Cavagnole was a French game of chance similar to Bingo or Lottery. It was a low stakes game, extremely easy to learn and cheat at, and rather boring to play. Nevertheless, it was very popular. In the late 1730s the game became all the rage among the ladies of Versailles, Queen Marie Leszczynska being a particular enthusiast. The Duc de Luynes, in his Memoirs for June 1737, refers to cavayole as a game which had recently appeared from Italy, and he described the rules very clearly.
There were a number of similar gambling games to cavagnole called variously “biribi” or “biribissi”. Biribi was played in southern France and Italy usually using a board with either 36 or 70 numbered squares; each player put his stakes on the number he wished to back. The winnings would be 32 or 64 times the bet, which biased the game slightly in favor of the house. The winning numbers could be selected using a “hoca wheel” — forerunner of the roulette wheel — but more characteristically by drawing numbered balls from a bag.
Cavagnole differed in that it used sets of cards distributed among the players rather than a single board. It also dispensed with the gamesters; players simply drew lots and took it in turn to act as banker.
Casanova describes an occasion when he played biribissi – a “cheating game” – in Genoa and spectacularly broke the bank, carrying off not only all the takings, but the tablecloth, biribissi board, and four silver candlesticks!
Above right is an extremely simple yet intricately-built set piece, this second panel of a Cavagnole set decorated with a wide variety of figures from throughout the world during that time. Images of angels, flowers, beautiful women, and additional subjects help bring life to this game piece. Dated to the late 18th century.
The example shown in the two images below is kept in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, manufactured around 1780, and is more typical and probably represents the later, standardized version of the game. It has 24 cards, each with five numbers – one in each corner and one in the middle. The cards are extensively decorated with scenes of everyday life – trades, entertainments, musicians – no doubt to lend interest to the wager.
Elaborate measures were provided to exclude foul play. The numbers were printed on tiny parchment scrolls which fitted into little wooden beads or “olives” which were then placed in the green silk drawstring bag. An ivory cap allowed only one bead to be drawn at a time.