Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

La Cassaria by Ariosto

The game of tarot in the comedy "La Cassaria" by Ludovico Ariosto



Essay by Andrea Vitali


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, Feb. 2012

On May 5th 1508, on the occasion of Carnival, was staged at the Ducal Palace in Ferrara La Cassaria by Ludovico Ariosto. Using the technique of "contaminatio", meaning the use of classical Latin characters and situations in a new plot, the author created the first comedy of the modern world in the vulgar tongue.


The painter Pellegrino da Udine created a set that became a prototype for its time, both for the quality of its perspective research and for its representation of the Greek town Metellino where the comedy takes place, “so well that the public in watching it could not get enough”.                                                                 

La Cassaria is a grandiose contamination of elements from Plautus and Terence, from its characters - rich and stingy fathers, sons yearning for love, greedy and more or less cunning servants, pimps and prostitutes - to the plot, which tells of a precious box, the source of the comedy's title, stolen by young Erofilo’s father, a merchant, instigated by the servant Volpino, with the purpose of pawning it to the procurer Lucrano to ransom the slave he loves.

Written and staged in prose on this first occasion, the comedy was translated by the author into dactylic verse at the end of 1528. and in that version it was presented on February 19th 1531. Girolamo da Sestola wrote about this production that “this Cassaria is not the way it was: it is longer and almost completely done over, so now it lasts 4 hours”.

Scene II of Act Four is centred on a dialogue between Volpino and Crisobolo, Erofilo’s father. Ariosto has the old father pronounce a satire against the immorality of time-wasting government officials who dedicate themselves to gaming rather than taking care of the public good. Among the list of these amusements is quoted, starting at line 1918, the game of tarot (1). 

Volpino: Che vuoi far?
Crisobolo: Che testimoni.
Mi sian qua dentro, ove entrar mi delibero,                         1905
Senza  aspettar Bargello, e sopraggiungere
Improviso al ruffiano e ritrovandoci
La cassa (senza altrui mezzo) pigliarmela:
Ch’ovunque io trovo la mia roba, è lecito
Ch’io me la pigli. S’a quest’ora andassimo,                           1910
Al Capitano so che, vi anderessimo
Indarno: o che ci farebbe rispondere
Che volesse cenare; o ci direbbono
Che per occupazioni d’importanzia
Si fosse ritirato: io so benissimo                                                 1915
L’usanze di costor, che ci governano;
Che quando in ozio son soli, o che perdono,
Il tempo a scacchi o sia a tarocco, o a tavole¹
O le più volte a flusso² e a  sanzo³, mostrano,
Allora, d’esser più occupati: pongono                                      1920
All’uscio un servitor per intromettere
Li giocatori e li ruffiani e spingere
Gli onesti cittadini indietro e gli uomini
V0lpino: Se gli facessi intendere,
Che tu gli avessi a dir cose che importano,                            1925
Non crederei che ti negasse audienza.

1 tavole = backgammon

2 flusso = type of primero 

3 sanzo = game with dice

Volpino: What do you want to do?
Crisobolo: To bear  witness.
Being inside, where I may enter, freely,                                            1905
Without waiting for Bargello, and to happen
Suddenly on the pimp and find
The box again (without other people's help) and take it:
For anywhere I find my stuff, it is permissible
For me to take it. If we would go at this time                                    1910
To the Captain I know that we would go now
In vain: he would answer
That he is going to eat; or someone would say that
He must be left alone
On important business: I know well                                                     1915
The habits of the ones who govern us;
When they laze around, or lose
Time playing chess or tarot [tarocco], or backgammon
Or sometimes primero and dice, they pretend
Then to be busy: they put                                                                       1920
A servant at the door to let
The players and pimps in
And push honest citizens and virtuous men away.
Volpino:  If you made  him understand,
That you have important things to tell him                                     1925
I would not believe that he would deny you an audience.

