Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Pleasant Dialogues – 1539

Nicolo Franco, adversary of Aretino and friend of himself


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  - © All rights reserved December 25, 2017


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, December 27, 2017. Translations of historical texts, unless otherwise indicated, are the joint products of Mr. Howard and Mr. Vitali


Having received from Lothar Teikemeier, a collaborator of our Association, information on the presence of the game of tarot in this sixteenth-century text by Nicolò Franco, with his permission we have taken the opportunity to discuss it.


To speak fully of Nicolò Franco, poet, literary figure, bohemian, sacrilegious, blasphemer, a sensual and rebellious character, would fill many pages. We will therefore be contnet to summarize, with some considerations, his life, which saw him born in Benevento in 1515 of modest family. He was orphaned early; fortunately or unfortunately his brother Vincenzo directed him to his first humanistic studies, which he expanded under the guidance of law professor Bartolomeo Camerario, who introduced him to the Neapolitan literary circles, where he established friendship with Luigi Tansillo (1), Francesco Doni (2) and several other literati.


In 1529 he published some Latin epigrams entitled Hisabella, dedicated to Isabella di Capua, princess of Molfetta, wife of the Viceroy of Sicily Ferrante Gonzaga; it was his vain hope to get a court assignment by means of this composition. The anxiety of finding an adequate placement that would allow him not to contemplate an erratic future was a condition oppressing so many, so to say, 'irregular' intellectuals ones, who shared with Franco the difficult profession of writing. From this failure, a feeling of hostility towards power emerged in him, which came over time to give birth to heretical attitudes. So he moved to Venice, where he was kindly welcomed by Aretino, becoming his secretary. Franco knew Latin very well and this allowed him to collaborate in the writing of some of his patron's works, as well as providing translations and summaries of Erasmus's works.


The friendship with Aretino was not destined, however, to last forever, probably because of Franco’s ruthless character and his ideas against power that could have put Aretino in the wrong light, as was the case after publication of part of our Dialogi Piacevoli [Pleasant Dialogues] (3) and the Petrarchista [Petrarchist], works intensified by a strong polemical charge. Even more so when, after the success achieved by Aretino with his Lettere [Letters], Nicolò had given the feeling of wanting to imitate him by writing the Pistole Vulgari[Epistles in the Vulgar, i.e. Italian], which Aretino could not bear (4).


Franco was, moreover, not free from plagiarism, as when he composed the Temple of Love, practically borrowed from a composition of the same name by the Neapolitan Iacopo Campanile. When Franco received a nice knife on his face from a protégé of his former employer, which he got thanks to the shouting he made to the customers of the inn from which, completely drunk, he had been thrown out, he thought it was time for a change in air, and so he moved to Padua in the vicinity of Sperone (5).


Leaving Sperone he went to Casale Monferrato where he composed the Verses against P. Aretino and the Priapea, a set of satirical and lustrous sonnets, of anticlerical tone, denouncing princes and the powerful; in the Priapea his venom against Aretino waspreached from the preface:


Qui non istorie, bei tappeti o arazzi

veder si ponno, né cantar divino,

che fa gli Orlandi furiosi e pazzi.

Non di Damasco, né di panno fino

addobbati versetti, ma sol cazzi,

che torrebben la foia all'Aretino.


(Here are no histories, beautiful carpets or tapestries

To be seen, nor divine singing,

Which makes the Orlandos frenzied and crazy.

Not, of Damask or fine cloth,

Elegant verses, but only cocks,

That burn the lust of Arretino.)


His sentiment of hatred made him paint in verse Aretino as unbelieving, arrogant, dissipated, devoid of nobility and principle, as well as a rapist of girls and, why not, even a sodomite and pedophile.


With the Priapea, in two hundred pornographic sonnets dedicated to Priapus, god of fertility from his immense sex, he had intended not only to imitate Aretino and demonstrate the latter’s inferiority, but also to satirize cultured literature, which gave itself to the service of the powerful for only economic interest. At the same time, as can be seen from the dialogue “Arte de i Librari” (Art of the bookseller) contained in Dialogi Piacevoli (Pleasant Dialogues), Franco’s invective also addressed the ignorance of readers, who only followed fashions without taking into account the goodness and truth of the content.


