Once upon a time...
Coordination: Francesca Sborgi
Project: Chiara Ulivi
Texts: Laura Donati (introduction); Chiara Ulivi
Editing web: Andrea Biotti
Editing texts: Patrizia Naldini
Photographs: Roberto Palermo
Giuseppe Piattoli, Carlo Lasinio
We are in Florence at the turn of the 18th century and publishers Niccolò Pagni and Giuseppe Bardi embark on a publishing project involving two teachers from the Academy of Fine Arts: Giuseppe Piattoli, professor of drawing, and Carlo Lasinio, professor of engraving. The theme of the volume is as popular as ever and certainly in line with the commercial orientation of the two publishers, namely an illustration of traditional Florentine games.
Coloured etching 1786c.
Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, inv. 22096 st. sc.
Piattoli and Lasinio had already had several opportunities to collaborate, the former as a draughtsman and the latter as an engraver. They were clearly particularly in tune when dealing with popular culture themes, sometimes even with caricature overtones. Together, they tried their hand at another volume published by Pagni e Bardi dedicated to Tuscan proverbs and, shortly afterwards, they created a series of panels dedicated to Marfisa's Wedding, probably inspired by Carlo Gozzi's mock-heroic poem, 'La Marfisa Bizzarra' (1774), and the numerous reproduction prints from Willam Hogarth's paintings on 'Marriage A-la-Mode"' These works were in continuity with the Tuscan literary tradition of a satirical and burlesque character, and responded to the widespread interest in illustrated books, which had always been appreciated even at the Florentine grand ducal court.
Multi-plate colour etching, 1785c.
Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, inv. 93908
If we just know the basics about Piattoli, the figure of Carlo Lasinio is as well-defined as ever in its multifaceted nature and has been the subject of many studies. Originally from Treviso, where he was born in 1759, he was in Florence since at least 1779, when we find him in the Uffizi Gallery studying and copying ancient paintings and sculptures. A natural consequence of his interest in the Grand Ducal collections was that, a few years later, he tried his hand at reproducing the pictorial and sculptural works belonging to them in print, which had a large market also as a consequence of the growing fashion of the Grand Tour. Even on a production for expressly commercial purposes, Carlo Lasinio was a notable experimenter with engraving techniques that were not widespread on the peninsula at the time. His main goal was to obtain reproducible illustrations in colour. He worked for a time in Florence with the Frenchman Edouard Gautier Dagoty from whom he learned the technique of printing with three or four plates, engraved and inked with different colours to obtain a colour image from the superimposition of different impressions. In other cases, he limited himself to using the so-called 'à la poupée' technique, in which different colours were inked on the same plate at the same time, or, finally, brush colouring of etchings printed in black, as in the plates illustrated here.
Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, inv.104076
He devoted himself tirelessly to reproduction engraving at least until he received the prestigious appointment as conservator of the Pisa Cemetery in 1807. This assignment only partly distracted him from his profession as an engraver: he abandoned popular prints in favour of documenting works of the past (the first edition of the series on the 'Pitture a fresco del Camposanto di Pisa' dates back to 1812) and adapted his execution technique to the cooler, and thus more objective, contour line engraving, which was beginning to enjoy greater success among scholars and admirers of the arts at that time.
Giuseppe Piattoli, Carlo Lasinio
for Niccolò Pagni, and Gius. Bardi
oblong folio volume, 25 panels, each 320 x 460 mm
GDSU, invv. 14997-15021 St. vol.
The series presented here, published in 1790, consists of 24 panels, each corresponding to a specific Florentine game or tradition, preceded by the frontispiece with a complete list of illustrations. The prints, etched and subsequently watercoloured, present lively, animated scenes, which at times also devote space to a description of views of late 18th century Florence. Only two are signed by Carlo Lasinio ('La Civetta' bottom left, and 'L'Infilalago' bottom right), but the stylistic homogeneity of the series shows that the others, if not directly engraved by him, were also executed under his close artistic direction. Five years later, Pagni and Bardi published a new series of Florentine Games, smaller in size and with a reduced number of illustrations.
As far back as the Renaissance, the term 'pillory', as well as public mockery, denoted a game aimed at placing a person at the centre of some sort of cruel joke. The chosen victim leaves the scene and the other players have to indicate reasons why they could be pilloried, which are then stated when they return: these range from physical characteristics, to character traits, clothing details, etc. Here it appears that the lady at the centre of the game is the focus of mockery by the group of young people who observe her mockingly and point at her.
