One of the most important theatres in Florence has been Teatro Niccolini;(1) it has been closed for the last years, but hopefully will soon find a new life. It has been an important institution for stage shows in Florence, even at the national level. It is easy to find historical information about it, because there have been many historians interested in the tradition of the great Florentine theatres.
The current name of Teatro Niccolini had been for centuries Teatro del Cocomero, taken up from the street where it had been built, Via del Cocomero, now Via Ricasoli, situated between Piazza San Marco and Piazza del Duomo. Cocomero is the Italian word for watermelon, and the street had seemingly received this name from the vegetable gardens near the ancient city walls, located just to the North of the cathedral.
Somewhat harder is to find a detailed history of the other activities of the company responsible for the establishing and functioning of the theatre, the Accademia degli Infuocati. Corresponding to its name, as inflamed or burning, a bomb had been chosen as their emblem - and a bomb model is still visible above the front door of the theatre.
As in other cases, the activity of the academy was not limited to organise performances in their theatre. There were many events, dances, parties, and celebrations, which involved not only the theatre, but also several rooms around it.
In particular, what we are mostly interested in is a branch that has been less studied by the scholars of local history, the Stanze, the rooms where games were allowed, including Trucco, billiard, and card games.
In the course of time, many places in Florence have offered the possibility to card players to spend time and money in their preferred entertainment. In a few other towns of Tuscany, there mainly were in the 19th century two such places, the exclusive Casino dei Nobili, and Casino dei Cittadini, with increasing popularity of the latter.
If we neglect the several other academies and societies active in Florence, here too the two main places were the same - Casino dei Nobili and Casino dei Cittadini - with the difference that in the latter case they did not have a dedicated house that could be named Casino.
The usual way to name it was Le Stanze, the rooms, or “Le stanze della civile conversazione”. In any case they were indicated together with the name of the street, Via del Cocomero, or better with the name of the theatre with which they were associated. We can thus often find a long sentence as its complete name: “Le stanze della civile conversazione annesse al Teatro del Cocomero dell’Accademia degli Infuocati”. For many years the capital initials “I. e R.” were added before Teatro, indicating its attributes of imperial and royal.
As a typical development, there had been an academy, which had soon established its own theatre; then, a kind of Ridotto was born, in a time in which it became permitted and fashionable. The association of a theatre with gambling and playing was a standard solution in Tuscany, especially in times in which it remained the only place in town in which playing was allowed and gambling tolerated.
Having the Stanze associated with the theatre may remind of the Venetian Ridotto, even though there is a key difference between the two apparently similar places. The Ridotto of Venice was so famous throughout the whole of Europe that people of the high-class could even come to Venice precisely to visit the Ridotto, as it obviously occurred with professional gamblers. The Cocomero rooms were instead visited mainly by local players. It was possible to find visitors coming from abroad at play there, but nobody could arrive in Florence just to take part in these games.
In any case, for many years this has been the most important and frequented place of its kind in Florence, a real equivalent of the Casino dei Cittadini of other Tuscan towns. Actually, in many occasions it has been used as a precursor for other institutions.
When in minor towns regulations were compiled for controlling the game activities, those of Cocomero were often copied verbatim, because they had been approved by the authorities and thus represented a kind of guarantee for the authorisation of the new establishment.
The administration and supervision of Le Stanze were usually subcontracted to one or another manager. Specific account books were thus kept for many years, separately from the other activities of the theatre and of the academy.
Previous studies and new information
I first found some original documents on the activity in the Stanze in the 1980s, in a couple of items of Biblioteca Riccardiana in Florence; on their basis, I wrote two articles, with one corresponding to the first of the “New discoveries” series, as titled by Sylvia Mann;(2)the second article was published in a journal of local history.(3)
I was very satisfied to have discovered this piece of documentation, in spite of its narrow coverage. Now, more than a quarter of century later on, I have hit on a whole archive section devoted to Teatro Niccolini, with no less than 222 folders and registers. This occurred in Archivio Storico del Comune di Firenze(ASCFI), when I visited it in search of the law of 1829.(4) To that note let me refer for further information on this archive and its setting.
I have not studied all of these items, but could already leaf through a lot of them. Understandably, the major part contains documents for the theatre activity. Even cash books often deal with incomes and expenses connected with the various performances.
It is evident that what we are interested in, documents on card playing, unavoidably is just a minor part of the archive group. The main problem is perhaps due to the different ways used for compiling the registers, and for keeping them afterwards.
I could not find a series of registers covering many years of the activity in the Stanze, in spite of the huge time interval from beginning 18th century to late 20th. As a result, I have decided not to try and compile an extended report - just a few notes based on documents homogeneous enough.
