Gaming on the Italian Peninsula

Gaming and the Italian Salone

A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation. These gatherings often consciously followed Horace’s definition of the aims of poetry, “either to please or to educate” (“aut delectare aut prodesse est”). The word salon is the French adaption of the Italian word salone, from sala (a reception room found in the renaissance palazzo).

The salon was an Italian invention of the 1500s. In cinquecento Italy, scintillating circles formed in prominent smaller courts, often galvanized by the presence of a beautiful and educated patroness such as Isabella d’Este or Elisabetta Gonzaga. Italy had an early tradition of the “salone”; the courtesan Tullia d’Aragona held a salon in the 1500s, and Giovanna Dandolo became known as a patron and gatherer of artists as wife of Pasqual Malipiero, the doge in Venice in from 1457 to 1462. These gatherings proved to be the model for later salons in Italy and the salon movement which flourished in France throughout the 1600s and 1700s.

Arms of Este, from a 16th c. ceiling fresco in the Villa d'Este, Tivoli.
Arms of Este, from a 16th c. ceiling fresco in the Villa d’Este, Tivoli.

Games Fit For a Medici Princess

Isabella de’ Medici, the daughter of Cosimo de Medici, was a beautiful, intellectual, and accomplished renaissance princess in Florence. Under the protection of her father, Isabella was able to live a life of parties, loves, and intellectual pursuits, while managing to delay her move to her husband’s home in Rome for over a decade. She was the hostess of a glittering circle of her Florentine contemporaries.

Beautiful and liberated, she not only matched the intellectual accomplishments of her male cohorts, but sought amorous parity also, engaging in an adulterous affair with her husband’s cousin. It was this affair – and her very success as First Lady of Florence – that led to her death at the hands of her husband at the age of just thirty-four in 1576. She left behind a remarkable story, and as her legacy a son who became the best of the Orsini Dukes, immortalized by Shakespeare as Duke Orsino in “Twelfth Night”. It is documented that in her salone, conversations, refreshments, and pastimes could be had for hours that bled into days.

Plausibly, games fashionable in Italy in the 1500s would have been played in a salone like that of Isabella de Medici. A few of the more popular games, some with Italian origins (*) are:

  • Sicilian Chess* – Board game, 1557 (CA#71 p7)
  • Blind Dice* – Dice game, 1500s (KWHb p145)
  • Italian Draughts* – Board game,1500s (Murray 4.3.3, Bell p73)
  • Six-Men’s Morris Board game, obsolete by 1600 (Murray 3.3.20, Bell p92)
  • Basset/Bassetta* – Card game, 1400s (Parlett p8/53/58/ 64/ 77 and CA#71 p15)
  • Cuckoo – Card game, 1400s (Parlett p31, CA#71 p18)

 Games Italians Played

These instructions are taken largely from Master Damiano Elie Bellini’s “Gaming Italian Style” class handout.  Grazie mille to him for allowing me to share his information and sources.

Sicilian Chess

This version dates to 1557 and is a variant of medieval chess very similar to the modern game.

In the Sicilian game the pieces, save the queen, move as in modern chess. There is no castling move of the rook and king, and no two-square opening pawn moves. A pawn reaching the opposite side of the board can be promoted to the capital piece that started in the square the pawn reached. A pawn reaching the king or queen’s square would be promoted to bishop. The queen is restricted to move four squares diagonally or one square orthogonal.

libro de los juegos chess

Blind Dice

This is a 16th century Italian gambling game.

The game uses six cubed dice, each having a number from one to six on one side with the other five sides blank. The total of all six dice is twenty-one. The game is played by one player at a time taking on the house. They player puts up a stake, then rolls the dice, and the payoffs are as follows:

Number Rolled Payoff
0 Player loses stake to the house
1 – 8 Player keeps the stake
9 – 10 House pays an amount equal to the stake
11 – 12 Pays twice the stake
13 Pays three times the stake
14 Pays four times the stake
15 Pays five times the stake
16 Pays ten times the stake
17 Pays fifteen times the stake
18 Pays twenty times the stake
19 Pays twenty-five times the stake
20 Pays fifty times the stake
21 Pays ninety times the stake

libro de los juegos dice

Italian Draughts

Draughts was played in France, England, and the Spanish Marches before 1500. The first mention of this checker-like game being played in Italy dates from 1527. Elsewhere in Europe it was played later than 1550, which confirms an eastward spread from France.

In the Italian version the board (8×8) is placed so that the double black corner is on the player’s left instead of right. Each player has twelve pieces set up on the black squares of the first three rows in front of him. The pieces move only on the black squares and black has the first move. The pieces move diagonally forwards one square at a time and may not move backwards.

