Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Taroch: vulgar Latin

Zanitonella by Folengo and the vulgar Tuscan


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, Feb. 2012

Teofilo Folengo, whom De Sanctis considered one of the greatest in our literary history, besides Baldus, published three Maccheronees: Zanitonella, Moscheide (The war of the flies) and the Libellus epistolarum et epigrammatum (Book of letters and epigrams). Among these, the first deserves great attention because, besides reporting the term "Taroch" in reference to the game, it connects thematically to the composition Dialogo de Italia, regarding the political situation of our peninsula in the Renaissance, of which we have completed an examination elsewhere.

Zanitonella appeared in four drafts in as many different years: in 1517 (called the Paganini edition); in complete form in 1521 (Toscolanense edition), in 1535 (Cipadense edition) and finally in the 1552 posthumous edition (Vigaso Cocaio edition).

The so-called Toscolanense edition (from Toscolano, on Lake Garda, the place it was printed) published in January of 1521, which collected under the title of Opus Merlini Cocaii Poetae Mantuani Macaronicorum, besides Baldus, the three works already mentioned; in it the draft of Zanitonella was longer and different in comparison with the preceding one. Although the formal model of composition, whose title is due to the fusion of the names Zanina and Tonellus (the two protagonists of the work),  is the typical classical style, the onomastic material is drawn from the world of the rural dialect, already revealed in the names of the protagonists: Tonellus (Tones, Tonio, Tonino) and Zan(n)ina, (Suan(n)ina), representatives of the figure of the rustic in numerous literary works of that time (1).

The love theme of the work - divided into thirteen sonnets, seven eclogues and one strambotto (quae constat ex tredecim sonolegiis, septem ecclogis et una strambottolegia) - is evident from the frontispiece: "Zanitonella, quae de amore Tonelli erga Zaninam tractat", that is "Zanitonella, that treats of the love of Tonello for Zanina".

The passage of interest to us, in which the game of tarot is cited, is found in the First Eclogue, composed in minor Sapphic strophes, in which is contained a "Prophetia de Federico Marchionne Gonzagiaco", which is to say a prophecy on Marquis Federico Gonzaga (2). The interlocutors are Tonello, Filippo and Pedrale (Tonellus, Philippus et Pedralus interlocutores).

The subject of the eclogue is unravelled through a situation of bucolic character, in a dialogue in which a real historical theme is faced, that is, the different destiny of Brescia and Mantua: the first involved in disasters and lootings, the second living in peace thanks to diplomatic actions of the Gonzaga, whose praises, above all toward Marquis Federico, recur throughout the entire Folengo corpus.

During the dialogue among the three shepherds, Tonello, turning to his friend Pedrale, praises  Mantua's situation in this way:


Mantua est cunctis melior citadis,                              165
Mantuae gens est bona, liberalis,
Mantuam semper squarquarare sentis,
                                                   barba Pedrale.
Ista primaros generat poëtas,
excitat pronos iuvenes ad arma,                                  170
ricca frumento, pegoris, olivis,
                                                   pisci bus, uvis.
Semper in ballis godit et moreschis,
hic strepunt pivae, cifoli, canelli,
hicve zamporgnae, pifari, rubebae,                            175
                                                   hic cagacimbay.
Non ibi proles gibilina, plus quam
ghelpha guardatur, sed amant vicissim,
prandeunt, cenant, caciant, osellant,
                                                   carmina dicunt.              180
Non ibi cartae, tavolerus atque,
non ibi taroch, crica, sbarainus,
cum quibus ludis iuvenes sedendo
                                                   corpora guastant;
ut super montem male barca possat,                           185
ut natat currus pelagi per undas,
hoc idem parent iuvenes sedentes
                                                  ludere cartis.
Mantuae ludunt cugolis rotundis,
quas vocat Bressae populus borellas,                            190
quando per ferri spacium balotta
                                                  itque reditque;
sgonfias ballas veluti vesiga
sole sub caldo scanulis balanzant:
hic batit - signat caciam sed alter -,                              195
                                                   ille rebattit.
Giostrulae, scrimae, caciae, palestrae
sunt iuventutis bona Mantuanae,
Brixiae nec non, sibi quam sorellam
                                                   Mantua fecit.                     200


Mantua is the best of all cities, the people of Mantua are good, liberal, you always feel that Mantua enjoys itself, uncle Pedrale. (1)

It produces major poets, spurs its well prepared young people to the army, and it is rich in wheat, sheep, olives, fishes, grapes.

