Andrea Vitali's Essays

Il Malmantile Racquistato

A general who loved tarot too much


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, Feb. 2012

The Florentine Lorenzo Lippi (1606-1665) was a painter and poet. He spent his life in his native city, where he was protected by Grand duke Ferdinando II, and in Innsbruck, invited by Duchess Claudia De’ Medici, widow of Leopold V of Austria and Countess of Tyrol, where he had the task of being a painter and man of letters to the Court. He had considerable self-esteem, which led him to declare that he did not go to meet Correggio while passing by Parma, because he [Correggio] could not have taught him anything. He had been an apprentice of Matteo Rosselli and of Santi of Tito. Lippi died of pleurisy in Florence in 1665, and was buried in the church of Santa Maria Novella.


His paintings were much appreciated, so much so that he was considered one of the best Florentine painters of that time. They were of a  basically religious tendency, except for a self-portrait and one of Salvator Rosa, with whom he founded in Innsbruck the Accademia dei Percossi.

Despite this reputation, Lippi was more appreciated as a poet, in particular for his work Il Malmantile Racquistato (The Reconquered Malmantile), written in the last twenty years of his life. He began this composition in Innsbruck with the title "Novel of the two queens," and finished it in Florence, where it was published after his death in 1676 under the pseudonym - anagram “Perlone Zipoli 


It consists of a poem of twelve cantos, telling of the dispute between the two cousins Celidora and Martinazza for the throne of Malmantile, a small village between Pisa and Florence. The work, which is conceived as a parody of Gerusalemme Liberata by Tasso, started that literary genre known as “comic-heroic”, which intended to upset the stylistic techniques of epic poetry with the aim of giving it a comical effect. The plot became a simple pretext for an infinite series of typical modes of speaking, and also hints of usages and traditions of Florence at that time, that the author filled with a great number of proverbs, mottoes and Florentine sayings, with the intention of making known the  beauty and richness of the Tuscan language. And he succeeded so well that the Accademia della Crusca considered the work as a “text of language”. On the other hand, Lippi always affirmed that he wanted to write poetry in the same way he talked (and to paint in the way he saw).


Lippi knew Malmantile very well, since he often stayed in a villa of his friend Alfonso Parigi in San Romolo. The village name literally means “bad tablecloth”, in the sense of “bad reception”. To understand this attribution it is necessary to recall a legend also cited in the famous Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend) by Jacopo da Varagine: when Saint Ambrosius, Bishop of Milan, went to Florence to meet Zanobi, Bishop of that city, the meeting took place in a farmhouse. The place is still indicated by a commemorative tabernacle. The welcome of the inhabitants was so inhospitable as to give the name to the town. The legend says that the farmhouse, guilty of such bad greeting, fell into a crevasse.

In the work we find various passages that refer to the Minchiate and to Tarot as well: let’s look at them together. In the VIII Canto, Lippi describes a general addicted to tarot, who plays Minchiate:


Octave 61

Appunto il Generale a far s’ è posto
Alle minchiate, ed è cosa ridicola
Il vederlo ingrugnato, e maldisposto,
Perchè gli è stata morta una verzicola:
Le carte ha dato mal, non ha risposto,
E poi di non contare anco pericola,
Sento scoperto aver di più una carta,
Perché di rado, quando ruba, scarta.

"Just now the general is playing Minchiate and it is ridiculous to see him angry and ill-disposed, because he did not succeed in doing a verzicola [a kind of card combination]. He gave cards badly, and he did not respond [in the right way], and then also he's in danger from not counting the cards; he feels that he will be discovered having one card too many, because rarely, when he steals, does he discard".

 Octave 62

Costoro alfine gli si fanno avanti,
Per dirgli del prigion, ch’anno condotto;
Ma e’ posson predicar bene tuti quanti.
Perch’ egli, ch’ è nel gioco un uomo rotto,
E perde una gran mano di sessanti,
E gliene duole, e non ci può star sotto;
Lor non dà retta, e a gagnolare intento,
Pietosamente fa questo lamento.

They finally approach to tell him about the prisoner that they brought; but one can easily predict it all; because he [the general] is in the game a broken man, and loses a great hand of sixty, and he regrets and cannot bear to be under. He did not listen to them, and intent on grumbling, pitifully makes this lament".

Minucci, who carefully examined the work, explains these verses in this way: “Those who were conducting the prisoner Piaccianteo, arrived at the general, who was playing Minchiate: but since he had committed many mistakes and was losing, he was angry and instead of listening to what they were saying, started lamenting about fortune” (In the strophes following 61).