A truth, however, that sooner or later would come to light because in time the books of the greats would remain, while those of the charlatans would be recognized as of no value.


To the booksellers he thus in fact speaks [ironically] about cheating their credulous customers in the best way in order to "earn a good treasure every year" (6) :


Sannio: “Hora tu dei sapere; che se ben l’arte di vender Libri, pare la più facile; che si ritrovi per essercitarla ben bene, bisogna d’altro; che aver bottega con la bella insegna apiccata dinanzi a la porta, carte quà, libri indorati là, legatori dentro, e legatori fuori, starti la fitto come un bastone, e dire, tanto ne voglio e tanto ne volsi. Vi bisogna havere, mill’altre industrie, e che tutte si sappiano mostrare a tempo, per guadagnare un bel thesoro ogni anno. Prima v’è di mestiero che tengniate di tuti libri. Non guardare; che il tale e buono, et il tale e tristo, quegli si spacciano, e questi no; perché opre domani si venderanno; che hoggi non hanno corso, e quelle, che hoggi corrono, domani saranno zoppe. Non guardare; che l’opre de goffi, de ceratani e de gli ignoranti han qualche spaccio tal volta, perche di là a tre dì, si scopra la cosa in rame (1), e quanto più stanno, più vanno a monte, e le cose de i veramente dotti restano sempre in piede”.


Caudano (l’altro interlocutore e libraio): “Questa prima regola mi pare molto difficile, dicendomi che io tenga di tutti Libri. Perche, se coloro; che compongono e stampano, sono hoggi le due parti de gli huomini, chi potrà mai raccogliere tanti libri?


Sannio: “Dunque ogni carta scritta, ogni scartaffo merdoso, et ogni cosaccia data a le stampe tu chiami libro? [...] Vediamo per esperienza; che non s’attende ad altro; che a mostrar d’ingannar la gente, e non essendo da niente, fingere d’essere da qualche cosa. E per conchiuderla, conosciamo; che si come sono più i tristi, che i buoni, così sono più gli idioti che i dotti” .


(Sannio: "Now you know, that if the art of selling Books goes well, it seems easier; for doing well, you need something else; to have a store with a beautiful sign in front of the door, cards there, books that are worn there, binders in and binders out, remaining as thick as a stick, and to say, so much I want and so much I turned. You need to have a thousand other industries, and everyone knows how to feign at times, so as to earn a good treasure every year. First, there is a craft that you keep about all the books. Do not pay attention if such is good, and such is wretched, that those are sold, and these not; because tomorrow those will be sold; which today did not run, and those which today run, tomorrow will be lame. Do not pay attention, if the works of wretched, deceitful, and ignorant people are sometmes sold, because in three days (not literally three days, but in time) they will show themselves a thing in copper (1), and the longer they are found (in bookstores), the more they go upstream (i.e. are no longer sold), and the things that are truly learned remain always on their feet (i.e. always have a market)".


Caudano (the other interlocutor, the bookseller): "This first rule seems to me very difficult, telling me to keep all the books (in the shop). Because, if those who write and print are today the two parts of men (that is, one half the people who write and the other half those who print), who can ever collect so many books?”


Sannio: "So you think that every page written, every shitty piece of paper, everything given to the printers should be called a book? [...] From experience we see that nothing is to be done except to show that people are deceived, and even if you rate a thing as worthless, to pretend it is of some value. And to conclude, we know that just as there are more wretched people than good ones, so are there more idiots than learned" (7).


(1) in copper = valuable only as long as the copper does not take on a green patina, which disqualifies it. So the meaning of the sentence is that one should not be surprised that the books written by the charlatans have immediate success, because even if three days are not enough for readers to realize that they are nullities, they will undestand it in time.