The object of the game is to capture or immobilize your opponent’s twelve pieces. A capture is made by a piece (man) jumping over an enemy piece and landing on a vacant square immediately beyond. If the capturing piece can continue to leap over the other enemy pieces they are also captured and removed from the board. When a piece finally comes to rest the move is finished.

If an uncrowned piece reaches the opponents back line it becomes a king. Crowning ends a move. After crowning a king can move diagonally backwards and forwards one square at a time, and captures by a standard jump. There may be several kings on the board at a time.

In Italian Draughts, a number of rules apply to captures:

  • A player had to take when possible or lose the game.
  • A man (piece) could not take a king
  • If he had a choice of capture he was forced to take the greater number; if this number were equal (each option containing a king) when there are two or more options, then he must capture wherever the king occurs first. This rule was known in Italy as ‘il piu col piu’ (‘the greater to the greater’).

 libro de los juegos chess ladies

Six-Men’s Morris

Morris, also known as Mill, Mills, and Merrills, was popular in Italy, France, and England during the middle ages but was obsolete by 1600.

Each player has six pieces and they are entered (placed) alternately, one at a time; each player trying to form a row along one of the sides of either square. If a player succeeds in this he is allowed to remove any one of his opponent’s pieces. When all of the pieces have been played the game continues by alternate moves of a piece along a line to an adjacent empty point. When a player is reduced to two men, the game is over.

In Shakespeare‘s 16th century work A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania laments that it is no longer played: “The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene I).

libro de los juegos mulino

Basset

From the Italian bassetta, a card game also known as barbacole, considered one of the most polite pastimes. It was intended for persons of the highest rank because of the great losses or gains that might be accrued by the players. This game financially endangered some of the great French houses and was banned by the King of France.

Basset is a banking game, with a significant advantage for the house. It is purely a game of chance. One player is the banker.

The banker has a full deck of cards, well shuffled. Each punter, or player, has the 13 cards of a single suit of a similar deck in front of him, or perhaps a board with marks for the 13 denominations. Punters put bets on their boards before play begins. Once all bets are placed, the banker turns up a single card from his deck (made up of multiple decks of cards**) and wins all bets placed on the denomination shown (suit is ignored). After the first card is turned up the banker turns up cards from his deck in pairs, putting them on two piles alternately, until all bets are resolved or the deck is exhausted. Denominations that match a card turned up on the first pile lose their bets to the banker; denominations that match a card turned up on the second pile win. The banker must pay equal to any winning bets. As with the first card turned up, the banker wins any bets that remain on the last card turned.

Bassetta Sheet

On any winning bet the punter may decline his winnings and let the bet ride in the hope of further winnings. If the same denomination shows up again on the winning pile, the banker must pay seven times the bet; if the bet is let ride again and wins, the banker pays 15 times; if it is let ride and shows up a fourth time on the winning pile the banker must pay 30 times the bet. Finally, if it shows up four times in one deal, the punter lets it ride into the next hand, and the same card shows up winners a fifth time, the banker must pay 60 times the bet. The decision to let a bet ride is marked by bending up a corner of the card it lies on each time (this is destructive of cards, so it is suggested that you use some other way to mark a riding bet).

Once a payment is declined by a punter (leaving a bet to ride) the punter cannot change his mind until the card shows up again on the winning pile, when he again has the choice of taking his winnings or letting it ride.

** One deck of cards is sufficient for 2 to 3 players, each additional deck allows up to four more players.

Cuckoo

Also known as ranter-go-round, gnav, killekort, chase the ace, and hexencarteis. Cuckoo was first mentioned in Cornwall in the early fifteenth century. By the end of that century it had spread throughout Europe and become a favorite in Scandinavia. From there is spread to the Baltics, Russia, and northern Germany. It is, allegedly, the oldest card game for which directions were printed in the Russian language. It was also quite popular in southern Italy and the western Mediterranean islands.

It is a game for any number of players. Cards rank king=high to ace=low without regard to suit. A stake is determined at the start. The players are all dealt one card each. After the deal, each player, starting from the dealers left, may stand or demand to swap cards with the player to his left. A player may only refuse to swap if he is holding a king, which must then be shown. This continues until it returns to the dealer, who may replace his card with one drawn at random from the pack, if he wishes.

The cards are then revealed and the player holding the lowest ranked card must then pay the predetermined stake to the pot. If two or more players tie for the lowest rank, they must each contribute to the pot. After a player has lost a predetermined number of hands, usually three, he is out of the game. Play continues until there is only one player left in, who then wins the pot.

References:

Bell, R.C. Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations, Vols. 1 & 2. Dover Publications.

Complete Anachronist #4. Indoor Games, or How to While Away a Siege. SCA, Inc.

Known World Handbook (Third Edition). SCA, Inc.

Murray, H.J.R. A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess. Hacker Art Books, Inc.

Partlett, David. A History of Card Games. Oxford University Press.

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