Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Games and Magic in Ferrara

On a manufacturer of tarot cards, on games and repressive laws, on witches


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


Luigi Napoleone Cittadella was born in Ferrara in 1806. He graduated in Civil Engineering, was drafted into the Engineers, and then, given his restless spirit, traveled for a long time, making his return to Ferrara only in 1831, where he was hired by the City Council as Secretary of Fine Arts, with the task of drawing up inventories of the Historical Archives. In 1862 he was appointed director of the City Library, succeeding Joseph Antonelli. During this period he was able to resume and expand its historical and scholarly production, publishing in 1864 the volume Notizie relative a Ferrara [Information Related to Ferrara], a dense collection of anecdotes and historical curiosities accumulated over nearly twenty years of research and study.


From this work, found with two different titles, we report some passages on topics of interest to us: the first is the chapter “Games and repressive laws”, a brief discussion about permitted and prohibited games in Ferrara from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century; second is a notarial act involving a card manufacturer of the sixteenth century by the name of Alfonso Villani, reported in the Chapter “Makers of playing cards”; and third, from the Chapter “Religion”, speaks of spells, witches and the magic arts in Renaissance Ferrara.


The texts are translated from the original, including the author's notes.




From Notizie Amministrative, Storiche, Artistiche relative a Ferrara. Ricavate da Documenti ed Illustrate da Luigi Napoleone Cav. Cittadella, Bibliotecario, [Administrative, Historical, Artistic Information relating to Ferrara. Obtained from Documents and Illustrated by Luigi Napoleone Cav. Cittadella, Librarian], Vol I, Ferrara, 1868, pp. 247-249.


"Among the nations of the ancients, games were public spectacles, such as for example the Olympici [Olympic] and the Nemei [Nemian] among the Greeks, and the Circensi [Circuses], Gladiatorii [Gladiatorial] and Scenici [Scenian, in honor of Bacchus] among the Romans. They changed through the ages because of the nature and trends of the peoples, now fierce and barbarous, now civilized and cultured. In Italy about a thousand were in vogue: fighting, racing, horses, and youth exercises in arms and gymnastics, staging mock battles, which were later called Battagliuole (compare in the article Curiosità [Curiosity] battagliuola (1): then came the Corti bandite [Court banquets in the presence of the public] with jesters, clowns, minstrels [giocolatori], acrobats and improvisational poets, then followed jousts, tournaments and revelry. There were also, however, as there are in the present, gambling games, though always prohibited.

And of these, especially I must say a few words, because around these were always issued the strictest laws, so as to put a brake on such vices that often bring ruin and despair. Too long to try to enumerate all the private games, among which would be the harmless dama [checkers], scacchi [chess], palla [ball], pallone [ball], bigliardo [billiards], pilotta and many others, while dangerous are the pari e dispari [odd and even], ossicelli [little bones] or dadi [dice], mora [Moor], and cards, that people say were invented in 1330 by a Spaniard Nicholas Pepino. The oldest games in our memory are in a statutory rubric of 1264: Statuimus quod nemini liceat in majori ecclesia, sive in episcopatu, ludere ad taxillos, neque ad tabulas, neque ad lapides todescos, neque ad balottas; nec etiam ludere in palatio comunis, vel sub porticu, neque mingat in Canonica, neque penes muros S. Romani, neque in platea, neque in domo calegariorum, neque portet ruscum vel aliquod sterpinium, neque in aliquo loco sacrato (We establish that no one is allowed to play at dice, or boards, nor the German stones, nor the balls (?) at the Cathedral and the edifice of the Episcopate, nor even play at the city hall, or under the arcades, nor urinate at the rectory or at the walls of San Romano, nor in the square, nor in the places of the soldiers, nor bring holly or other brushwood into any holy place) (2).


In the statutes of the municipal archive of the fourteenth century there is - de pena ludentium ad tabulas, quando predicatores predicant in Episcopatu (on the penalty for playing at boards in the building of the Episcopate when the preachers are preaching) vel in platea (or in the plaza) (a very common thing at that time). In 1438 one of the first laws of the Statute of the bollette [taxes] is another item against il zogo d' azaro (sic - i.e. gambling) ed altri prohibiti, e contro i Bari che pervenissero a notizia e nelle mani dell'offitio [and other prohibited games, against the Cheaters,  of whom we receive notice , and in the hands of the (Holy) Office], and in 1460 is seen another contra ludentes ad cartas, vel [against games of cards, or] taxillos, sfortinos, nebulas, vel scaletas, nucellas, castaneas ecc. There was also is a game ad pilam bastoni, as I note from books of the Cathedral, because a cleric of the sacristy was punished by a pecuniary fine for being allowed to go to pulchrum fiorem, ie to the ducal delight [i.e., palace] of Belfiore, for ludendum ad pilam bastoni. And also from 1460 it was forbidden to ludere quodvis genus ludi aliquam quantitatem confortinarum, et lactis (play any type of game for a certain amount of materials [i.e. food]  of comfort, and milk), special confections that the apothecaries made, and that became perhaps be the object won at the game of dice, or in some other fortuitous way.


