Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Laudabiles et Vituperabiles

Praiseworthy and blameworthy games in the sermons of Roberto da Lecce


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

Roberto Caracciolo (Fra Roberto da Lecce, ca. 1425-1495), first Observant, then Conventual, was esteemed in his time as one of the most famous Franciscan preachers, along with Giacomo della Marca and Giovanni da Capestrano. Initially he preached the Crusade on behalf of Pope Callistus III in northern Italy, in Lombardy and in Monferrato, then in the Veneto, Bologna, Genoa and Rome, and in 1470 his presence is evidenced by sources in the South, both in Naples, where he entertained ties with the house of Aragon, and in his hometown. He was named Bishop of Aquino by Sixtus IV in 1475.


If his eloquence aroused incredible enthusiasm, it is difficult to understand, from his sermons in Latin and the vernacular, the reasons for this great attraction, a consideration which moreover extends to almost all medieval preachers.


Giuseppe Maffei writes in this regard: "But for what reason the preachers received so much applause, we cannot say: indeed, if we read the sermons of St. Bernardino da Siena, Fra Roberto da Lecce, Blessed Alberto da Sarziano, Fra Michele da Carcano, and others about whom the writers of this time tell us, identifying those who drew entire cities and provinces, we make the highest wonder: why this avid excitement? Their speeches are full of barbaric scholastic modalities and citations of authors sacred and profane. This phenomenon can be explained in part by the holiness of the preachers’ lives; but not all were saints, whence we must believe that a sweet, singing, voice, lively and energetic action, and a strong declamation supplied the defect of eloquence, and made a deep impression on the rough minds of the people. And this opinion is confirmed by a fact narrated by Erasmus of Rotterdam about the famous preacher Fra Roberto da Lecce. He rose once upon a pulpit to preach the crusade, and after a harangue, taking off his cassock, he revealed himself dressed as Captain, poised to lead the troops himself (Erasmus, Eccles, Book 5). And it never requires more than that to deceive the people and turn them where it is most desired" (1).


However, Fra Roberto da Lecce was held in the odor of sanctity, so that when his tomb was opened two centuries after his death, the body was found "uncorrupted, tractable and breathing sweet fragrance" (2).


Famous was the sermon delivered at the Capitol in September of 1448, in a Rome oppressed by the plague. His speech, which served to pacify many people, was exalted by Giovanni Gioviano Ponzani thus: "Nemo post Paulum Tarsensem melius Robertus Lyciensi divine tractavi eloquia". But the good friar was the object of calumny that many authors, speaking after him (3), did not contradict: if he became so famous an apostolic preacher as to be said by Volterrano “ut omnes in eadem arte, & pronuntiationem, & gestus eius imitari conarentur. Proemiandi, exclamandi, commiserandi, digrediendi, epilogandi novus quasi Orator divini verbi modum saeculo monstravit" (4), he was also accused of conduct contrary to religious customs and to the office of bishop. Thus in fact, wrote the historian: "Matronarum deinde certatim eum adeuntium concursu, atque libidine paulatim illectus, vesanus coepit esse. Praesul postremo factus in patria, senex inter concubinas decessit". Volterrano writes, in other words, that as an old man he began attending women of easy virtue. Such an assertion, however, was condemned not only by the clergy, but by the entire population.


Of interest to us, in as much as it mentions the game of Triumphs, is part of the Paduan Lenten sermon of 1455 (5). Before reporting it, it is useful to introduce the theme of the game as dealt with by the friar, beginning with a consideration of the concept of superstition in faith in the sense of "bad religion" (6) which distinguish superstitions behavior from irreverent. In the first category belong the religious practices deemed unorthodox and for this reason widely criticized by preachers: among these are particular cases of cults of the saints, excessive credulity with regard to false relics, and heretical preachers.


Irreverent attitudes included entering the church with animals or bringing with them their own [heraldic] banners, chatter, and especially playing cards on Christmas Day (7). San Bernardino expresses it thusly: "The third commandment of God is: Memento ut diem sabbati sanctifices (8). - Remember to keep holy the Sabbath - which is ordained by the Holy Church to observe: how all Sundays and holy days [feste] of our Lord and His glorious Mother and the Apostles, and all the other holy days commanded by the Holy Church, including particularly those that are commanded by the Bishops to those who are under his bishopric, unless attending [Mass] in other places [churches]. And note that observing holy days means: not doing anything for temporal gain, or other purpose that is not spiritual. (...). Covered in this commandment are all those who on the holy day spend time in games and dances and songs and go to taverns and speak dishonest, words and seize delights and pleasures of the world, and like vanities. (..). Covered in this commandment are also those who, on the holy day commanded, do not hear the whole Mass, if they do not already have a legitimate excuse (...)" (9).