In the table of contents on the title page, this game is suggested as a sort of counterbalance against those who enjoy making fun of others: “The Berlina, the pillory to which the most unrelenting mocker is destined".
It is a Tuscan version of the classic 'Mosca Cieca’ (blind man's buff) with an additional opening part: a blindfolded participant, placed in the middle of the playing field, is asked "What are you doing in the middle of the square?", he replies "Picking garlic!"; at this point the blindfolded participant receives a first tap from a companion who says "Then take this!" and the game itself begins with the blindfolded participant having to grab his companions around him.
Mosca cieca has always been among the most popular square games: it began as a children's game, but in the 18th century it was particularly popular and played by adults as a parlour game. Given the slightly mischievous grace with which the ladies are depicted in this engraving (the blindfolded player is in fact a man), we note the variant in which the blindfolded man recognises his captured companion by touch. If the blindfolded person guesses, the parts are reversed and the captured becomes the capturer. The motto below seems to confirm this interpretation.
From the title page: “Il Beccalaglio, the one who is blinfolded grabs hold of the others all around”.
An extremely popular game, it was once practised mainly between Carnival and the beginning of Lent. An earthenware pan is filled with sweets and hung from the branch of a tree: blindfolded players must take turns trying to break it by hitting it with a stick, after being spun around at least a couple of times. The origins of the game, possibly Italian, are lost in legend: it is mentioned in the Italian version of Rabelais' Gargantua, but not in the French original. A representation of this game, contemporary with the creation of these engravings, can be found in the Boboli Gardens, with the sculptural group by Giovan Battista Capezzuoli created between 1778 and 1780.
The motto refers to the inability to grasp the real (and thus to take aim, as in the case depicted) if the fire of love clouds the gaze, confirming the connection between play and love, established in the light and amusing representations of this album.
From the title page: “La Pentolaccia is the target of a blindfolded player”.
From Fragonard to Watteau, the seesaw is an eighteenth-century pastime, gallant and mischievous par excellence: the maiden hovers in the air, pushed by a young man, her wide skirts subject to the tricks of the wind, prey to the vertigo produced by the increasingly daring swing. Winks, seduction and amorous delights found their perfect theatre in the parks of aristocratic villas, as attested by the image and motto below, while the index on the title page contains a much more flat and didactic description of the game: “L’Altalena, a sort of balancing on a rope”.
It seems to be the Piedmontese version of the ball game: two teams of 4 players face each other by passing the ball and hitting it with a wooden bracelet that covers the hand and wrist; the ball can be cleared after bouncing it off a wall. It is a game of very ancient origins that was inspired by the French jeu de paume and found widespread popularity among young people of the nobility and beyond, until it reached a peak of popularity in the 19th century with the creation of spaces dedicated to the game (spheristeria) and the birth of teams that competed in official tournaments. In Florence, the first spheristerium was located in the Borgo Pinti area and was demolished with the destruction that followed the modernisation of the historical centre when the Tuscan city was assigned the role of capital of the newly-born Kingdom of Italy (1865-71). By popular acclaim, it was rebuilt by public subscription in the area outside Porta San Gallo: the building remains today in the place-name Via del Pallone (i.e. Ball Street), near Viale dei Mille.
The Age of Enlightenment paid particular attention to health and fitness, which were emphasised by the motto under the engraving and the concise definition in the title page index: “Il Pallone, a gymnastic game". In fact, the bracelet weighed between 1.8 and 2 kg and was used to eject a leather ball 12 cm in diameter. Players distinguished themselves on the court by wearing a colourful, fringed sash around their waist with the athlete's initials, often a gift from an admirer.
We are talking about the game of bowls, known since ancient times, traces of which can be found in Neolithic burials in Turkey, reaching as far as Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, from where legionaries exported it to every part of the empire. A very popular game in every era, it came to involve people from all walks of life and affluence, and was regulated if not outright banned due to the riots that were generated around the competitions. In Florence, a small square, called 'delle Pallottole' (i.e. Bowls Square) near the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, testifies to the popularity of this pastime, forbidden in other places and confined to that very central space. Two players or two teams of 3 or 4 players compete in throwing the ball as close as possible to the initial jack.
From the title page: “Le Pallottole, where the smallest ball one is the target”.
It is a gentle version of a rather brutal game called 'Mano calda' (i.e. hot hand): a person blindfolded or leaning against a wall receives a slap on the hand stretched across his back, and has to guess who hit him. Again, the 18th-century meaning is that the gentleman blindfolded rests on a cushion held in her lap by a maiden. This justifies the motto that the game does not proceed because the young man is not motivated to win, since he can enjoy the closeness of the lady. Therefore, it seems to have come from the world of Venetian nobility, with the custom of resting the face on a cheek of fine cloth.