This is thus the first of notes dealing with the subject in different times. The time interval in this case is very limited, in comparison with the whole interval of the documents, only from 1799 to 1807, corresponding to the documents studied.
The archive group and the relevant section
In this archive section there are so many items that it is useful to deal with coherent subsets separately. For this note, only a few registers have been studied, essentially three of them, with a few others checked for confirmation of the data. Let me however provide a short description of the whole archive group, which I will not repeat in future notes about the same milieu; it has been directly taken from the inventories of the ASCFI.(5)
Fondo Teatro Niccolini. 1699-1945. The official mark of this section is: IT ASCFI TN, with individual series labelled with their No, as follows.
Let us examine series No. 3. There are several similar indications for the accounts of the Stanze, in which the academy is usually quoted together with the subcontractor, in one of the following titles. “Accademia degli Infuocati. Per il provento del giuoco.” “Azienda del provento del giuoco nelle stanze di conversazione annesse all’I. e R. Teatro di via del Cocomero.” “Accademia degli Infuocati e Azienda del provento del giuoco nelle stanze annesse al Teatro del Cocomero.”
We then have two subseries, according to the format of the documents, receipts and registers:
Sottoserie - Libri contabili per il provento del giuoco IT ASCFI TN 3 No.
The corresponding individual items are as follows.
A - Filza di ricevute del provento del Giuoco dal di primo maggio 1817 al di 30 aprile 1829.
B - Filza di ricevute del provento del giuoco dal di primo maggio 1799 al di 30 aprile 1810.
C - Ricevute attinenti all’amministrazione del provento del giuoco nelle stanze annesse all’I. e R. Teatro di via del Cocomero di pertinenza dell’Accademia degli Infuocati.
Libri contabili - IT ASCFI TN 3 2.2 / No.
As mentioned above, the material for this note has been found in three different items of the TN section in ASCFI. They are different, but represent together the maximum that any researcher can hope to find.
TN 39 is a ledger with expenses recorded one after another in chronological order. In the title page we read “Questo Libro coperto di Cartapecora Bianca intitolato Entrata, e Uscita, e Quaderno di Cassa appartiene all’Azienda del Provento del Giuoco nelle Stanze annesse al Teatro del Cocomero.” Dimensions are 23x31cm.
It is divided into three sections, as indicated in the title itself, Entrata up to f.19, Uscita from 40 to 75, Quaderno di cassa from f.101 to 147, and a dozen blank folios at the end. The beginning is dated 1 May 1799 and signed by Treasurer Alessandro Romualdo Scurtz. Playing cards are found here between many other different items acquired, or expenses for repairs, rent money, and so on. Each entry has the corresponding receipt indicated with its identification number.
Item TN 66 is precisely the Filza containing all these receipts. Filza is the name of a folder in which loose sheets of paper have been pierced together. The name has remained in common usage in the archives, even when the procedure of document piercing had become obsolete.
The usual case in the archives is that after some years only the register is kept and the receipts eliminated. Here we are fortunate enough to have both kinds of documents, which can complement each other and together provide a complete view on the situation.
The register TN 30 has the same dimensions and aspect as TN 39. “Questo Libro coperto di Cartapecora Bianca intitolato Debitori e Creditori appartiene all’Azienda del Provento del Giuoco nelle Stanze annesse al Teatro del Cocomero.” Instead of entries listed in chronological order, they are organised into groups according to the persons or the trades involved.
Fortunately for us, within this register there are scattered lists precisely devoted to Spese di carte, where we find collected together all the data we are interested in, and only them. This occurs on folios 28, 53, 61, and 74.
Such being the case, the last register could satisfactorily represent our best and only source. Of course, it is easier to copy the information from it, and mistakes are less probable. However, the two previous items are still useful, because in the register TN 30 there are several values missing, such as sometimes the number of packs corresponding to the money account recorded.
Negligible is instead the contribution from a further register of the series, TN 41, “Giornale”, which has only fourteen folios written. Some additional information about playing cards is actually present there, but mainly involves the quantity of card packs that was available to the managers at various times, and this complementary documentation I have not considered for the moment.
As a matter of fact, the most detailed information for card purchases is contained in the receipts of TN 66. Only in some of these receipts we can retrieve the individual supplies of cards, whereas as a rule in the registers we only find the total amount for a month.
Maybe it can be significant that cardmaker Vincenzio Baragioli in person does sign his receipts as Vincenzio, instead of the more usual spelling Vincenzo, often found in the place.