Gambling, as we have highlighted in several of our articles (10), was always maligned, especially when practiced during consecrated holy days, like Christmas Eve: “Et tu o qui tenes locum ad ludendum in domo tua, in die Nativitatis, et fastis solemnibus, tu es particeps omnium peccatorum et malorum, quae ibi fiunt ..”; “Multoties patres suns causa, quod filii fiant luxuriosi, quia dant eis pecunias maxime in festis Nativitatis, ut ludant, et fiant gulosi” (11).


Because ludic activities were associated with socially dangerous behavior, such as drunkenness, brawls, riots and, above all, blasphemy, they were regulated according to a specific norm, expressed in a sermon by Roberto da Lecce, with the distinction between Ludi Laudabiles and Ludi Vituperabiles:


«Dico ergo quod primi ludi vocantur làudabiles et hiis duobus distinguuntur modis, quia aliqui sunt spirituales et aliqui temporales. Ludi spirituales sunt quando fit aliqua representatio alicuius devotionis: aut Passionis, vel Assensionis, aut Anuntiationis que (...) fieri in ecclesia possunt (...). Florentie similia valde bene fiunt, vidi Assensionem Ihesu Christi fieri taliter quod non reputatum fuisset cor humanum quin se tenerime commovisset; profecto fuit stupenda devo­tio. Recordor quod inter quosdam devotos facta fuit representatio obe­dientie Abrae, ubi valde, ploratum fuit. Secundi sunt ludi temporales quando videlicet aliqui quendam honestum ludum capiunt, ut ait "Interpone tuis interdum gaudia curis" (...). Secundo inveniuntur ludi vituperabiles, qui absque peccato numquam fieri possunt. (...). Item astiludendo semper mortaliter peccas, ut exemplo de torneamentis, ludendo ad brachia, ubi aliquotiens frangunt se brachia, spatulam, tibias, vel quocumque alio ludo ubi est periculum. Item ludi vituperabiles o destructores temporalium bonorum sunt triumphorum ac cartarum, qui non causa ludi, sed lucri causa fiunt, quoniam bursam vacuant, et ibi Deus, Virgo Maria ceterique sancti paradisi blasfemantur. (...). Item aliquando ad azarum ludunt, et iuvenis cum his se assuefacit, dum postea efficitur, se abstinere non potest» (12).


The good friar divides Ludi Ludabiles into two categories: Spiritual and Temporal. The Spiritual consisted of mystery plays, times of collective devotion set up in the churches on issues related to the life of Christ, like the Passion, the Ascension, the Annunciation. The preacher gives as an example an Ascension staged in Florence, capable of arousing the strongest emotions in people's minds, together with a representation of Abraham.


The topics covered by the sacred representations focused not only on the life of Christ, but also took into account the saints and prophets. It is not believed that in these amusements the liturgical element played a leading role: it was on the contrary a real performance, with a well-developed drama where the interventions of the soloists and the dialogues (sung for the most part), the choruses, the music performed with a wide variety of instruments and an impressive stage set, created an atmosphere of extraordinary pathos and attractiveness. The Ludus or Ludus sacer in Latin, Play or Mystery play in English, French Jeu or Representation sacrée [Sacred Representation],  Ludus or Rappresentazione Sacra in Italian: a form of entertainment that developed from the responsorial forms of the Mass, appears to be the first true theatrical entertainment of the Middle Ages. Together with Les Trois Maries (The Three Marys), the Visitatio Sepulchri (The visit to the tomb) and the many stories of the saints (La Nuit de Saint Nicholas, Historia Sancti Emmerammi, Ludi Sancti Nicolai, Le Jeu des Pèlerins d’Emmaüs, etc.), the most famous sacred representation is undoubtedly the Ludus Danielis, the staging for which included an array of extraordinary music along with impressive scenery (13). Really appropriate shows are then housed in churches and set up with the participation of the inhabitants.


From what the preacher says on Ludi temporales, "Interphone tuis interdum gaudia curis" (Entertainment to interpose to your worries), we understand that they were innocent pastimes, times of relaxation to spend having fun.