It always delights in balls and Moorish dances (2), here bagpipes resound,  panpipes whistle (3), or here pipes, rebecs (4), here harpsichords.

Here we don't mind the tribes of Ghibelline or Guelph, but they are mutually loved, they have lunches, suppers, they practise hunting and catching birds, they recite poems.

Here there are no cards, no game boards, here there is no tarot, cricca or Sbaraglino (5), games with which the young people, staying seated, ruin their bodies;

as a boat is positioned badly on a mountain, or a cart swims on the  waves of the sea,  in the same way seem young people who sit playing cards.


In Mantua they play bowls, which people of Brescia call borelle, when the little ball enters an iron space (6),  goes in and comes out;

under the warm sun they throw at clubs (7) balls as deflated as blisters, the one bats - but the other marks the shooting (8) -, hits it back.

Carousels, fencing matches, hunting, gymnastic exercises, are the activities valued by the youth of Mantua, as well as those of Brescia, which became Mantua's sister (3).

(1)  Pedrale is the name of the companion whom Tonello addresses. The term "barba" (beard), which appears in the original text, had the meaning of uncle, but it was also used in a generic sense as a title attributed to a respected person.

(2)  The Moorish [in English, "Morris"] dance was a type of dance of Arabic origin that was quite famous in the Renaissance.

(3)  Cannuli is for panpipes or reed instruments.

(4)  The rebecs were ancient stringed instruments, ancestors of our violin.

(5)  Folengo, in Baldus, indicates Sbaraglino as a particular game played with dice.

(6)  Space delimited by iron bars.

(7)  Scannelli were a particular type of clubs.

(8)  In the technical language of this game, caccia (shot) was a point in the procedure,  marked through complex rules that determined the outcomes of the game.

We have seen in our textual examination of the Dialogo de Italia by Francesco Vigilio (4) of Mantua, that the term "Taroch" was considered as having a barbarian origin, without any Latin derivation, "nulla latina ratione".  In the "Notes on the handwriting" of the Folengo texts, Zaggia considers it a vulgarized Latin word. Dealing with the diacritical function, that is of the additional signs used to specify a particularity of pronunciation not made by the usual signs, concerning the letter h, he writes "According to the norm of Tuscan-based Italian handwriting, the h serves indicate the velar [using the soft palate] sound of c and g before a palatal vocal: and this use is also recognizable regularly in the macaronic language of Folengo, particularly for entries [voci] of Tuscan literary diffusion such as nocchia, nocchierus, pecchia, etc. (notice the geminated c, always from Tuscan literary use); again for the velar value of ch, we can recall trincher (from the German), or, finally, taroch (at Zan T 182, Zan. C 224) or tach tich toch...." (5). Here the reference is exclusively to the vulgar linguistic ambit as expressed in the Normula macaronica de sillabis preface to the Toscolana edition "Quaelibet vocabula vulgariter latinizzata scribi debent in forma vulgari", that is "In which way the vulgarly Latinized words have to be written in vulgar form".


- cfr: Massimo Zaggia (ed.), Teofilo Folengo. Maccheronee Minori (Minor Maccheronee), Einaudi, Turin, 1987, pag. 50.
2 - In thee Laudes Merlini of the Toscolanense edition, Merlin Cocai is introduced as belonging to a legendary past and supplied with prophetic virtues.
3 - For the translation we have drawn from that given by Massimo Zaggia (edited by), op. cit., which we have modified in some parts, while adding some notes.
4 - Read about in the essay Taroch: nulla latina ratione.
5 - Massimo Zaggia (edited by), op. cit., page 619.