Returning to describe our man’s life, we see him in 1551 in Calabria, carrying out secretarial duties for Giovanni Cantelmo, Count of Popoli. In a letter written in 1552 by Cosenza to the noble Casalese Cristoforo Picco, Franco asserted "that there was never a century uglier and more malignant than ours" (8), a thought that derived from his contempt for the hypocrisy and customs of his time. In 1552, as Cantelmo had dismissed him as a result of economic problems, Franco headed to Naples, where he was recruited by Prince Bisignano Pietro Antonio Sanseverino.


Since Rome had been forbidden to him by Paul III, whom he had disdained in his Priapea, when Paul IV, father of the Count of Popoli, assumed the Vicariate of Christ, Franco sought through the Pope's nephews to obtain his indulgence. Despite the failure of this attempt, in June 1558 he went to Rome, where he was immediately captured as a heretic and condemned to the pontifical jail for twenty months. Leaving prison, he spent some years in service to Cardinal Morone. But his rebellious spirit did not allow him to refrain from plunging into a violent pasquinade against Paul IV, by now deceased, and Cardinal Carlo Carafa, composing in the meantime a Life of Christ in additon to a translation of The Iliad.


But now the die was cast. With the rise to the pontifical throne of Pius V in 1568, Nicolò was found guilty of false reference at the trial of Cardinal Carafa, who had been 'unjustly' condemned by his testimony. Moreover, without taking into account the ban of Pius IV, which forbade and condemned all forms of pasquinade (9), Franco made a bold commentary on the life and habits of Gio. Pietro Caraffa, called Paul IV, and above all the qualities of all his people and the people who governed the pontificate with him. For the religious authorities the glass was full: after a burning interrogation and inevitable torture, on 27 February 1570, Franco was sentenced to death. The execution took place on the morning of March 11 by hanging on the bridge of the Castel St. Angelo.


Franco, in opposing the classical poetry of his century, and the Petrarchism of the Bembo stamp, while exalting a vitalistic and irrational poetry, with sexual and irreverent references, thereby diobedient to ecclesiastical power, antagonized the strong powers and the academics. The dominant culture, expressed by characters such as Ariosto, Bembo, Aretino and others, represented for him the object to be fought and extirpated.


Coming to the more specific topic of our interest, the passage where Franco cites the tarot is found in the Dialogi Piacevoli {Pleasant Dialogues) (10) and more precisely in the Fourth Dialogue “Nel quale Caronte essamina alcune anime, perche conto niuna di loro habbia in bocca l’obolo, ch’è solito di darsigli, per lo passaggio. Le quali assegnatali la ragione di non haverlo, sono entro messe nella sua barca”. ("In which Charon examines some souls, because none of them has the coin in his mouth, which is usually a gift for the passage. Which giving him the reason for not having it, they are put in his boat.") The interlocutors are Charon, Mercury, and the souls (11). The reprinted edition of 1542 lists the topics of each Dialogue, absent in the first edition. Those of the Fourth Dialogue are described as follows:


The Fourth Dialogue exposes the misery and calamity from Whores, Tyrants, Merchants, Pedants, and Soldiers.


The Whores’ end is to die badly and without money.