On April 30, 1561, a stop is put to this, of molti, die insolentemente et senza riguardo vanno avanti e indietro giuocando a pallamaglio (da noi detto trucco da terra) per le vie senza riguardo con pericolo delle persone; et d'ora in avanti si limita alle strade degli Angeli, et di S. Benedetto, et in piazza di terra nova [many, who insolently go back and forth gambling pell-mell (which we call trucco da terra (tricks of the earth)] through the streets regardless of the danger to persons: and henceforth is limited to the streets of Angeli, and S. Benedict, et in terra nova square] (now Ariostea). And here observe how wise was that law tending to ensure the safety of citizens; which has not always been practiced today, being myself more than once a sorry witness of the game of palle [balls] on the ground, by people who were excessively drunk, even in the middle in some of the busiest streets of the city. The games of palla [ball] and racchetta  [racket] were very much in vogue in the sixteenth century, and the same Dukes kept them alive close to them, and I find that a Pietro called Poetonm, already mentioned elsewhere here, as a master of the same ducals on November 12, 1583. In 1571 the game of Pallone was found at the palace of the University, in the street beside it that now also commonly bears this name, although it has not always been in that place; and ending the memoirs of the sixteenth century I will tell you how the incumbent justice of the Wise were entitled to give licenses for private plots (there was a public lot) for clothing and food, and whatever else, con intervento dei consoli, per vietare le frodi [with the intervention of the consuls to prevent fraud]. Subsequent to the government of the Estensi, on June 18, 1607, Orazio Spinola, cardinal legate of Ferrara, prohibits with edicts games of dice and cards, meno quelli di ricreazione come Primiera, Picchetto, Tarocco e simili [except in recreation Primiera, Piccheto, Tarot and the like].


With another edict of 1628, which was reprinted and republished in the same words a century later, in 1728, are prohibited the games of Bassetta, Faraone [Pharaoh], Biribisso, Torzetta blanca e rossa [white and red], Girello, Dicidotto, Ochetta, Dadi e qualsiasi altro di ventura [Dice, and any other venture], with the penalty of five years in prison for gamblers, and three sections of rope per quelli che staranno a vedere; [for those who stand and watch], with this addition, that saranno trovati in stanze a giocare colle porte chiuse, si avranno per convinti che giuocassero a giuochi prohibiti [that those found in rooms gambling behind closed doors, who have to be believed playing prohibited games]. In 1676 the cardinal legate Marescotti, in an edict of November 3, prohibits keeping the games Anca or Biribisso, nor giving or receive money by lots in Genoa and Milan, from playing at carte, a dadi, a riffa [cards, dice, raffles], under severe penalties and fines. Finally, the law of Elci on  December 29 of 1741 reproduced the edict of the Secretary of State of  the 18th of that month, prohibiting the games of Biribisso, Torretta, Girello, Auca and Roletta, on pain of jail or confinement".


Author's notes


1 - Gattagliuola is recorded by Agnelli in the book Pontificale, which tells how until the eighth century, in every festival, the people of Ravenna of every age, condition, and sex used to go out after lunch a simulato combattimento (Manuale pei Tiratori a segno ecc.)  [in simulated combat (Manual for Shooters at targets etc.)].


2 - I could not compare this book with the original, nor do I know from where Scalabrini, who left the memoir there, copied it.  He knew that the statute of 1208 already existed, but the oldest existing statutory manuscript in the Estense archives in Modena, is of 1288. The precious codex in the archive com. Ferrara is from 1322, i.e. starts that year. But I must point out that games were especially among the objects of attribution in the particular statutes delle Bollette [Taxes]. As for the games mentioned here, I do not find that taxilli is equivalent to dadi [dice]. Neque mingat is to say no urinating.




From Documenti e Illustrazioni riguardanti la Storia Artistica Ferrarese di Luigi Napoleone Cav. Cittadella, Bibliotecario [Documents and Illustrations relating to Ferrarese Artistic History by Luigi Napoleon Cav. Citadella, Librarian], Ferrara, 1868, p. 159.


Villani Alfonso - Here is the extract of a deed dated 4th Decembre 1573 of Agostino the Elder:


"Ferrariae praesentibus testibus etc.