From the title page: “Il Guancialino d’oro, the player guesses whom he is being beaten by”.
Bicci calla calla calla,
quante corna ha la cavalla?
Quante corna son lassù?
This nursery rhyme was repeated by the player riding on the back of his playing partner, who had to guess how many fingers the other was showing, as the entry in the title page also explains: “Bicci calla calla cc. Chi sta sotto deve indovinar quante dita alza quello di sopra”.
The game is called 'Salincerbio', and is described in the preface to one of the editions of the mock-heroic poem 'Malmantile racquistato' by the Florentine painter Lorenzo Lippi. The text in fact contains, in addition to the amusing epic story about the dispute over the kingdom of Malmantile (a village in the hills west of Florence), a sort of recap of Tuscan idioms, sayings, proverbs, games and ancient traditions, which even obtained validation from The Accademia della Crusca (historical Italian language academy). The game is in fact also found in the third edition of the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca of 1691 as "Exercise game played by our children".
The game depicted here seems to be properly 'Hide and Seek', probably known in every corner of the Earth: one player, counting up to a set number, gives the other players time to hide, then searches for them and must return to base before his or her partner is found. In the 'Capo a nascondere' version, the game is played in pairs: of the 'counting' pair, one waits at the base and the other searches and then runs back to his partner when he finds the hidden players.
The illustrator has set this game in a stately setting where adults act as spectators and it is the children who play, as defined on the title page: “Capo a nascondersi, hide and seek, a boy hides, and if he is found, it is up to him to seek together with the others”.
It is a fierce version of the more classic blind man's buff: the two blindfolded players try to hit each other with a knotted cloth without coming off a bag placed on the ground. It is one of the games used in the countryside, as suggested by the illustration itself, which depicts commoners and lords together watching the contest.
A set of sculptures in serena stone made by Orazio Mochi and Romolo Ferrucci del Tadda in 1620 depicts this game in the Boboli Gardens.
From the title page: “Il Saccomazzone, two blindfolded men avoid each other's blows".
One of the oldest and most popular games in the world, it has a few variations but consists of overcoming the force of gravity by spinning a piece of wood ending in a point. In the version shown here, the motion is imprinted with a string that is wound around the spinning top. A game that was also popular in ancient Rome, it has made a comeback in recent years thanks to a metal version with which to set up fights with players armed with the same contraption.
For Homer (Iliad XIV, 409-413) and Virgil (Aeneid VII 378-384) the spinning top game was a metaphor for the turning of fortune, as suggested by the motto and above all by the illustration itself, the only one in the series that contains some sort of moralising content: while the players on the right are practising spinning top within a circle drawn on the ground, in the background on the left, a young man with a flushed face drinks greedily from a flask, while another one points at him in a censorious manner; in the centre of the scene, standing, indifferent to the game, another character dishevelled in his robes and uncertainly poised seems to enhance the warning inherent in the scene.
From the title page: “La Trottola, the spinning top, a lathed cone of wood, spun by a twine”.
Also called 'Chereché' it is a variant of 'Heads or tails': if two coins are dropped into a hat, it is called 'Cappelletto'. It is a kind of game of chance where the winner is whichever of the two players sees the face of the coin he or she has chosen turned up and dropped into the hat. The name of the game varies from era to era and from place to place, depending also on the type of coins used. The ancient Romans used coins that had the head of a deity on one side and the prow of a ship on the other. In many cases it is part of another game or is the mechanism by which it is decided who will make the first move, as for example in the game of football. It is synonymous in common parlance with 'trusting fate'.
From the title page: “Il Cappelletto, in which the external part of a coin is to be guessed”.
From the description on the title page, it is clear that with this sort of 'tag game' conducted by a character sitting on the ground while the others circle around him, there is also a mocking intent towards the player who has to grab the others: “Madonna fuscellina, the surrounding players make fun of those sitting on the ground”.
The stately context of the setting combines perfectly with the elegant movement described by the characters in the play and depicted with the grace and agility of the graphics of the Frenchman Jacques Callot who was present at the Medici court in the early 17th century, and from whom Lasinio and Piattoli drew their inspiration.
In Florence, as elsewhere in Europe since the Middle Ages, on Christmas Eve a wooden log was burned in the fireplace, which, beaten with springs and a shovel, released sparks from which auspices were drawn for the coming year. On Christmas morning, ashes were then collected and scattered on the fields as a votive offering to protect crops.
