The game of gherminella/germinelle

I had a chance to read Nightmare Alley, a very fine book I knew nothing about until reading Glenn's review of it (viewtopic.php?f=11&t=2335) and the two movies (the 1947 is quite enjoyable). One passage stood out for me, pp. 135-138, about a particular confidence game:

Needless to say, the scene does not end here. But I am just interested in the confidence trick. It seems quite similar to one mentioned in various cities of northern Italy in the 13th through 15th centuries, in various spellings, up to the 19th and surely beyond. Alessandro Parenti, in the first half of his essay "Gherminella e Bagatella" (Nostra Lingua Vol. 69, Fasc. 3-4 (Sept. -Dec), talks about it, pp. 65-72. (I wrote about the second half of the essay at viewtopic.php?p=24060#p24060.)

In the Florentine game prohibitions of 1324, in Latin, it is "guerminellam". In Boccaccio's Decameron, it was a generic term for "deception", its current meaning (also "trick, prank"). But it also referred to a particular game of deceit involving a string, rope, etc., and a stick, for which a finger could substitute. Franco Sacchetti (1335-1400), writing in late 14th century Florence, says of his character Pessero della Gherminella:
Passera della Gherminella fu quasi barattiere e sempre andava stracciato e in cappellina, e le più volte portava una mazzuola in mano a modo che una bacchetta da Podestà e forse due braccia di corda come da trottola; e questo si era il giuoco della gherminella che, tenendo la mazzuola tra le due mani e mettendovi su la detta corda, dandogli alcuna volta e passando uno grossolano dicea: –Che l'è dentro, che l'è di fuori? —, avendo sempre grossi in mano per metter la posta. Il grossolano veggendo che la detta corda stava che gli parea da tirarla fuori, dicea di quello [ma forse meglio quella, la corda] che l'è di fuori, e 'l Passera dicea: – E che l'è dentro –. Il compagno [i. e. il grossolano] tirava e la corda, come che si facesse, rimanea e fuori e dentro come a lui [i. e. al Passera] piacea; e spesse volte si lasciava vincere per aescare la gente e dare maggior colpo.
It is difficult to translate, but I will try:
Passera della Gherminella was a quasi-swindler and always went ragged and in a little cap, and frequently carried a mallet in his hand like a Podestà's baton and perhaps two arm [length]s of rope as [for? with?] a spinning top; and this was the game of the gherminella who, holding the mallet in both hands and putting the said rope on it, giving it a few turns, said to some coarse person passing: - Which is inside, which is outside? -, always having big ones in hand to make the bet. The coarse one, seeing that said rope seemed to him to be pulled out, said of that [but perhaps the rope is better] that it is outside, and Passera said: - And it is inside -. The companion [i. e. the gross one] pulled and the rope, as if it were done, remained outside and inside as it pleased him [i. e. Passera]; and often he let himself be beaten in order to lure people and give them more beatings.
This sounds rather like Sailor's game, except with a rope instead of a strap. But what is outside or inside? Is it one of two loops of the rope? Parenti observes that the gypsies seem to have taken it up, taking it to the Iberian peninusula and calling it corregiuola. One source even has a picture: there are two loops and a stick inserted in one of them. It would appear that the "mark" is to insert the stick in one of them, and when the rope is manipulated somehow, the stick either becomes free of the rope - so is outside - or caught tight in it - inside. (Parenti says that this illustration was in an edition of the Comedia Aurelia (1564) by Juan de Timoneda; his source, in n. 33, is a table inserted between pp. 82 and 83 of Leblon, Les Gitans dans la littérature espagnole.)