In the first version of the work in prose of 1508, Ariosto didn’t point out the particular  games, limiting himself to the expression “cards and dice” as reported below:

Volpino: Che ne vuoi fare?
Crisobolo: Vo intrare improviso in casa del ruffiano! Non poss’io, avendo uno o dua testimonii degni di fede apresso, tôr la roba mia dovunque io la ritrovi?. Se per parlare al Bassà andassimo ora, seria l’andata vana: o che trovassimo che cenar vorrebbe, o che giocherebbe o a carte o a dadi, o che stanco, da le facende del giorno, si vorria stare in ozio. Non so io l’usanza di questi che ci reggono, che quando più soli sono e stannosi a grattar la pancia, vogliono demostrare aver più occupazione? Fanno stare un servo alla porta, e che li giocatori, li ruffiani, li cinedi¹ introduca, e dia alli onesti cittadini e virtuosi uomini repulsa.
Volpino: Se li facesse intendere de ch’importanza fusse il tuo bisogno, non ti negherebbe audienza..

1 cinedi = Boys who prostitute themselves. Here its meaning is "Big trollops".

Volpino:  What do you want to do?
Crisobolo: I want to enter unexpectedly into the house of the pimp! Cannot I, having with me one or two witnesses worthy of faith, take my stuff wherever I find it? If we would go and talk to Bassà now, it would be in vain: he would be eating, or playing cards and dice, or he would be tired of the daily work, and would like to rest. Don’t I know the habits of the governors, who, when they are alone, laze around, and want to pretend they are very busy? They make a servant stay at the door, to let players, pimps and prostitutes in, and push honest citizens and virtuous men away.
Volpino:  If you would let him understand how important your need is he would not deny you an audience (2).

Since, apart from tarot, the games mentioned in the verses of the 1528 edition, which are "tavole (backgammon), flusso (a type of primero) and sanzo (a game with dice)", were already known for some time before this date, the fact that the author did not cite them in the prose version of 1508, but only had the general description “cards or dice”, does not mean that the writer didn’t know about them, but that he probably didn't  insert them for reason of literary construction.  

The term tarot in reference to the game was already in use in 1508 when Ariosto wrote his version in prose. It appears as Tarochi in an accounts register of the Este court for the second half of 1505, in a note dated June 30. Then it reappears a second time in the same register on December 29.

Ross Caldwell has also brought to our attention that the term tarochus, even if not referring to the card game, was already in use in the XVth century, as he identified in the Maccheronea (dedicated to Gaspare Visconti, d. 1499), of the poet Bassano Mantovano, in which the term is used with the meaning of “idiot, stupid”.

Erat mecum mea socrus unde putana
Quod foret una sibi pensebat ille tarochus
Et cito ni solvam mihi menazare comenzat

(My mother - in - law was with me, and this idiot thought he could get some money out of her, so he started threatening me)


In Giovan Giorgio Alione's Frotula de le dòne (Frottola of women), which we have identified, dated "toward 1494", which in the context of Charles VIII's descent into Italy, means the end of 1494 or a little later, the word Taroch appears with the meaning of "Foolish" (3).  We have also found the same meaning in numerous other documents (4).

Personally, I believe that the term "tarocco", in reference to the game, was already present in the second half of the XV century. Modern historiography tends to date the birth of a term back to at least twenty or twenty five years before it is found mentioned the first time. When Garzoni in his La Piazza Universale writes that the game of tarots was “A new invention,” referring to an affirmation of Volterrano (Raffaele Maffei, 1451-1522), even if the Commentari of this author does not have this passage, as different historians have affirmed, this doesn't mean that the passage was Garzoni's invention, because he doesn't expressly report having read it in that work, which otherwise deals with antiquity. Also, the quotation from Lacroix, that he had read such a passage in the Commentari (Cartes à jouer, vol. II of the work “Le moyen âge et la renaissance”, Paris, 1849) must be taken with due precaution, since it didn't report bibliographical references. Therefore the  passage could be in other works by Maffei.

Anyway, La Cassaria, in its adaptation in verse (1528), is important as one of the earliest documents known today  in which the term “tarot” appears in reference to the game.




1 - The edition used for these verses is that of 1536, printed in Venice by Marchio Sessa.

2 - Luigina Stefani (edited by), Ludovico Ariosto, Commedie I. La Cassaria. I Suppositi (in prosa), Morlacchi Editore, Perugia, 2007, p. 152.

3See our essays Taroch-1494.

4 - See our essay Tarocco sta per Matto (In Italian)

Copyright Andrea Vitali - 2003