Dante Alighieri in Paradise (Divine Comedy, XVIII, 100-102) also mentions this belief:
“Poi come nel percuoter de' ciocchi arsi
surgono innumerevoli faville
onde gli stolti sogliono augurarsi...”
It then became a tradition to donate a good-luck log made of olive or oak before Christmas Eve: the 'Ceppo' can therefore rightly be considered in Tuscany as the forerunner of the exchange of Christmas presents before the figure of Father Christmas became the protagonist of the feast. Families would wait for midnight around the log fire in the fireplace; children would leave shortly before midnight and adults would place small gifts, sweets or dried fruit. While waiting, the children recited a nursery rhyme:
“Ave Maria del Ceppo,
L'Angiolo mi rispose:
Ceppo mio bello, portami tante cose!”.
When the adults knocked on the log, the children came running back and discovered the presents.
Over time, the log changed shape and emerged from the chimney to become a sort of elongated pyramid resembling the modern Christmas tree, with special spaces in which to place gifts but also decorations, candles, twigs... The gift logs were often made at home or bought from the vendors who in Florence were located under the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo where one could also buy plaster characters for the 'capannuccia' (the nativity scene).
The Vocabolario della Crusca in its fourth edition (1729-38) also mentions the tradition of the Christmas log: “Ceppo, è una Mancia, o Donativo, che si dà per lo più a' fanciulli nella solennità del Natale di Nostro Signore”.
From the title page: “Il Ceppo, a log with gifts for children during Christmas holidays”.
A fundamental mode of movement play, dance can be a game in itself when the element of competition between dancers or pairs of dancers is included.
Here, musicians, dancers and a table laid in what appears to be a stately country residence take us back to the amusements that lords and commoners took in noble palaces as in the countryside, in summer or for Carnival; the couple on the right seems to be taken from one of the banquets of the 16th-17th-century pictorial and literary tradition, and the act of mixing wine is an allusion to the game of love; the dance itself activates the mechanisms of seduction as suggested by the motto underlying the representation.
From the title page: “Il Ballo, dancing as a gymnastic exercise”.
"Le Befane, popular feast in Florence on the evening of 5 January": as the definition on the title page states, this illustration represents the tradition of carrying a puppet dressed as a woman, hoisted onto a high cart, surrounded and celebrated by a crowd of naughty children with lit torches and musical instruments, through the various quarters of Florence (here we are in Santa Maria Nuova, in front of the loggias of the ancient hospital) to the Logge del Mercato Nuovo (the Porcellino Market) where it was set on fire. This is how the Carnival celebrations began: the so-called "befanotti", boys with faces painted black and gaudy clothes, took part in the colourful and festive processions that saw their heyday in the eighteenth century, and who sang the "befanate".
A very popular festival until the end of the 19th century, it was definitely dedicated to kids when the tradition of the puppet bonfire was discontinued and the celebration was increasingly consumed within the home. The fairy-tale and slightly scary air of the ugly old lady who passes through children's homes at night to leave sweets and small gifts, but also coal and onions for those who do not behave, took over. It then became a popular nursery rhyme that was sung (and is sung) to help children to go to sleep:
“Ninna nanna ninna oh
questo bimbo a chi lo do?
Lo darò alla Befana che lo tenga una settimana
lo darò all'Omo Nero
che lo tenga un mese intero”.
In the representation of this kind of blind man's buff, the subtext is once again the game of seduction, whose main driving force is pleasure. Playing blindfolded increases desire, the sense of anticipation for the unexpected and the possible fortuitous encounter. In fact, the children are here watching the game being played by adults, while the little ones are grappling with a cradle and a small doll.
From the title page: “Le Chiavi, the keys, two blindfolded players chase each other as soon as two keys hit one another".
The motto perfectly describes the tradition of Shrove Thursday in which masquerades, allegorical floats, and ceremonial carriages invaded the city centre, even involving the grand ducal court, to converge on the Lungarni (here the scene takes place in Piazza della Signoria) and finally burn the Carnival puppet on a boat in the middle of the Arno at Ponte Santa Trinita.
The term 'Berlingaccio' seems to derive from the Franconian 'brëdling', tablet or lath, later Italianised into 'berlingo', from which the verb 'berlingare' comes, which stands for drinking and talking, chattering after eating and drinking heavily. It is therefore the prelude to Lent, a triumph of food, wine, jokes and unrestrained revelry. A typical sweet, leavened and very simple but fragrant and tasty, was offered at every banquet: the 'Schiacciata alla fiorentina', still the object of a competition between Florentine pastry chefs, each of whom jealously guards a secret recipe. 'Berlingozzi' were also round sweets made of sugar paste, flour and eggs.