After several more quotations, Parenti is able to offer an explanation of the mechanism, or rather, he gives a very long quotation from a 1973 Modenese dictionary that does so. First a length of fettuccia (tape, ribbon, or strap: something like fettuccini) about 1 meter long and a 1-2 centimeters wide is folded over itself, forming a loop on one end. Then:
In questo momento la fettuccia piegata a doppio viene avvolta concentricamente su se stessa in senso orario, avendo cura che, sùbito all'inizio di questa nuova fase, si formi una seconda ansa vicino alla prima. Terminata l'operazione, avremo una fettuccia arrotolata con due anse centrali accostate, ma ben distinte e all'estremità due capi, il più lungo dei quali è esterno, periferico rispetto al centro del rotolo e sempre a destra di chi opera. A questo punto con opportuno imbonimento si sollecita qualcuno fra gli astanti a infilare il «buco della Carolina», proponendo una certa puntata in denaro e offrendo un innocente bastoncino per infilare l'ansa giusta, quella cioè che dovrebbe trattenere imprigionato il bastoncino stesso, tenuto verticalmente. Se l'incàuto puntatore infilerà il bastone nell'ansa che si formò per prima, sempre chiacchierando per distrarre l'attenzione, basterà prendere il capo più lungo, controavvolgerlo in senso antiorario e, riunitasi la sua estremità all'altro capo rimasto fermo, tirare i due capi contemporaneamente. La correggia si snoderà e il bastoncino non rimarrà impigliato. Se invece verrà infilata l'ansa che fu fatta per seconda all'inizio dell'avvolgimento, basterà tirare i due capi, lungo e corto così come stanno e il bastoncino rimarrà libero in mano dell'allocco. Il manipolatore può così, operando variamente a suo talento, fare vincere o perdere chi punta. Le concordanze col gioco del Sacchetti sono sorprendenti, in particolare per la fettuccia, che è esattamente la sua «corda come da trottola» e ha all'incirca la stessa misura.

(At this point the double-folded fettuccia (tape, ribbon or strap) is wrapped concentrically on itself in a clockwise direction, taking care that, immediately at the beginning of this new phase, a second loop is formed near the first. Once the operation is finished, we will have a rolled-up fettuccia with two central loops placed side by side, but very distinct and at the extremities two heads, the longest of which is external, peripheral to the center of the roll and always to the right of the operator. At this point, with an appropriate sales pitch, someone among the bystanders is urged to insert in the "hole of Carolina", proposing a certain stake in money and offering an innocent stick to insert in the right loop, that is, the one that will keep the stick itself imprisoned, kept vertically. If the unwary pointer [the mark] slips the stick into the loop that formed first, he will just take the longest end, wind it counterclockwise, always chatting to distract attention, and, once its end has joined the other end that has remained stationary, pull the two heads at the same time. The strap will unwind and the stick will not get caught. If, on the other hand, the loop that was made second at the beginning of the winding is chosen, it will be sufficient to pull the two ends, long and short as they are, and the stick will remain free in the hand of the owl. The manipulator can thus, by operating in various ways according to his talent, make the bettor win or lose.)
So the stick is both inside and outside the strap. The game, Parenti says, was used as a metaphor for contradiction and ambiguity. With its "in" and "out" with a stick, there is also another type of metaphor, although he discreetly does not elaborate.

Now to the point for this forum: one might wonder if there is a connection between this "gherminella" and the game of germini. Andrea Vitali writes, in the book I am helping him edit, Bologna and the Tarot, coming out in November (see viewtopic.php?f=9&t=2354),
It seems to us that this term [gherminella, for the game discussed by Parenti] bears a certain resemblance to the name Germini that sometimes appears in documents for the expanded Tarocchi known as Minchiate. Could there be a connection? We can only speculate; but if Minchiate is related to minchione, meaning “fool,” perhaps so, if gherminella had by then become synonymous with “a fool’s game.”
I have not found any indication that gherminella meant "a fool's game", as opposed to deception, but it is possible.

The etymology of this term is also of interest. Parenti notices that there is a similar term in a verse of Luca Pulci (Luigi's older brother), Ciriffo Calvaneo V, 66:
Or qui Falcon si doleva, e miagola, / e mostra per lanterna men che lucciola; / e scuopre i bossoletti e la mandragola, / e spaccia per un dattero una succiola, / pensa tu, la corbezzola per fragola; / camuffa 'l barbio, e non fa neve, o sdrucciola, / e mette or drento, or fuor la filistroccola / o vermenella , o bagattella, o coccola.
Another stanza hard to translate! Here is my attempt, with my annotations in brackets:
Now here Falcon ached, and meowed, and showed as a lantern less than a firefly; and he discovers the bossoletti and the mandrake [also meaning deceit], and passes off a succiola [boiled chestnut, also, thing of nothing] as a date, just think, the arbutus [fruit of the madrone, also called the strawberry tree] for a strawberry; he disguises the barbio [a type of fish], and does not make snow, or slide [also, accent the antepenultimate syllable], and puts now in, now out, the filistroccola [discourse of nothing] or vermenella, or bagatella, or coccola [Junipter berry of a tree, also thing of nothing].)
"Making snow" is throwing (white) dice, Parenti documents (with a passage from Luigi Pulci). Bossoletti is cups, and the associated confidence game, again one controlled by the operator. The word for "boiled chestnut" also means "thing of nothing," according to the online Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana. Likewise coccola (besides Juniper berry) and "filistroccola", as well as "vermenella" itself.