The years involved in this study were out of the ordinary. The after-effects of the French revolution were leaving traces in Tuscany. In particular, Leghorn was a navy base under English influence and was therefore occupied by the French armies in 1796. In March 1799, when this study begins, Grand Duke Ferdinand III was exiled into Vienna.
In the summer 1799, a rather strangely allied army from Arezzo, Russia, and Austria succeeded in expelling the French troops from Florence, but Napoleon re-established the French power in the following year. From 1801 to 1807, the last year of this study, Tuscany became the Kingdom of Etruria, ruled by the House of Bourbon (especially, directly or indirectly, in the person of Queen Maria Luisa, born and brought up in the Spanish court – one of the fourteen children of king Carlos IV and Queen Maria Louisa).
Of course, the social and military events had their influence on the citizens of Florence, and contrasts between factions occurred. It is natural to envisage that also the Stanze di conversazione changed habits and subjects of their “conversation”.
However, drastic changes are not evident in the account books of the Stanze, and only some Pharaoh, always prohibited together with Bassetta, seems to have been introduced by the French occupants. It seems, in particular, that the Florentine players of Minchiate continued to enjoy their entertainment unperturbed.
Kinds of playing cards
In these documents, we essentially see two kinds of cards acquired, Basse and Minchiate. Other cards are recorded too, but only in very small amounts, and in sporadic occasions. Basse represent the most common purchase. It is not expressly stated, which kind of packs they corresponded to. In principle, they could be 32-, 40- or 52-card packs, and in each case either of the Grandi or of the Piccole quality.
There are essentially two possible interpretations: first, all or most of these possible kinds were acquired, but they were not distinguished in the accounts; second, only one kind of these cards was acquired. It is almost certain that the latter hypothesis is true, in correspondence with 40-card packs, Grandi.
I must acknowledge nevertheless that the absence of other kinds of cards is somewhat surprising, given the relatively high number of active players, some of them coming from other towns or even countries.
As for Minchiate, the appearance of variants within this group was not expected, because changes of their pattern or dimension were rare. Something surprising we can observe here too: in particular, the ratio of Minchiate to the cards as a whole is high, as one might better have expected for one century earlier on.
Some comment may be useful for the other cards acquired now and then. To begin with, some of these cards were not acquired from the Florentine cardmakers, contrary to the common usage. This in particular occurred with cards Spagnole - 96 packs of them were purchased in 1806 and 1807, apparently unstamped, and only for 10 of them the payment of the corresponding stamp tax was then recorded.
Another kind of cards is found initially among the second-hand cards sold, Carte da Faraone, cards for playing Pharaoh, better known later as Faro. This was a 52-card pack (similar, or identical, to Picchetti piccoli or Picchettini) mentioned as connected with the presence in Florence of the French troops. Faraone was frequently declared in the laws of Tuscany as a strongly prohibited game, together with Bassetta.
Packs purchased per year (dozens)
New card packs were acquired by the dozens; only as a few exceptions, half dozens or even individual packs can be found recorded. The following table reports the amounts of cards purchased for the use of the Stanze from 1799 to 1807, expressed in dozen packs. These values have been obtained by summing up the corresponding records of the individual payments, as reported in the appendix.
The first and last years are only present for some months, whereas we have the total amounts for the seven intermediate years. This is due to the fact that the annual balances were then settled on the 30 April; in these registers we have therefore the records for the complete eight years, from 1 May 1799 to 30 April 1807.
An average value can thus be obtained as one eighth of the total: 86 dozen packs Basse, roughly one thousand packs per year; to be compared with about three hundred packs of Minchiate. The approximate ratio of Minchiate to the total amount of cards purchased was thus greater than 21%.
Individual purchases of playing cards
As known, cards were traded by dozens of packs. It usually was the price of a dozen packs that was denoted by a whole number of liras. Only in special occasions, or for special cards we see individual packs recorded.
As a rule, the accounts of new cards sold by the Florentine cardmaker were settled every month; if in a given month this was not needed, the payment was delayed to the next month. It is noteworthy to observe how many dozens of packs were usually acquired for utilisation in the Stanze.
We may probably use five dozens as a guideline here: typical purchases were of five dozens Basse together with five dozens Minchiate, somehow alternate with ten dozen Basse and zero Minchiate - because the need for Minchiate was lower than for Basse as a whole. Apart from individual cases with different values, we roughly observe an increase in the quantity of cards purchased in the course of time, with dozens of packs in about a month passing from ten to fifteen.
From a few receipts we get additional information on the real supplies of playing cards to the Stanze, which occurred more frequently than we can derive from the dates of payments. For instance, receipt No. 79 of the year 1800, for a total of L.363 for 20 dozens of Basse and 6 of Minchiate, has a list of no less than six supplies of Basse and three of Minchiate, as in the following table.