Magister Alphonsus de Villanis, fq. Hieminiani, Cartarius, habitator Ferrariae in contracta S. Clementis, sponte etc. confessus fuit esse debitorem Isaac de Pisis, fq. Danielis, hebraei, praesentis etc. L. 226 cum dimidio, quae sunt pro pretio brachiorum 43 roversi albi fini, in ratione lib. 3 m. pro brachio unius par manillarum auri, ponderis scutorum 12 cum dimidio, auri, qui faciunt summam lib. 48 et sold. 15, et unius adamanti ligati in auro, valoris scutorum quinque, qui faciunt lib. 19 el sold. 10 etc. - Et pro solutione dictarum pecuniarum, ipse D. Alphonsus, obligando se etc. promisit dicto Isaac in hebdomada proxima futura dozenas cartarum a ludo N. 25, inter magnas et parvas, qua, sint pulchrae, ut vulgariter dicitur che sieno buone et mercantile, et così di settimana in settimana sia tenuto dargliene 25 dozzine, o grande o picole, o mezane, o tarochi, secondo parerà al d.° Isaac per lo prezzo, videlicet, delle picole soldi 22 la dozina, et per ciascuna dozina de le grande in ragione de 23 para al scudo, et de li tarochi per la metà, et di quele mezane 24 para al scudo ecc".




From Notizie Amministrative, Storiche, Artistiche relative a Ferrara. Ricavate da Documenti ed Illustrate da Luigi Napoleone Cav. Cittadella, Bibliotecario [Administrative, Historical, Artistic Information relating to Ferrara. Obtained from Documents and Illustrated by Luigi Napoleon Cav. Citadelle, Librarian], Vol I, Ferrara, 1868, pp. 382-384


"Now I will talk about other sorts of religious crimes. Already it is known as in past centuries there was a great love for astrological and symbolic studies, and how many were the prejudices of the populace especially for sortilege in the interpretations of games, and everything else that marked a feature of that time; the way in which these studies and these beliefs being passed outside the limits granted to those who profess the Catholic faith, it was necessary to limit them: the times were such that strong punishments were used, however, but not preceded by the way of persuasion. The people looked at every common old woman as if she were a witch, not a few of them, on the other hand, not infrequently abused people’s ignorance and credulity to predict what God only knows. Well, who would believe it? There are still astute and mercenary females, who for a little money predict fortunes in games of chance, and guess the thoughts or infidelity of lovers (1).


Unfortunately there were many victims or of their own evil, or of hasty judgments by the excessive zeal of judges who were not sufficiently learned and knowledgeable of the human heart, nor is it certain that the purity and sanctity of our holy religion is not to blame, which was and will always be the same neinconcussi its Principia. Already in 1377 there was burnt, living in Bologna, a Caterina da Piacenza, for making an incantesimo [enchantment] to be loved by Andrea de Negri, and was also burnt one De Luca, che le avea scritto il breve incantatore [who had written the short incantation] (Bosi, arch. historical Felsineo), but also among us were firmly rooted beliefs d'incanti [in enchantments], since in the statute of bollette  [taxes] in 1438 at Rubric sesta [six] there is a prohibition di vendere, o tenere anelle o centure o altre cose de Archimia (Alchimia), e quelli se debano condemnare e punire [to sell or keep rings or belts or other things of Archimia (Alchemy) and those had to be condemned and punished]. And unfortunately in 1400, according to the historian Pigna, a woman Roberti was beheaded per avere con malia procurato d'innamorare il padre di Nicolò d'Este [having procured by enchantment that the father of Nicolò d'Este would fall in love with her], while Alberto son of this one lost his head for bad government in the use of the Head of the Council; and two of his brothers were sentenced to perpetual banishment; also, on November 22, 1454,  fu brusada in uno caxon de cana Orsolina del fu Antonio Denton, diabolica, affaturatrixe (fattucchiera), et incantatrice [was burned in a box of weeds of Orsolina,   child of the late Antonio Denton, a diabolical, an affaturatrixe (magician) and an enchantress]; on August 6, 1523, an Agnesina strega et [witch and] fattuhiera [magician]met the same fate; and conducted on October 26 in 1555 an old woman is conducted to the door of the Cathedral, e condannata per strega; i fanciulli la tolsero ai birri, e la strascinarono sino al Po, dove la gettarono e la fecero affogare [and condemned as a witch, the brothers [fanciulli] took her to the police [birra], and dragged her up to the Po, where she was cast and made to drown] (2).


There were also writers, and we draw attention to the article Curiosities, from the works of Fanti and from the brother Spadoni [See our note 1], the works of the latter being on the Index [i.e. prohibited], not without reason, because much in vogue at that time were beliefs in signs that are purported to be interpreted, and that, depending on the elementi [elements] were denominated Astrologia [Astrology] if from the sky, Oeomanzia [Geomancy] if by earth, Chiromanzia [Chiromancy, Palmistry] if by water, of Pyromanzia [Pyromancy] if by fire. We see that Bianca Aurora d'Este was the author of the book - Le risposte della S.a Leonora Bianca, dove ingeniosissimamente et con mirabil arte si pronostica et risponde a diverse et molte curiose dimande et richieste circa le cose future ecc. Venetia p. Fr. Rampazetto [Answers of Signora Leonora Bianca, where ingeniously with admirable art there are forecasts and answers to many various and curious questions and things about the future and so on. Venetia p. Fr. Rampazetto], 1505 in 4°. But this work cannot be considered postuma [posthumously] printed, if one considers that by the publisher, L. B. dichiara esser notissime per tutto il Piemonte le virtù dell'Autrice, che con le altre gentildonne soleva passare la noja nel 1524" [L. B. is declared to be very well known by all throughout Piedmont for the virtues of the Author, who with other gentleladies used to pass the boredom in 1524]".


