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It’s Different in Naples, Italy: The Neapolitan Playing Card Deck

Neapolitan playing cards from Naples, Italy. (photo by Tui Snider)
Neapolitan playing cards from Naples, Italy. (photo by Tui Snider)

Differences Between the Neapolitan and American Card Deck

Did you know that in Naples, Italy people play cards with a completely different deck than we do in the USA? Unlike the American 52 card deck, southern Italians use a 40 card deck.

Also, Neapolitan cards are not numbered, so you need to count how many of that particular suit are on the card. The two of swords, for instance, has two swords drawn on it, but no numbers. This type of card goes up to seven. After that, for the eight, nine and ten, there are face cards. The entire deck is slightly smaller than the American deck, and I like how they fit into my hand.

Neapolitan playing cards from Naples, Italy. (photo by Tui Snider)
Neapolitan playing cards from Naples, Italy. (photo by Tui Snider)

The four suits in a Neapolitan card deck are:

bastoni, meaning, “clubs,” and as you can see in the little drawings, they look a lot more like clubs than the clovers we have in our card decks.

spade, meaning, “swords,” which look much more like swords than the spades in our deck. (But now the word “spade” makes more sense, doesn’t it?)

denari, meaning, “money,” and as you can see it is represented by coins.

coppe, meaning, “cups.”

I’ve been told that denari corresponds to the American suit of diamonds, which makes sense, but I’m not sure how or why cups became hearts. If anyone out there knows, leave a comment. One thing I do know, however, is that the suits of the Neapolitan card deck are the same as the suits of the Tarot deck.

I think it’s interesting that of these four suits, two are weapons and another one is money, which – when you really think about it – can be a weapon in its own right!

Neapolitan playing cards from Naples, Italy. (photo by Tui Snider)
Neapolitan playing cards from Naples, Italy. (photo by Tui Snider)

The three face cards in a Neapolitan card deck are:

fante, meaning “knave.” This card is worth eight points.

cavallo, meaning, “knight.” This card is worth nine points.

re, meaning, “king.” Which, as you probably guessed by now, is worth ten points.

The Neapolitan card deck’s face cards, called veste, which means, “dressed,” and do not include a Queen. So for some reason there are no women in the Neapolitan card deck!

Neapolitan playing cards from Naples, Italy. (photo by Tui Snider)
Neapolitan playing cards from Naples, Italy. (photo by Tui Snider)

Scopa and Briscola

Scopa and Briscola are the most popular card games played in Naples. These two games are played throughout Italy, but rules vary according to the region. There is even a 1972 movie named after a particular version of scopa called Lo scopone scientifico.

“Lo scopone scientifico” is a dark comedy starring Bette Davis and Joseph Cotten, in which Davis plays a cold-hearted be-yotch who pops over to Rome every year to play scopa for money with a poor couple. Even though she’s got cash coming out the gills, she gleefully wipes out their meagre savings. There’s a twist at the end, however, and Davis’ character “gets hers.” (Sadly, I couldn’t find this movie on Netflix, so I don’t know when I’ll get to see it.)

Neapolitan playing cards from Naples, Italy. (photo by Tui Snider)
Neapolitan playing cards from Naples, Italy. (photo by Tui Snider)

Everyone Plays Cards in Naples

Everyone plays cards in Naples, Italy – or so it seems. When I lived there, I would often see shopkeepers playing cards when I entered their stores. The butcher down the street was nearly always in the middle of a lively game. I think there must have been some money changing hands, because he and his buddies were really into their games.

I never minded when the butcher would tell me to, “Aspetta un’attimo,” meaning that I should wait a moment, because I got a kick out of watching the heated rivalry between he and his pals. I could always tell if he’d won that round, too, because of the smile on his face and how he would be humming a tune as he helped me. When he lost, he’d scowl and mutter choice words under his breath instead.

