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Renaissance Games

The Florentines were excitable and emotional, and delighted in games of chance; they gave free play to their thought in movement or gesture, and engaged naturally in the production of drama; above all they were musical, and made playing on sweet-toned instruments and singing their favorite pastime during the Renaissance. Games of chance, leading to the vice of gambling, were developed to such a degree that no civil law could suppress them, and no moral teaching persuaded people to leave it. Even before the Renaissance period, in 1376, there was a law prohibiting the game of Naibi, which was played with painted cards, but the method of playing seems now to be lost. Among the by-laws of an ancient company, still preserved, is one which forbids the brethren to play with dice or naibi.

Renaissance Games: Playing Cards
Playing Cards, 16th Century

Even wealth and culture did not keep men from the evil habit, as is illustrated by the case of Buonaccorso Pitti, who occupied some of the highest posts of honor in Florence, and wrote a history of his own time. He traveled through a large part of Europe, gambling everywhere; and by his talents and affable manners made himself acceptable at numerous courts, including those of France and Burgundy. At one time he was master of the horse to the Duke of Orleans, who was assassinated November 23, 1407. On that day Pitti wrote in his diary, "I made a hundred gold florins to-day by a bargain in wool,"—thus showing that even in the midst of such a tragedy his spirit of speculation was active. He finally returned to Florence with a fortune, which was largely the product of his gaming. The money amassed in this manner was that which enabled his son Luca Pitti to acquire almost the first place in the state, and in his pride to commence building the famous Pitti palace, which was destined to become not a private, but a ducal, and finally a royal residence. 

The gaming continued through all the epoch of the Renaissance. Games of cards like Frussi were much in favour, and it still continues to be played under the name of Primiera. In this game four cards are dealt to each player, and he who receives four of a kind wins the stakes. Lorenzo de' Medici refers to this game in one of his carnival songs, and speaks of it as maledetto or cursed; and advises him who wants to play to go into it very slowly, and stake but little and sparingly. He adds moreover, that in his day it was played by everybody, even by the peasants. Another game was the one called Bassetta, and was played by the dealer laying three cards on the table, and allowing each of the others to draw a card from the pack, with the chance, which was very small, of being able to match one of those already exposed. With these vices, the Florentines evidently combined the greater one of cheating; for in the Song of the Players reference is made to loaded dice and false cards.

Bondone: Chess Players
Paris Bondone-Chess Players, 1540
But there were also nobler Renaissance games as well, in which skill and strength were the elements of victory, not chance or cheating. One of the favorites among these was called Pallone. It was played with a ball of good size, filled with air, and struck by the fist from one to the other; the object being for each player not to let the ball come to rest on his side of the field. It is somewhere told of Pietro de' Medici, that he was so fond of this sport as even to neglect his business and the affairs of state in order to indulge his passion for it. Among the Renaissance games, Maglio was much beloved. It was a game of ball, which was played with a wooden ball and mallet. The ground devoted to this sport was on the east side of the church of San Marco, extending thence to the city wall. One player would challenge the others to knock the ball to a certain spot at a distance; and the winner was he who succeeded in placing the ball nearest the goal. The goal however was generally fixed at such a distance that only the one or two most expert players could drive the ball so far. This game was introduced into Florence about the year 1480, and was played with passion for the remainder of the century; but the Medici became dukes, and, lovers of less rough sport, prohibited its indulgence. Reference to it is also made in one of the carnival songs, where there is mention of the stiff backbone, good sight, and strong arms which are necessary to play it well.

Lovers of football will be pleased to know that it was one of the favorite Renaissance games which was also played at Florence during the days of republican rule, and was not prohibited at the incoming of the ducal regime. One of the preferred pastimes of the young men of the early part of the 16th Century was to have a band of music seated on the ridge of the roof of the noble church of Santa Croce and play, while twenty-five whites and twenty-five greens did battle for the football goal on the piazza. This game was called Calcio, a name preserved until this very day (every weekend I watch the Serie A calcio games!). And one day while they were carrying on their fun as above mentioned, someone, evidently horrified by the godlessness of the musical accompaniment from such a position, shot at the musicians, however, without hitting any of them.

Renaissance Games: Somersaults
Somersaults, 16th Century
Another darling of the Renaissance games was chess.  It was played in Florence at least as early as the beginning of the 14th Century; for there is record of that date of the murder of a certain Brunelleschi, while engaged in the game.

A game of strength and skill was Pome, and was for a time held in high esteem. It consisted in throwing a spear, while running, at a suspended apple.

From this partial enumeration we may conclude that the Renaissance games were offering people an agreeable pastime.  They made people exercise, and they instilled energy, independence, and manhood.

Perhaps the most notable quality characteristic of the Renaissance games in general is their extreme simplicity. This idea is exhibited also in the street shows, which Florentines have enjoyed for ages. On May-day they were accustomed to decorate their front doors with green branches and to have their common merrymaking largely in the open air. One of the customs of their fête days was to erect platforms at the street corners, on which buffoons and prestidigitators showed their skill to the admiring crowds. It was on such a day, almost two centuries earlier, that the boy Dante met the young Beatrice Portinari, who was destined to exercise such an influence on the literature of all Italy.

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