Bassetta – A Renaissance Italian Card Game

Bassetta, as researched by Giata Magdalena Alberti

Introduction

Bassetta, according to Giovanni Florio’s Worlde of Wordes is a card game in Renaissance Italy. Game historians list Bassetta, known as Basset in English and Bassette in French, as the most notorious multi-player gambling pastime of Europe from the 15th to 18th Centuries. It is considered a game of chance or a giochi d’azzardo. Bassetta originated in Italy, was introduced into France, and from there travelled across the sea to become popular in English court circles. Played in Italy beginning circa 1500 it travelled slowly, as it was not recorded in England until around 1700. Bassetta was barely mentioned in Charles Cotton’s 1674 edition of The Compleat Gamester, but rated a long entry in the 1721 edition. The game has huge potential losses thus in France an edict was declared so the privilege of being a talliere (banker for the game) could only be given to the “sons of great families” and the lower orders were prevented from gambling more than a certain amount. That edict did not prevent several families from falling into financial ruin so in 1691 the game was banned by Louis XIV.

The oldest piece of documentation that I have found regarding Bassetta place the game in Florence circa 1478. The game is spoken of on lines 15 and 16 in a carnival song entitled Canzona de Confortini which means Song of the Donuts: “We have cards, and … bassetta, and need one to raise, or the other to bet”.

In the letters of Signore Antonio Guevara (1585), he writes of the privilege of playing table games and card games such as primiera, bassetta, and trionfo: “E privilegio…auttorita di giuocare a pimiera, alle tavole, alle dodeci pietre, al toccadiglio, alla bassetta, al trionfo, alla ronsa…”.

Sussana Centlivre’s The Basset Table  is a comedy of gambling culture featuring Lady Reveller, a young widow of means who earns extra “pin-money” hosting games of Bassetta at her house. She is the talliere[1] and runs the “basset table” during the games.

That cards, and specifically Bassetta, were played commonly in the Italian City-States at least as far back at the mid 15th Century is proven by the mention of Lorenzo dei Medici in his canzone, by the references of Signore Guevara, and by playing manuals like those of Francesco Berni and Toruato Tasso. Additionally, that these games spread west through Europe is documented by authors like Passi, Etherege, and Centlivre and verified by historians like Samuel Singer. Now that we have established that the game originated in period[2], let us cover the rules of the game.

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[1] Banker

[2] Period is defined as antiquity to 1600 AD

 

Suit of 'cups' from a German deck made in 1616 with Italian suits.
Suit of ‘cups’ from a German deck made in 1616 with Italian suits.

 

Giata’s Redaction

You will need:

  • Florins, Ducats, Grossi[1] (or poker chips) for each Punter (Player)
  • The same for the Talliere (Banker)
  • 2 decks of cards for the Talliere’s hand (plus an additional one for every 4 more Punters)
  • 1 book of cards (containing all 13 of any suit) for each Punter

 

A Punter may request a particular suit but this has no bearing on play. Once the Punter has her books she decides which of her own cards she would like to play and places them face up on the table. She bets by placing her coin(s) on top of the card. Any amount of cards in her book may be bet upon in a turn.

Once all bets are placed the Talliere turns up the bottom card of the deck and wins half the amount of each bet placed on the same kind of card.

The Talliere then deals two cards at a time from the top of the deck. The first card wins for the Punter, the second cards wins for the Talliere. A good theme to remember for the Talliere is “pay, then collect”.

If the Punter wins, she collects a match of what she bet. She may then either keep the bet won and retire the card or make the card a Paroli leaving the card and the original bet in play in hopes that it is turned up again. To show the card is a Paroli a marker or bean can be used, and an additional one can be placed for each successive escalation of the bet:

  • First Paroli is paid times 7
  • Second Paroli is paid times 15
  • Third Paroli is paid times 30[2]
  • Fourth Paroli is paid times 60[3]

 

If the Paroli loses at any of these stages the punter only loses the amount of the original bet.

The final card in the deck is a winning card for the Talliere.

 

 

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[1] Types of coins from Italian City-States

[2] Documented at 33 but rounded down for simplicity

[3] Documented at 67 but rounded down for simplicity

 

 

 

 

 

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