Life and Death of Tyrants

Merchants’ End

Disgrace of Pedants

The Life and End of Soldiers

The game of Primiera, and other kinds


After talking with different souls to get the money for the crossing, Charon turns to that of the soldier Thrasymachus, who, like the others, claims to have no money to give him. The reason is soon said: both the silver obtained from the sack of Rome and the tapestries obtained in his entry into Florence, in addition to the money made from blackmailings for more than thirty years in Piedmont, had taken flight. The reasons? Because of three misfortunes at the end of his life. The first one: his lover-boy, who after squeezing him in food and bed, fled with two breed horses that were worth more than a thousand soldi. The second: a whore who without his notice removed two hundred pieces of gold from his purse. The third: misfortune gambling. No one would pull back with such a hand of cards, such as to be thought absolutely beyond the world of possibility to lose. But he did. And not only in Primiera, but also in Toccadiglio, Sbaraglino, Bassetta and Tarocchi (Tarot). In short, in the world he always missed having the best cards. How could he have paid Charon for the crossing if his mouth did not hold a farthing? Fortunately, he saw Mercury adding to Charon some souls set apart: they were Poets and Philosophers. It would have been unsuitable to ask them for the payment due, since everyone knew that poetry and philosophy would not fill their pockets, or rather would have emptied them. For all the other souls, the following consideration would have been given: as long as they were men who had accumulated riches and power, but not now that they were dead, since "we see by experience every day that however rich in his life, one may be lacking in wealth at his death." Listening to these true and holy words, Charon is convinced to allow him into the boat without holding up for very long the whole crew of souls.


But we leave the last word to Franco and his ironic writing, in which Thrasymachus speaks of his third misfortune, his loss to the game. Since the text is filled with the expressions of Primiera players of the time, as well as metaphors, such expressions with their meanings are listed below (12):


Expressions of the players:


Cinquantacinque: Fifty-five = the maximum score (Supremus)

Fino alla spade: up to the sword = to play [bet] everything for everything

Carte al monte:  cards to the mountain  = cancel the hand

A voi, To you! = To you! (expression addressed with a defiant attitude to the opponents inviting them to play)

chi ha” e “chi non ha”: ”who has it” and “who does not have it” = expressions of unknown meaning

venire il primo a mezza spade:  to come at first to half sword = pass the hand [to others] immediately without continuing to play one’s cards

fare del resto: to do more = to still bet some money

cacciare: to throw away = to forfeit the money one has bet, after another player has raised the bet [rather than show their cards], and one does not meet that increase.


CAR (Caronte): Dunque, ogni cosa e andata in mal’hora nel fine de la tua vita?

THR (Thrasimacho): Io ti dico il vero Caronte. In questo hanno havuto la colpa tre mie disgratie [….]. L’ultima fu la disdetta al gioco. Hor questo fenì per rovinarmi in un punto. Ma chi non ci saria traboccato? Cinquantacinque havea io, e la mano, et eraci andato il resto di quanti denari havea, et una Primiera scomunicata mi toglie di mano il più bel punto che sia a le carte. Cinquantacinque, e la mano, o Caronte, e non vuoi ch’avessi lasciato andare fino a la spada? Contra le carte, colui non ci debbe stare, stando a Primiera. Ne io contra le carte, dovea far altro, che dire, vada, carte, a monte, et a voi, starmi saldo, e spettarlo con l’accetta dietro la porta, e non venire cosi a mezza spada a la prima; overo havendo a far del resto, non fare, a chi l’ha, et a chi non l’ha, perche in questa maniera lhavrei cacciato, e saria scorsa quella influenza, e chi ne scappa una, ne scappa mille. Ma egli se ci vuol nascere. Io non c’hebbi mai buona sorte. Non so in che gioco non habbia veduto le mie disgratie. S’ho fatto a Toccadiglio, et a Sbaraglino, non ho si tosto toccati i dadi, che m’hanno sbarattato del mondo. Se a Tarocchi, mai non conobbi ne l’Angelo, ne il Diavolo, ne quella Giustitia traditora. Se a Bassetta, di quante carte hò chiamate, non me ne rispose mai una. In quante notti di Natale fece Domenedio, non mi trovai di vincita due quatrini.

CAR: Tanto e; che non hai da pagarmi quel che mi tocca.

THR: Se ti dico; che i ragazzi, le puttane, et il gioco, non m’hanno, morendo, lasciato il fiato, come vuoi ch’io ti paghi?


(CAR (Charon): So, did everything go to ruin at the end of your life?