The Ludi vituperabiles, on the other hand, were games that the Church considered execrable, and which it condemned as fons peccati [sources of sins]. Among these were tournaments, where you could suffer mutilations of various parts of the body (arms, shoulders, legs, reports the monk) and all forms of ludus that could result in danger to the body. Other dangerous games, not for the body but for the soul, were those of cards, including Triumphs (14), dice and gambling in general as "destroyers of temporal goods", capable of emptying one’s purse, but especially as instigators of blasphemies against God, the Virgin Mary and the saints.


The end of the sermon is the typical condemnation of the players, with the usual urging to give up this form of sin: “O lusores ribaldi, o lusores pessimi, o lusores a Deo maledicti, o lusores blasfermatores Dei et contra omne bonum morigeratum vivere, faceti malum finem, et diabolus vos portabit, si a predictis vos non abstinebitis” (O ribald players, o players cursed by God, o players blasphemers of God and opposed to all good sober living, you will make a bad end and the devil will take you with him, if you do not abstain from the games I have mentioned above" (15).




1 - Giuseppe Maffei, Storia della Letteratura Italiana, Terza edizione originale, nuovamente corretta dall’Autore e riveduta da Pietro Thouar, Volume Primo, [History of Italian Literature, Third original edition, newly corrected by the author and revised by Pietro Thouar, Volume One], Firenzi, 1853, pp. 221-222.

2 - Giuseppe Maffei, op cit., p. 508.

3 - Erasmus, Eccles. seu de ratione concionandi, Liber III, pp. 818-821.

4 - The list of these authors, together with bibliographic information as described below, were reported, albeit with disapproval, by P. F. [Padre Francescano, Franciscan Father] Casimiro Romano of theOrder of Friars Minor  in Memorie Istoriche  della Chiesa e Convento di S. Maria in Araceli di Roma [Historical Memories of the Church and Convent of St. Maria Araceli in Rome], Rome, 1736, pp.420-421: Erasmus of Rotterdam: Eccles. seu de ratione concionandi, Liber III, p. 818-821; Raphael Volat. [Volaterrano = Volterrano], Antrop., Liber XXI, Lugduni [London], 1557, p. 632, Luca Vaddingo, Annal. Minor., Volume V, Edit. Lugduni, p. 566 ff; Rainaudo Theophilus, De sobria frequentatione mulier, per sacros homines, Volume XII, p. 244, P. Eusebio Gonzales, Cronica Serafica, p. 294.

5 - Thierry Depaulis first highlighted the sermon, then inserted by Lothar Teikemeier at the site in the section “Trionfi as cards (Documents)” ( As the quotation cited by Depaulis concerns only the sentence where the game of Triumphs is mentioned, it appeared useful to consider more closely the whole argument, reporting the whole discussion presented by the friar, at the same time making an examination of it.

6 - On this topic see Marina Montesano, Supra acqua et supra ad vento: superstizioni, maleficia e incantamenta nei predicatori francescani Osservanti, Italia, sec. XV [Above water to wind: superstitions, evil spirits, and incantations in the Observant Franciscan preachers, Italy, XVth c.], Rome, 1999, p. 29.

7 - See: Roberto da Lecce, Come si debba fare l’orazione a Dio [How we should pray to God], Siena, 1425, sermon XXI.

8 - Deuteronomy 5:12

9 - San Bernardino da Siena, De confession "Renovamini" [Of “Renewed” Confession].

10 - See the essays Playing Cards and Gambling, San Bernardino and the Cards, Allowed Triumphs - Prohibited Triumphs.

11 - San Bernardino da Siena, Seraphim, 1423, sermons XXXIII and XII.

12 - Roberto da Lecce, Quaresimale Padovano [Paduan Lent], 1455, sermon III.

13 - Its first performance in modern times took place in 1958 at the Romanesque Hall at the Cloisters, the medieval section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, by the early music ensemble New York Pro Musica, then headed by musicologist Noah Greenberg. The original play, fully respected, saw the participation of 15 actor-singers, two choruses in the roles of princes and soldiers, and 10 musicians.

14 - Regarding the Triumphs, the preacher says also "Item scio in illis triumphis et Papam et cardinales depictos esse," that is, "I also see that in those Triumphs there are painted Pope and Cardinals," an obvious reference to the Pope card where in some cases. as in the later so-called Charles VI Tarot, two cardinals are depicted seated on either side of the Supreme Pontiff. Evidently the good friar will have made reference, in this observation, to one or more tarot decks that have not survived.

15 - Roberto da Lecce, Quaresimale, op. cit., sermon III.