This is only an example, for showing how detailed the data provided by the receipts can be – and how helpful had to be the cardmakers. Similar lists could be reported for some further cases; however, it will be hard to find a researcher wishing to study the subject on data more detailed than listed in the appendix.
Sales of second-hand cards (packs)
In the initial part of register TN 30, where all the incomes are recorded in chronological order, we find the money amounts cashed in by selling out packs of cards used in the Stanze and evidently still useful for playing in other places or to be refurbished by the same cardmakers who were supplying the new packs.
In most cases, except for the earliest times, we find the additional indication, most useful for our aims, of which packs corresponded to which price. These trades did not occur using the current dozens of packs as units – individual packs were apparently used as units for these sales.
The table below reports the yearly values, again obtained as the sums of the records copied in the appendix. This table uses packs of cards as units, as in the corresponding trades.
In comparison with the corresponding table of the cards purchased, we have here one year less, because initially the amounts of cards sold were not recorded. We can thus divide the total amount by seven in order to obtain the corresponding average values and the ratio of Minchiate to total packs.
The values thus obtained are once more about one thousand packs per year for Basse and 300 for Minchiate, with again a presence of Minchiate greater than 20% among the cards sold out. (The exact value of the Minchiate fraction derived from these records could be slightly greater than for new packs, but the two sets of numbers are probably not reliable enough to validate that difference.)
What we find in the aggregate is very similar to the values reported for the new cards. This is a proof that few packs were seriously damaged by the players. Evidently brand-new packs were used for a short time, and sold out before becoming flawed or worn.
In the lists of the appendix, the cost of each card purchase or sale is reported in the corresponding column. As usual, the money units are Liras, Soldi, and Denari, L.s.d., with 12d. making 1s. and 20s. making 1L. Obviously, a value indicated in the list as 30, for instance, corresponds to 30L. 0s. 0d., and so on.
It was always a seldom occurrence that the cost of a card pack could be expressed by a whole number. Much more frequent was the case of whole numbers corresponding to dozens of packs. Here too, we often see in the last records that a dozen packs had a price of 14 and then 13L. with Minchiate prices rather constantly at 20L. per dozen.
However, and especially in the initial purchases from Tanini, we find that also dozens of packs were not priced with whole numbers of Liras. Initially, three dozen packs of Basse had a price of 37L.
Apparently, the price of the second-hand cards sold by the Stanze was not fixed rigidly. It could reach one half of that due for the same brand-new cards, but it is not straightforward to determine it on the basis of these records.
We know that a few cardmakers were active in Florence at the time, producing playing cards for the whole of Tuscany. Each of them could be selected as supplier for the cards used in the Stanze.
As a matter of fact, we see three different Florentine cardmakers recorded as supplier in those years. However, their presence is never simultaneous. Initially we find a few purchases by Vincenzio BARAGIOLI, then by Giuseppe TANINI, up to 26 March 1803. After a single purchase on 4 April 1803 of 18 packs Minchiate for L.30 refunded to the keeper, the regular supplier is again Vincenzio BARAGIOLI, who continued to 19 July 1806, followed lastly by Luigi MOSCHINI, up to the end of these records.
Whichever the reason for changing supplier, this could not be motivated by any saving on the corresponding expenses: in both last cases the new cardmaker asked for a somewhat higher price in the sale of the same kinds of cards.
In a few cases, cards were acquired that apparently could not be provided by the local cardmakers. This corresponds to entries, as for Spagnole, in which the payment for the cards was not given to a cardmaker, but refunded to the keeper, who had acquired them.
This note reports new information on playing cards purchased by the “Stanze annesse al Teatro del Cocomero”, in Florence. The documentary source belongs to a big archive group kept in the ASCFI, which has been briefly described here.
The main sources have been in this case ledgers TN 39, TN 30, and folder TN 66, containing about half thousand receipts pierced together. They provide a full coverage for the years 1799-1807. The average yearly amounts of new card packs purchased and sold back after a short use was of about one thousand Basse and three hundred Minchiate, corresponding to a Minchiate fraction greater than 20%.
Further items for other time intervals are under study and the corresponding data will be reported and discussed as soon as possible.
(1) Wikipedia.it: Teatro Niccolini (Firenze)
(2) Franco Pratesi, The Playing-Card, Vol. 15, No. 2 (1986) 29-34.
(3) Franco Pratesi, Rassegna storica toscana, Vol. 39 No. 1 (1993) 181-191.
(4) Franco Pratesi: 1821-1829: PUZZLING MINCHIATE BY GIUSEPPE BERRETARI (2013)
(5) Archivio Storico Comune di Firenze