Neapolitan playing cards from Naples, Italy. (photo by Tui Snider)
Neapolitan playing cards from Naples, Italy. (photo by Tui Snider)

Why you should buy a Neapolitan card deck

If you ever visit Naples, I highly suggest that you buy a Neapolitan card deck. You can find them in most Tabacchi shops for less than five dollars. It’s a great way to meet locals, because later, when you’re kicking back at an outdoor cafe, sipping limoncello or eating gelato, you can pull that deck out and start looking through the cards. Someone is bound to notice, and before you know it, a friendly local will be at your table teaching you to play scopa or briscola.

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19 Comments

  1. Paul Paul

    I still have these cards when I got them in Italy when my grandparents took me in 1965. Still have them a treasure them

    • Oh, how cool that you’ve saved your Neapolitan card deck all these years! I enjoyed seeing shopkeepers and friends playing with those unique cards when I lived there. Thanks for sharing! :)

  2. Chris Chris

    Regarding the cups to heart’s, in Tarot, cup cards refer to emotions and the emotional realm. Nowadays we think of hearts as the source of our emotions. I’d wager (pun intended) that there’s a connection there.

    • I like that idea, Chris! Makes sense to me. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment! :D

    • Gabey Gabey

      Also in Tarot, a lot of decks show their Wands (Clubs) cards as having some green leaves sprouting. Those might have been the reason that our Clubs suit is depicted with a little clover.

      I concur on the “Cups represent emotions” explanation as the reason why we use Hearts as a suit in our card decks.

      • Thanks for weighing in on this topic, Gabey! Makes a lot of sense. :)

  3. Hi! Nice post, really, BUT….
    :-) I did some paintings inspired by these cards : Woman of swords, Woman of cups, Woman of money and Woman of clubs which has been sold.

    Thing is the three face are :
    – re/king (10 points),
    – fante or “knave.” (8 points) and he has a horse
    AND ….
    – woman (9 points)! Even if she’s not a queen (you putted pictures of them, they’ve got long hair even if actually they don’t look very feminine).

    Have a good game!
    Gioia

  4. Enzo Enzo

    The cups to hearts thing. What makes sense to me is ‘when men drink, we speak from the heart freely’. Since the are no women in the deck the hearts does not have the relevance as it does with the 52 Deck. The cups would more represent men bonding while drinking from a cup.
    Best Regards

  5. Fascinating post – had no idea there were different variations on the tradition pack. Could the hearts/cup connection come from images of Christ’s blood/heart pouring into a chalice, or is that a bit obscure?

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Matthew,

      Obscure or not, the Christ’s blood idea is the only lead I’ve had so far in the cups to hearts thing – thanks!

      Thanks, too, for swinging by and leaving a comment. :)

      ~Tui

  6. Great post. And, no, I had no idea card decks were different-anyplace. Thanks for the interesting info.

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Heya Dr Dean,

      Thanks for the house call, err, stopping by my blog! Always nice to see you here.

      Yeah, I had no idea there were different playing cards in Italy. In retrospect, however, this could be the reason their postal service forbids the mailing of playing cards (a regulation which I found rather odd!)

      ~Tui

  7. I went in search for the answer of the cards changing from cups to hearts but couldn’t find a quick answer. Love that they play cards so much. Anything that brings smiles to faces I am all for though you are probably right that there might be money involved or they could just be really competitive. As always, love your posts Tui!

    Peace,
    Morgan

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Morgan,

      If you find out about the cups/hearts, let me know. Thanks for looking!

      I enjoyed the casual feeling of the shopkeepers in Naples. The shops truly felt like an extension of their homes and shopkeepers clearly spent as much time as they could socializing. Of course, they needed to sell things, too, but … it’s hard for me to explain what I mean. I’ll have to give it a little more thought.

      I always love your comments!
      ~Tui
      p.s. I’ll be dropping by your blog tonight. Sounds like you’ve got a fun post up.

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Grazie mille, Paolo! :)

      I’ve decided to start writing more about Naples, Italy since it’s such a fascinating city.

      ~Tui

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