From the title page: “Il Berlingaccio, the day when the smartest guys whistle at the others”.
“Ona ona ona ma che bella rificolona... la mia l'è co' fiocchi, la tua l'è co' pidocchi!”. This and other similar mottos accompanied the traditional parade that took place in Florence on 7 September on the eve of the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary: colourful and decorated paper lanterns hanging from the top of a stick with a lighted candle inside, were displayed by the children who at the same time tried to save them from the cruel attack of other children who, armed with putty and blowpipes, tried to make them fall so they could burn them. The all-Tuscan and specifically Florentine spirit is that of the prank and the joke often tinged with malice, as can also be deduced from the motto under the image.
“Rificolona” derives from “Fierucolona”, the fair that on the feast of Our Lady, 8 September, is still celebrated in Piazza Ss.ma Annunziata in Florence (where this scene is also set); by extension, the term indicated the country women who came down from the Casentino or Pistoia valleys to the city in gaudy festive attire to sell wares and foodstuffs; peasants and farmers set out on foot on the evening of the 7th, armed with paper lanterns on tall sticks to light their way in and out of the city (public lighting in Florence arrived in 1808 with oil lamps). The town's biting irony was directed at the peasant girls' flashy clothing, mocking them and calling them 'rificolone', which was also what their lanterns were called and which naughty children enjoyed throwing stones at to watch them fall and burn.
From the title page: “Le Rificolone, noisy party on the evening of 7 September in Florence".
It is interesting how the illustration and the underlying motto cover more than the illustration of the game itself, an exaltation of the age of innocence in which simple games such as skittles keep the minds and energies of children occupied, while in later life games are replaced by amorous amusements and painful love.
The game, relegated to a corner of the stage, it is nevertheless faithfully represented with a fair number of skittles: 9-11 skittles were played with a ball 10-20 cm in diameter. Skittle sets have also been found in Egyptian burials dating back to 3200 BC. The game of skittles reached such popularity that, due to the betting and scuffles that ensued, the game was often banned; from the 18th century onwards, the number of skittles became 10 in order to circumvent the prohibitions on the 9-pin game. Bowling is based on the game of skittles.
From the title page: “I Birilli, the skittles, where the player that wins is the one who knocks down most of them with a ball”.
It is an ancient game involving the use of a club to hit a ball so that it passes within a circle planted on the ground, similar to Croquet.
From the title page: “Trucco a terra, where the winner is the one who passes through the circle or gets as close as possible”.
A very simple game with predictable nasty overtones, this version of 'Civetta’ (the Owl) involves one player in the centre of the game wearing a cap while the other two try to make him drop it to the ground; the covered player defends himself by moving his head and trying to place his hands on the ground, which means he cannot be attacked, while endeavouring to beat his companions. Whoever knocks the cap down takes the place of the player who wore it. The mischievous subtext of this representation is always quite evident, in the motto as in the image, where the game scene involves hugs and languid glances.
A sculptural assembly in the Boboli Gardens represents the game of two and is a late 18th-century replica by Giovan Battista Capezzuoli from a 17th-century original.
From the title page: “La Civetta, where four people dodge each other's blows”.
The game that bears this name and has been known since ancient Rome, involves players, but more frequently female players, facing each other in the arduous task of threading as many needles as possible with an ordinary sewing thread in precarious conditions, e.g. sitting on a rolling pin and with only one foot on the ground. Nothing in this engraving seems to depict this kind of game, but the quiet situation on the left, where a maiden carries a basket and children stand around her, is perhaps a counterpoint to the turbulent games taking place in the rest of the scene, which the title page seems to refer to: “Infilalago, stacking one after the other on each other’s back", which seems to describe the common game of “Cavallina”.
The reference to mythological characters is used here for the representation of a fight between two unarmed wrestlers based only on strength and on the ability to move the opponent off the pitch, as stated in the relative definition on the title page: “La Lotta, where the winner is the one who moves the opponent by wrestling”.
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Giuseppe Piattoli, Carlo Lasinio
Coordination: Francesca Sborgi
Project: Chiara Ulivi
Texts: Laura Donati (introduction); Chiara Ulivi
Editing web: Andrea Biotti
Editing texts: Patrizia Naldini
Photographs: Roberto Palermo