Uncovering Italy’s Superlatives in people, places and things

Carte da Gioco with Modiano

If you’ve ever walked around the streets of Napoli, you’ve probably stumbled across a group of older men seated at a table and aggressively playing cards. Scopa! If you have Italian nonni or cousins or friends, you’ve probably found yourself hanging out for hours after a long dinner toiling over briscola.  Card playing in Italy is a national pastime and a regional, even territorial, big deal.

And it’s more than spying the settebello. Just like the never ending, mind bending dialects that define one region, territory and town from another, there are hundreds of local card games like Madrasso in Venice, Coteccio in Trieste and Zecchinetta that define a niche area of Italy with their rules and even with the design of the cards themselves.

Piacentine Playing Cards

Made in Trieste

We can thank Modiano for that.  In 1868, merchant Saul David Modiano arrived in Trieste with dreams of building a trading empire. He got pretty close.  After building up a global business distributing specialty designed cigarette papers, he added playing cards to his menu of goods. 

Cards had been in Italy since in the early medieval era, first in Sicily and eventually spreading throughout the mainland and through to northern Europe.  Entertainment and enlightenment, card playing was so extraordinarily popular that In 1759, Trieste merchant Rafael Marsiglio was granted the monopoly for the production and distribution of playing cards throughout the Adriatic and Trieste became a Las Vegas on the coast. A century later, Modiano capitalized on their popularity and invested in art, bringing in expert artists from Hungary to create beautiful suit designs. The carts were so beautiful that they became internationally coveted, likewise so did the company. Today, Modiano still makes cards in Trieste for Italy and the world, including international poker tournament cards that are proofed for fraud and chicanery.

Italian Playing cards used for Briscola, with spades, coppe, denari, and bastoni.

Know when to fold’em

It’s important to take a look at your cards. A pack of Italian cards is composed of 40  Latin-suited cards. The four suits are spade (swords), coppe (cups), denari (coins) and bastoni (clubs) with three face cards per suit – fante (knave), cavallo (knight), and re (king).  [There are some territories which are the ango-familiar French suit with picche (spades), fiori (clubs), quadri (diamonds) and cuori (hearts).]

As card games were du mode in the noblest of courts, it’s no wonder that their symbols – kings, queens, knaves and jokers- complemented the societal hierarchy, even if the games themselves often made fun of classicism.  This is where it gets fun. Suits of cards are beautifully designed and depending on where you are playing, and thus the kind of cards, the details of the clubs, swords, cups, coins and face cards can be entirely and eloquently different.

So what’s the difference in a deck like carte piacentine (Piacenza), carte siciliane (Sicily) and carte napoletane (Napoli)?  Regional variants mean pattern and detail difference. Carte napoletane are mainly used in the south, but the most popular of all cards for their design. The face cards represent figures dating back to the 1800s. Take a look at the tre di bastoni (three of clubs), also known as the Gatto Mammone for its long whiskered man.

Carte piacenze (used in the north) are similar to napoletane, but the details on the money and the face cards are different, meanwhile carte siciliane are physically a bit smaller and less elaborate. And the details are just different enough that you’ll know they are Sicilian, in fact you may find symbols like the Trinacria on them.

Italian triumverate

If you really want to hang out dopo cena, you’ll need to learn how to play the following games:  Scopa, Briscola and Tressette.

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