This brief illustration of the situation is provided by Minucci, who, in what follows, begins to speak of Minchiate:


"MINCHIATE. It is a well-known game also known as Tarocchi, Ganellini, or Germini. But because it is rarely played outside of our Tuscany, or at least differently from how we play, for the understanding of these octaves I deem it necessary for one to know that the game of minchiate is done in the following manner. This game is composed of ninety-seven cards, of which 56 are called Cartacce, and 40 are called Tarocchi, and one is called the Matto [Madman]. The 56 cards are divided into four kinds, called Suits, which are depicted in fourteen Denari [Coins] (which Galeatto Marzio says is old coarse coins of metal), 14 Coppe [Cups], 14 Spade [Swords], and 14 Buttoni [Batons]: and each kind of these suits begins with one called the Ace, as far as ten, and the Eleventh figure is a Page, in 12 a Horse, in 13 a Queen, and in 14 a King: and all these suit-cards, except the King, are called cartacce. The 40 are called Germini or Tarocchi: and this word Tarocchi, says Monosino, comes from the Greek hetaros: with which word, he says with Alciato, it Denotes those companions, who come together to play for nourishment. But I do not know this word, what it would be; I know well that hetairos and hetaroi mean Sodales: and from this word, coming down into Latin, could be made the diminutive Hetarochoi, that is to say Little Companions. Germini comes from Gemini, a celestial sign, which has the highest number among the Tarocchi. In these Tarocchi cards are depicted different hieroglyphs and celestial signs, and each has his number, from one to 35; and the last five ending at 40 have no number, but are distinguished by the figures impressing their order of precedence, which is in this order Star, Moon, Sun, World, and Trumpet, which is the highest, and would have the number 40. The allegory is, that just as the Stars are outshone by the Moon, and the Moon by the Sun, so the World is bigger than the Sun, and Fame, shown with the Trumpet, is worth more than the World: so much that when a man is gone, he continues to live through fame, when he has performed glorious acts. Likewise Petrarch made Trionfi like a game; since Love is superceded by Chastity, Chastity by Death, Death by Fame, and Fame by Divinity, which reigns eternally".


An interesting passage in the work (Octave 75 – Canto VIII) brings us to the meaning of the word Bagatto (The Magician), as we have described in the dedicated essay. The general, instead of condemning the prisoner, invites him to sit down and play Minchiate with him: 

 Octave 75

Quegli che compiacerlo non gli costa,
E vede averla avuta a buon mercato;
L’invito tiene e regge ad ogni posta,
Bench’ ei non abbia un bagattino allato:
E dice, al più faremo una batosta,
Quand’ ei mi vinca, e voglia essere pagato:
Di rapa sangue non si può cavare,
Nè far due cose, perdere, o pagare.

"He [the prisoner], for whom it costs nothing to please him [the general], and who expects to get off with a good bargain, accepts the invitation and holds the bets of the general,  even if he has nothing in his hand [in the text: not even a bagattino=a small bagatto]. He says, at most we'll come to blows [batosta, like bastoni, staves], and when he beats me, and wants to be paid: really, it is impossible to extract blood from a turnip, or do two things: losing or paying".

The strophes from 67 to 70 of the Canto VIII are delicious. In them the general, addicted to the game, makes a digression about the impossibility of his renouncing this vice.  

Octave 67

E sarà ver, ch' io abbia a star soggetto
Ad una cosa , che mi dà tormento?
Come tormento? oibò! s' io v' ho diletto!
Si; ma intanto per lui vivo scontento.
O perfido giuocaccio! o maladetto
Chi t’ha trovato, e me, che ti frequento!
Tu non ci hai colpa tu: a me il gastigo
Si dee dar, poiché con te m' intrigo .

"Is it true that I have to be submitted to a thing that persecutes me? Persecuted how? I delight in it! Yes, but in the meantime because of this game I live unhappy. Oh, cruel game! Damned the one who created you and damned myself, since I play! It is not your fault, my game; I’m the only one who deserves to be punished, because I intrigue with [i.e. am addicted to] you!"

Octave 68

Datemi dunque un mazzo in sulla testa:
Vedete! eccomi qui, ch' io non mi muovo:
Né voi farete cosa men, che onesta,
Se, dal giuocar, morendo, io mi rimuovo:
So ch' ogni dì sarebbe questa festa,
Ch'altro diletto, che giuocar non provo:
Ed a giuocare omai son tanto avvezzo,
Che 'l pentirmi non giovami da zezzo.

"So give me then a clout in the head. Look! Here I am, I do not move: you would not do a more honest thing if from the game, dying, I remove myself. I know that every day would be this party,  trying no other joy than the game. And I’m so accustomed to playing that my repentance won’t help".