THR (Thrasymachus): I’ll tell you the truth, Charon. In this three of my misfortunes are at fault. [....]. The last one was misfortune at the game. I had a score of fifty-five [the Supremus, the maximum] and it was my turn to play and I bet all the rest of the money I had, when a damn Primiera [of the opponent] takes away the maximum score that can be made in that game. And do you think, O Charon, that I could do anything else but bet everything for everything, go up to the sword [metaphor and game expression for 'to continue playing until the end of the game’]. If an opponent has Primiera, one must not play. And in the game I could do nothing but say: ‘I pass’ [I don’t play], send the cards to the mountain [game expression, also metaphor, for ‘cancel the hand’], or say 'to you' [game expression = to continue to play, with a defiant attitude], to demonstrate decisiveness and to wait for the opponent behind the door with the ax [metaphor for "then to stay there and wait for the opponent to go through in a fierce way”, that is, continue to play in order to see what cards the opponent would have played] and so not come at first to half sword [game expression for "without immediately passing the hand to others, i.e. playing the cards he had without letting the game go to others]. Or, being able to do more [game expression = being able to have more money to bet, which he didn’t], not to do a "who has" and "who has not” [game expressions of unknown meaning] because in so doing I would have thrown it away [game expression = forfeit the money one has bet, after another player has raised it (rather than show their cards), and one does not match the raise], and that influence [my bad luck] would have gone away, and one who escapes one negative situation, escapes a thousand. But it is necessary to be born with good fortune, and I never had it. When I played Toccadiglio and Sbaraglino, I could not even touch the dice before my opponents had already beaten me. When I played Tarocchi, the cards of the Angel and the Devil never came to me, nor the one of treacherous Justice. When I played Bassetta, however many cards I expected to receive, not one came to me. In as many nights of Christmas as our Lord made, I never won two cents.

CAR: The fact is that you do not have what I am entitled to be paid.

THR: If I tell you that if boys, whores and gambling, at my death did not even leave me breath to breathe, with what money do you think I can pay you?)


You have been informed of the outcome of this story. The interest in this text, apart from Franco's extraordinary literary verve, is the indication of the Angel and Justice as the highest scoring cards, which indicates that the deck referred to by the author, in the Venetian context, must be identified with Type B, which sees as its highest  cards, after the World, the Angel and Justice) (13).




1 - Tansillo referred to the tarot in a composition we described in the essay Il Malcontento (currently in Italian only).

2 - On Francesco Doni see the essay El Bagatella which is the symbol of sin.

3 - Berni in his Life of Pietro Aretino wrote about him, "Though he now is given poor merit, I have intended to say that Nicolò Franco wrote certain letters that in conparison to those of Aretino, are a thousand times more beautiful and more erudite", London edition of 1839, p. 55.

4 - While we find Dialoghi Piacevoli written everywhere in the literary criticism, we must remember that the correct title as it appears in the first version of the 1539 artwork is Dialogi Piacevoli.

5 - Literary information about Speroni and card games has been reported by us in the essays Playing Cards and Gambling and Tarot in Literature II.

6 - M. Nicolò Franco, Dialogi Piacevoli, Ottavo Dialogo “Nel quale promette d’insegnare con ogni facilita, tutte le arti, tutte le scienze, & il vero modo di ascendere a tutti i gradi”, Apud Ioannem Giolitum de Ferrariis, Venetiis, MDXXXIX [Pleasant Dialogues, Eighth Dialogue, "In which he promises to teach with all the faculties, all the arts, all the sciences, the true way of ascending to all degrees", at Ionnem Giotilum of Ferrara, Venice 1539], pp. 115v-116v. In returning to the original text, we chose to keep to the author's handwriting, which does not accent many words, while we have written in full the abbreviated words.