Author's notes


1 - They deceive with card games, which at one time were directed to education. The tarocco [tarot] was like an instructive book for children, because each card was interpreted with a moral sense. Our Alberto Lollio spoke [of it] in one of his invectives published by Giolito in Venice in 1550. The Spaniards called playing cards Naibi, Jews called Naib Astrologia o Stregoneria [Astrology or Witchcraft], naibi was adopted also in our lawmakers’ Latin, speaking equally as carte [cards]. The meaning of tarocco (Tar-Rog) [See our note 2] is cammino reale [royal road], because with those cards symbolically are taught the things of life: as Leopoldo Cicognara observed, not infrequently hazarding his mystical interpretations, has said the symbol of creation, in which Isis stands with the quattro stagioni [four seasons] expressed by the Leone [Lion] for l’Estate [the Summer], Aquila [Eagle] for la Primavera [the Spring], the Bue [Bull] for l’Autunno [the Autumn], and the Genio [Angel] for l’Inverno [the Winter] - non è meraviglia che dai moderni fosser presi per quattro segni evangelici [it's no wonder that by the moderns they are taken for signs of the four evangelists (] (Memorie per la Storia della Calcografia [Memoirs for the History of Engraving], p. 15, 18, 20, 32). - But for an example of the foolish beliefs of former times, it would be enough to see the warning given to the Duke of Parma by an anonymous person, of witchcraft by a woman to take control of his will, operating with menstruo, cera et carta vergine, calamita botegiata, olio santo et certe sementi d'herbe raccolte la notte di S. Gio. Battista etc [menses, wax, and virgin paper [i.e. never used], ‘magnet botegiata’, holy oil and certain seeds of herbs collected on St John the Baptist eve, etc.] (Bicchieri, Prof. Emilio, Vita di Ottavio Farnese [Life of Ottavio Farnese], in the Atti e memorie delle RR. Deputaz. di Storia patria ecc. Vol. II [Proceedings and Memoirs of the RR. Deputation of the History of the homeland, etc. Vol. II]).


2 - It was believed that these females had commerce with and were operating by means of evil spirits ready for every command from them and their clientele. This belief was especially well established then, because writers on such topics were not lacking. And it is very remarkable with regard to incubi: see for example in the book - Malleus Maleficarumauctore Jacobo Sprengero Ord. Praed. olim Inquis. Sec. XV. [Hammer of the Witches, authored by Jacob Sprenger, Order of Preachers [i.e.Dominicans], Inquisitor, XVth Century], - Sed et hoc contingisse certum est quod maritis visibiliter interdum cernentibus incubus demones quos tamen non demones sed viros putabant cum eorum uxoribus talia peragere, dum arma arriperent et transfodere volebant, subito demon dispariti. (Of  course it happened that some husbands have even seen incubi demons having sex with their wives, but, not realizing that it was a demon instead of a man, they picked up a weapon to run it through, and the same demon suddenly became invisible and disappeared). This would in truth be a very convenient excuse for unfaithful wives (!)




1 - We speak here of Sigismondo Fanti, author of the famous work Trionpho di Fortuna [Triumph of Fortune], Venice, Agostin da Portese, 1526 in fol. i, the engravings of which are by Giovanni Buonconsigli (see: Leopold Cicognara, Catalogo ragionato dei libri d’arte e d’antichità posseduti dal conte Cicognara [Annotated catalog of books on art and antiques owned by Count Cicognara], Pisa, 1821); and the Augustinian Nicola Spadoni, author of the volume Scuola di Fisionomia, Chiromanzia, Metoposcopia [School of Physiognomy, Chiromancy, Metoposcopy], Macerata, Filippo Carnacci, 1654 in 16°. This last work was later published in Venice in three editions under the title of Studio di Curiosità, nel quale si tratta di Fisonomia [Study of Curiosities, in which are Physionomy], etc..

2 - Luigi Napoleon Citadelle, obviously a child of his time, interprets the word “Tarot” in adherence to widespread nineteenth-century esoterica that traced the origin of the Tarot to Ancient Egypt. See, about the latest investigations on the origin of this term, our articles About the Etymology of Tarot, Rochi and Tarochi, and, in particular, Tharocus Bacchus est.