gioia; ed hoggi

che trionfa l’umiltà, destinata al rigor

d'un cavo sasso, la cura del Bambin

honori il Basso.


Enough, stop the dance its movements

fleeting: stop the feet, not the joy; and today

may humility triumph, destined for the hardness

of a hollow cave, the care of the Child

honored by the Bass [Basso = bass instruments, also humble people].



Spezzi il giro la Fortuna

volga in archi la sua rota

ed estatica ed immota

formi al Prencipe la cuna.


Stop the round of Fortune

Turning in arcs her wheel

and ecstatic and motionless

set the Prince at the cradle.


2. a

Facci Amor su 1'arpa d'oro

dolci fughe maestose;

su le corde armoniose

tessa il canto il bel lavoro.


Love makes on the golden harp

sweet majestic flights;

in harmonious chords

the song weaves the good work.



Nasce il verbo e non favella

trema il foco e piange il riso

cade il Sol dal paradiso

per incanto d'una Stella.


The word is born and does not speak

the fire trembles and the laughter cries 

the Sun falls from paradise

by the magic of a Star.



Dormi o ninno, dormi core

chiudi gl'occhi al canto mio,

dorme l’uomo e veglia Dio,

per amor non dorme amore.


Sleep O child, sleep at my  birth

close my eyes while I sing,

man asleep and God awake,

for love [of man], the love [of God] does not sleep.





Silenzio o voci, o corde,

or che il Regio Bambin riposa un poco,

termini il canto, e s'incominci il gioco.


Silence O voices, O strings

that now the Royal Child may rest a little,

End the song, and begin the game.





Gioca al ombre il mio bel Sole

se fatt’uomo nasce in terra,

entra solo a mover guerra

e l'inferno vincer vole.

Gioca al ombre il mio bel Sole.


Play at Ombre [Shadows], my beautiful Sun

if made man born on earth,

he enters only to make war

and wants to vanquish hell.

Play Ombre, my beautiful Sun.



Ha gran forze, ed è Bambino,

degl'abissi il mattatore,            

per far gioco al peccatore,

Ha gran forze, ed è Bambino,


He has great strength, and is a Child,

Of the abyss the antagonist [mattatore],

to play the game for the sinner,

He has great strength, and is a Child.


3.a - a 2


Fu godiglio nel entrare
che per l’uom giocò di pomo,
ma de falli è faglio l’uomo,
chentra al mondo a trionfare.

His [the devil’s] first move was the godiglio [a move in Ombre]
For man he played the apple.
but wins [faglio] from the errors the man [Christ]
Who enters the world [the game] to triumph


4.a - a 2

Per trofeo la gioca sola  

l'attrenito Nazareno,        

e giocando a rozzo frenomille prede a Pluto invola.

Per trofeo la gioca sola.


For the trophy [to win and give the gratuity] alone  does he play,

the indomitable  Nazarene,

and playing in rough hay [rozzo freno, also a move in Ombre],

a thousand prizes from Pluto steals.

For the trophy alone does he play.


5.a - a 3

Sempre in mane ha la spadiglia 

contro l’ombre il nudo Infante,

e gran palo trionfante

de la croce la bastiglia.

Sempre in mano ha la spadiglia.


Always in hand he has the sword [a particular group of cards in Ombre],

The naked Child, against the shadows [Ombre],

The most triumphant pole [palo],

His fortress the cross,

Always in hand he has the sword.


6.a – a 2

Pur al fin giocando more

per veder la morte estinta,

ma la poglia a sempre vinta,

se maniglia a sempre amore.

Pur al fin giocando more.


Then at the end, playing, he dies,

to see death extinguished,

but against the evil one he always wins,

if  he does the maniglia [another move in Ombre] always with love.

Then at the end, playing, he dies.


7.a – Tutti

7.a - All


Fate applauso, O cori amanti,

al valor del giocatore,

ch’è trofeo d’un vincitore,

dar la mancia a’ circostanti.

Fate applauso, o cori amanti.


Then applaud, O loving hearts,

at the valor of the player,

because it is the trophy of a winner,

to give the gratuity to those around.

Then applaud, o loving hearts.




1 -  The game of Ombre was a card game of Spanish origin, very popular throughout Europe in the. XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries.

2 - On the practice of "Tarocchi appropriati" see the essay Tarot in Literature I.

3 - In this regard please read the essay Nativitas.