7 - A criticism of contemporary publishing by Luigi Mascheroni published in Il on January 27, 2006, reveals the following:

"Reading it, it is important to think that many current publishers have been inspired by this text almost five centuries ago for their business strategies. We are speaking of the Dialogue of the bookseller that Marsilio has extracted from Nicolò Franco's (1515-1570) Pleasant Dialogues - which saw the light in Venice in 1539 - to make a plaquette out of business for friends. Well, the controversial and satirical Nicolò Franco – who ended by hanging in Rome in 1570 after the sentence of the court of the Holy Office accusing him of being the author of a violent booklet against Paul IV - in the dialogue on the "art of the Bookseller” ironically explains the principles of the profession: "To earn a good treasure every year" - recommends the main character, Sannio, to the bookseller Cantano, “there must not be too much to distinguish between quality works and ‘scoundrels’. Just keep all the books in the shop without having to discriminate between good and bad. Indeed! The most vulgar ones, the ones written by the "clumsy", the "ignorants", the "cretans", are the ones that are sold more easily ...“ Try replacing “bookseller” with “publisher” and the advice remains valid even in our time (moreover, the book vendor at the earliest times of the press covered the same key role as the mediator of the spread of intellectual production that today has been covered by the large publishing groups). Not only that. In this irresistible dialogue - which in this edition edited by Mario Infelise is presented in two versions, the original by Nicolò Franco and, on facing pages, the one purged by the ecclesiastical censorship in the hand of the Dominican Girolamo Giovannini - the "advisor" complains of the low consideration in which a literary commitment is kept by an editorial system that looks only to the interests of the ignorant general public (or, adapting the dialogue to the present day, for which only think of the bestseller-garbage of Dan Brown ...). And since - it is known - "the idiots are better than the learned", it is good to keep in store, besides some of the works of educated humanists, also the common "operines” that that are so much liked by the soldiers and even the uninitiated nobles (that is, dear publishers, keep the great classics in the catalog to make a good impression but fill the bookstores with use-and-toss books).”

8 - N. Badaloni, Inquietudini e fermenti di libertà nel Rinascimento italiano [Inquietudes and ferments of liberty in the Italian Renaissance], Pisa, Ets, 2004, p. 81.

9 - Famous, albeit dictated by a literary spirit other than Franco’s, are Pietro Aretino's pasquinade composed of tarots on the election of Adrian VI and the anonymous in the collection by Paolo Giovio. Both can be read together in the essay Tarot in Literature I (of the former what appears is a photo of the original)

10 - The Dialogi of Franco were revised by ecclesial censorship and the subsequent reprints partially sanitized by the religious authorities, as shown in the following edition: M. Nicolò Franco, Dialoghi piacevolissimi espurgati da Girolamo Gioannini da Capugnano Bolognese [Most Pleasant Dialogues expurgated by Girolamo Gioannini da Capugnano Bolognese], In Vinegia, Presso Altobello Salicato, MDXCVIII (1598)

11 - M. Nicolò Franco, op. cit., Fourth Dialogue, p. 70.

12 - In this regard, Prof. Alessandra Ruffino, associate of the Association, has informed us that the Chapter on Primiera by Francesco Berni, lines 31-42 (ed. Bàrberi Squarotti, Einaudi 1969, p. 62), is useful to collate with the passage by Franco:


Nella primiera è mille buon partiti,

mille speranze da tenere a bada,

come dir «carte a monte» e «carte a 'nviti»,


«chi l'ha» e «chi non l'ha», «vada» e «non vada»

star a flusso, a primiera, e dire «a voi»,

e non venir al primo a mezza spada:


ché, se tu voi tener l'invito, puoi;

se tu no'l vuoi tener, lasciarlo andare,

mettere forte e pian piano, come tu vuoi;


puoi far con un compagno anche a salvare,

se tu avessi paura del resto,

et a tua posta fuggire e cacciare.


(In Primiera there are a thousand good hands,

a thousand hopes to keep at bay,

saying "cancel the cards" and "bet the cards",


"Who has" and "who has not", "go" and "do not go"

to have a flush, a primiera, and say "to you!",

and not to come at first to the half-sword:


for if you want to meet the bet, you can;

if you do not want to meet it, let it go,

Placing strongly and slowly, as you will;


you can also save with a partner

if you were afraid of the rest,

and in your place escape and throw away.)


13 - Read in this regard the essay The Order of  the Triumphs