Graduate Activities: Nicole Wagner at Harvard

Anonymous, Il gioco dei tarocchi, fresco, originally in the Castello di Masnago, Varese (currently in private collection in Rome), 1430-1450.

From April 7-8, doctoral candidate Nicole Wagner participated in the Brown-Harvard Graduate Chiasmi Conference in Italian Studies, “E(x)pressing Play,” where she presented her paper, “Disrupting Social Practice and Spatial Order: Women Gambling in Early Modern Italy.”

Abstract: In 1493 Beatrice d’Este Sforza traveled from Milan to Venice on the bucintoro  (barge) gifted to her by her parents, on official business for her husband, Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza (Duke of Milan, 1494-99). In letters to Ludovico, Beatrice reported that while on board she triumphed against her mother, the Duchess of Ferrara Eleonora of Aragon, and her sister-in-law, Anna Sforza, winning a large sum of money in the card game buttino. Other letters disclose that over the course of one year Beatrice won 3,000 gold ducats while playing scartino, another game of wager involving a deck of cards, and that Beatrice’s sister, Isabella d’Este Gonzaga (Marquess of Mantua, 1490-1539), also gambled in a variety of times and spaces, often to great profit. This paper looks at the conjunction of a novel form of material culture (the paper card deck) and the practice of gambling on boats (the preferred means of transport for elites in northern Italian courts connected by waterways) – mobile spaces that became ambiguous with respect to “place” when in transit and thus elusive with regard to the reach of sovereignty and surveillance. Boats were far from the exclusive site of female gambling in early modern Italy, but distinguishing them was their “placelessness,” which made them ideal as (provisional) heterotopias where women, I argue, rehearsed a new kind of social and economic independence as actors in material, spatial, and temporal fields long overlooked by scholars.

The paper will begin with the introduction of the card deck into late medieval and early modern Italy, where women’s card play originated as a “virtuous” leisure-time activity recommended and supervised by men in the regulated spaces of the palace or protected haven of enclosed gardens. Working with largely unpublished primary sources it will then turn to the bucintori and the unsupervised practice of women “working the table” in their sumptuously appointed interiors.

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