But the "now in, now out" defines our game in particular, Parenti holds. So "v" becomes "g" or vice versa. He gives other examples: "guerro" and "verro", "guagnele" for "Vangeli" (Gospels), "guida" and "vita". So what is needed is "vermena" with the "ella" ending (as in vermicelli but not quite). "Vermena" means a shoot or young branch of a plant, also a stick or rod, and the usual vulgar meaning.

If so, this etymology, it seems to me, also supports an equivalence vermena = germina, as a sprout, in other words, something like a seed (seme in Italian, also meaning suit of cards).

Also, as opposed to the Fool, a relationship to Germini might be by way of the Bagatella, given the various occurrences of "gherminella" with "bagatella." Here is another example of Parenti's, the first stanza of the "Canzona de' lanzi di bagattelle" in Canti carnascialeschi del Rinascimento, ed. C. S. Singleton, Bari, Laterza, 1936, p. 281; the author is "Guglielmo detto il Giuggiola".
Fracurrade e bagattelle
giuoche lanzi destremente,
che l'è fòra e che l'è drente,
star bel giuoche germinelle.
Parenti paraphrases this as:
«Il Tedesco gioca abilmente col fraccurrado e con le bagattelle, che l'è fuori, che l'è dentro, è un bel gioco, la gherminella»

(The German plays ably with puppet-like people and with trifles [tricks?]: which is outside it, which is inside it, it is a good game, gherminella.)
Notice here the spelling "germinelle" (in the original), with the "g" of "germini" as opposed to the "gh" of "gherminella" (soft vs. hard). The poem plays with the phrase "fuori e drente" in almost every stanza, although not mentioning "germinelle" again, but I can't understand the language.
Another possibility: we already know that "gherminella" meant deception in general. If so, it might be another case of the lowest triumph leading to the name of the game itself, as in Liguria and Sicily, where Minchiate was called Ganellini and Gallerini, while in an 18th century treatise the word "Ganellino" designated this card (

I would point out here also Sacchetti's 14th century use of "bacchetta", the word for "wand" as in a magic wand, but for Sacchetti referring to a nightstick (the Podesta was the enforcer of the law), from the Latin baculum. One form of "bagattella," similarly, was "baccattella" or baccatella" (with the same hard c; see for examples).

As usual, more facts and documents, when they touch the main game of our concern, only lead to more speculation, not more facts.

Here is Parenti: ... irenze.jpg ... enze-2.jpg ... enze-3.jpg ... enze-4.jpg ... enze-5.jpg ... enze-6.jpg ... enze-7.jpg ... enze-8.jpg

Re: The game of gherminella/germinelle

Nice videos, Huck. Parenti does mention the supposed relationship to the German kermenon and the Italian incantare, but finds them dubious. The game does not suggest any enchantment going on, nor does the generic meaning of "gherminella" (deception). If there is a word "germinon," meaning "enchant" (I do not know in what language) the same is true. "Ghermire" means "grab by force," which is not very applicable either. In general, this etymological dictionary simply repeats old claims that have been advanced without much evidence.It does not seem to me to seriously challenge Parenti. But thanks for including it. In possible relation to the word germini, the main meaning of "gherminella" is still that of deception, which would suggest a relationship to the first triumph.

Re: The game of gherminella/germinelle

Germini as "sprouts" (Franco's suggestion once) seems to be the more general terminus in Italian language and is in context with Italian "seme" (English seed) for playing cards suits understandable.
There is the Greek word "sema" and this seems to mean "sign" and a result of this word is the terminus "Semantics" and a relation to Linguistic is given.

In German we have the very special terminus "Semé" (actually I never heard it in normal language), which is used for outside book decoration and additional heraldic motifs.
1. Bucheinbandschmuck des 16.–18. Jahrhunderts, der eine gleichmäßige Streuung von Ornamenten, Wappen und anderen Motiven aufweist
2. gleichmäßige Anordnung von verschiedenen Motiven um ein Wappen
"Seed" is in German "Samen", so similar to "seme", but not the same . Why English have for "same" a little bit the meaning "similar" (which looks also related), I don't know. Sounds like "do it again, Sam", which became a successful bonmot in our movie times. .... :-)

Fun aside. If the term Gherminella existed in 14th century Italy and playing cards found then to a form of existence, a playing card terminus "Germini" naturally contained a funny association to Gherminella just according the collective memory of the time. Similar to the word "Germini" is also the word "Germani" .... Franco occasionally persecuted the idea, that Germans had a role in the import of playing card technology to Italy ...