Octave 69

L'usare ogni sapere, ogni mia possa
Non vale a farmi contro al giuoco schermo;
Imperocch' io l’ ho fitto sì nell' ossa,
Ch' amo il mio mal qual assetato infermo:
E forse giuocherò dentro alla fossa.
Che forse ? diciam pur: tengo per fermo:
E se trovar le carte ivi non posso,
Farò (purch' e' si giuochi) all' aliosso.

"To use all my knowledge, my power, doesn’t help to protect myself from the game, since I have got it into my bones, and I love this evil as a thirsty ill man. Maybe I will play even when I’m in the grave. Maybe? Certainly I will. And if I’m not able to find cards, I’ll play (because it is a game) at knucklebones".

Octave 70

Van co' libri alla fossa i gran dottori,
I bravi colla spada, e col pugnale;
Con libro, ed armi anch' io da giuocatori
Sarò portato morto al funerale,
Grillandato di fiori, e a picche, e cuori
Trapunta avrò la veste, e per guanciale
Quattro mattoni, e poiché pien di vermini
I quarti avrò, vo' fare un quarto a' Germini.

"Great doctors are buried with their books, the bold with their swords and daggers; I too will be will be brought to my funeral with book and arms, of the gamers, dressed with flowers [Italian word for the suit of clubs], and pikes [i.e. spades], and hearts. My dress will be a quilt and my pillow made with four  bricks [also a word for the suit of diamonds], and since I’ll have bowels full of worms, I will make a quarto [a type of book, also suggesting a unit of money] at Germini".

If the general thought in this way, even the troops fighting in two opposite formations were of a similar mold. And it could not be different because, as we observed, it is a comic-heroic poem. Some octaves of the First Canto are dedicated to the description of the troops marching. Among them were those of Bieco de’ Crepi (Piero de’ Becchi), Duke of "Orbatello", who, as his name implies, was blind in one eye (Orbetello is an Italian city, but "Orbatello" means "a little blind"). His troops were made up of blind men. Their emblem was the Devil of the Tarot.


Octave  37

Bieco de’ Crepi, Duca d’Orbatello,
Mena il suo terzo, che ha il veder nel tatto;
Cioè, perch’ei da un occhio sta a sportello,
Soldati ha preso, ch’anno chiuso affatto.
Son l’armi loro il bossolo e il randello:
Non tiron paga, reggonsi d’accatto:
Soffiano, son di calca e borsajoli,
E nemici mortali de’muriccioli.


"Bieco [Sinister] de’ Crepi [of Dying; also "decrepito"], Duke of Orbetello [like Orbatello = a little blind], leads his men, who see just by touching, because from keeping one eye at the spoletto [half the shop door, i.e. being half blind] he has chosen as soldiers just those who are completely closed [are entirely blind]. [The metaphor “to be at the spoletto” derives from those shops that on the occasion of unofficial holy days were half open; they only opened just a part of the wooden door, called the "spoletto". Referring to this metaphor, the expression "chiuso affato", “completely closed” means that they did not see at all, like a closed shop.] Their arms are the Case [bossolo, the box for charity] and the stick [randello, the baton blind people use for walking]. They do not draw pay, they endure by "borrowing" [In the Florentine Republic, the "accatto”, or "loan," was an imposition that was issued during disasters, with the agreement to give back the money later. Since usually money was not given back, there was a percentage sum to be paid every year. Here the writer, applying the phrase to blind people who actually were begging and never gave back money, wants to joke with the equivocation]. They blab [Soffiano, which is to say they live by informing, they are spies], and are of crowds [calca] with pretty purses [borsajoli], [a good situation for thieves]  and are mortal enemies of low little walls [since they do not see them and fall]". Michael Howard, who helped in the final translation, thinks that the suits might be alluded to here, the boxes for charity being cups, the sticks being staves, the begging for coins, swords maybe just from being soldiers.

Octave 38

La strada i più si fanno col bastone:
Altri la guida sempre d’ un suo cane:
Chi canta a piè d’un uscio un’orazione,
E fa scorci di bocca e voci strane:
Chi suona il ribechin, chi il colascione;
Così tutti van buscando il pane.
Han per insegna il diavol de’ Tarocchi,
Che vuol tentare un forno pien di gnocchi.

"The majority of them do the roads with canes, others always guided by his dog. Someone stops near a door to sing a song [typical behaviour to get something to eat from the owner of the house], and moves his lips strangely, emitting unusual sounds. Someone plays the rebec  [an ancient violin] and someone else the colascione [a plucked instrument], so they all go searching for food. As their emblem they have the Devil of the Tarot, which would frighten a bakery full of potato dumplings [to arouse a certain tension in the bakers, so that they will give food]".

(More details in the Italian version). 

Copyright by Andrea Vitali