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~~ Gallery 7 ~~
Cards Without Traditional Suits

Mercante In Fiera

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This gallery is dedicated to the special sets used for a traditional Italian family game, usually played over the Christmas holidays.


edition by Armanino: sample subjects and detail of the Turk

Mercante in Fiera (literally Merchant at the Fair) is a very popular game, played with peculiar illustrated cards.
Each set consists of two decks, with 40 different pictures each; the illustrations are repeated in both packs, but their backs are of different colour (as in Bridge sets).
What makes these cards nice to collect is that most subjects vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and although a few subjects are found in more than one edition, their illustrations are quite different.

traditional illustrations in Modiano's classic edition

the Pagoda,
from Modiano's edition
In traditional sets, the pictures are inspired by nature or by everyday's life: subjects can be animals, or flowers, or fruit, or household objects, or pieces of furniture, etc.
Since the game is usually played by children, some recent sets feature illustrations inspired by Disney cartoon movies (two of them are shown at the bottom of the page).
In modern editions each subject is usually numbered, from 1 to 40, so that players may refer to each card either by means of its name or its number, but older sets, such as the one by Armanino shown above, lacked this additional and rather useless detail.
Prior to 1972, Mercante in Fiera decks had to bear a tax stamp, as any other variety of playing cards did, in Italy. One of the subjects (card no.1 in editions with numbers) had a small empty circle for this purpose, but only one of the two identical cards was stamped. Among the editions now produced, only the classic one by Modiano has maintaind the small circle.

Mercante in Fiera is a sort of mild gambling game, merely based on luck, by which kids and adults alike can play with equal opportunities of winning. More than the prize itself, the real fun of the game is playing it, because of its particular structure.

reprint by Lo Scarabeo of an early 20th century edition

At first, the players must decide who will be the merchant of the round, either choosing him at random or by agreement.

The merchant is the player who in in charge for the main operations; he has a more limited chance of winning than the other players, but he leads the game, and this can be very amusing all the same, as will be explained further on.
After the two decks have been well shuffled, each player pays a small sum to enter the game. The merchant then picks up the first deck and deals two cards to each player, who will place them face up in front of himself.

Mercante in Fiera deck, by Italcards;
the subjects feature old household objects

the Coffee-grinders, from Italcards' deck
Usually the merchant too enters the game by paying his fee, and deals two cards to himself.

The following step is the auction. The merchant sells small groups of cards (usually one to four at a time, but he can freely choose how many), using the remaining part of the deck from which the first ones have been previously dealt. The merchant does this operation holding the deck under the table, so that other players do not know how many cards they are bidding for.

Each time, the merchant decides the opening price, and the players are free to place their bids. There is no fixed rule for this: each player is free to offer as much as he likes, and to do so as many times as he wishes.

an edition by Masenghini, with traditional subjects
Once a group of cards has been sold, and the payment collected by the merchant, another group of cards will be auctioned, and so on until the whole first deck has been sold out.

When a player buys some cards, he places them face up in front of himself, together with the first two he already holds.

There is no limit to the number of cards a player may buy. The more he holds, the higher will be his chance to win a prize, but with a little luck even the two starting cards alone may win.

Crane, first subject
of Masenghini's edition

a recent edition by Modiano, with 55 subjects per pack instead of the
traditional 40; the manufacturer's own label (the Modiano king,
last card in the bottom row) is the last subject of the series

Usually the merchant is not allowed to place a bid, because he knows how many cards are in the groups he is selling, so he plays the game by only keeping the two cards dealt at the beginning of the round.
A common agreement is that when the last group of cards is auctioned, the merchant should give notice of this to the players, by calling "last cards".
As soon as all the cards have been sold, the merchant shuffles well once again the second deck. He then asks any of the other players to randomly pick three cards, that will be set aside, and kept well covered: these are the winning cards of the round.

the Astronomer, from Modiano's
55-card edition, illustrated with
19th century-style engravings

the edition by Dal Negro is another one with traditional
pictures; some of the subjects are in common with
Modiano's set, but their illustrations are different
According to the money raised with the auction, the merchant agrees three different prizes with the other players: a larger sum as first prize, a proportionally smaller sum as second prize, and the smallest one as third prize; the money is actually placed over each winning card (still kept face down).

The merchant then begins to uncover one by one all the remaining cards of the second deck, calling out the name of the subject, and eventually its number: the player who holds the matching card has to cover it, or simply discard it.

As the cards in the second deck are gradually called out, the remaining ones still held in hand by the players become more and more likely to be the winning ones; the owner can decide to keep them, or even to sell them, if offered a reasonable sum by any other player.
Approaching the end of the round, the value of the cards still uncovered will obviously grow.
As soon as all the cards in the second pack have been called out, the players holding the three surviving cards claim their prize: the three winning cards are finally uncovered (usually starting from the lowest prize, then the second one, and lastly the first one), and the money is handed to the winners.

the Musketeer,
from Dal Negro's edition

Viassone's edition
detail of Armor

in Viassone's Mercante in Fiera the subjects
are photographs of famous buildings, fruit, animals...

Being a family game, some of the rules may be changed: a bidding limit may be agreed by the players, or the number of cards sold in each group may be fixed, or the number of prizes into which the money is divided may be varied according to the sum raised, etc.

the pictures of this set, by Modiano, were drawn by the popular Italian
cartoonist Jacovitti: the cards feature his typical surrealistic characters

Mercante in Fiera deck with traditional Walt Disney
characters; the manufacturer is not stated
The key to a good game is to choose an experienced "merchant": he can make the auction exciting, by alternating the number of cards sold in each group, so that he will obtain good bids even for groups of one or two cards. Then, during the second part of the game, instead of calling out the cards straight away, he will use personal techniques to stir up the players interest (i.e. for a card like "the Dog", he might start asking "Who's got animals? Here is one with four legs... Is anybody selling his cards?", etc.).

Also other players can take active part to the game, as they are left free to trade and sell one or more cards they own, during any part of the game. Obviously, only chance will decide the winning cards, but since players very often like to consider some subjects lucky or unlucky, or simply like or dislike them on a very personal basis, a fair amount of trades often takes place during the game, especially during the early and central stage of the round.

a Mercante in Fiera deck dedicated to
Walt Disney's cartoon Hercules (by Dal Negro)

Medusa, from the Hercules deck
There is no limit to the number of players who can take part to the game, but good rounds are played by no less than 6 people.
According to the number of players, it is possible to vary the quantity of cards dealt by the merchant at the opening of the game: the average is two, but when a large party of people is playing, it will be better to deal only one, so to keep enough cards for the auction.

Esmeralda (in detail) and other subjects, from Dal Negro's edition
dedicated to Walt Disney's cartoon the Hunchback of Notre Dame

Despite being specifically used for a family game, up to 1971 also Mercante in Fiera decks had to carry a tax stamp, as any other kind of playing cards in Italy. In fact, in most cases one of the subjects, usually the first one of the series, had a white blank circular space, which in some editions has been maintained. If a space was not available, the stamp was placed over the subject, as in the sample shown on the far left, by Dal Negro. Only one card in each Mercante in Fiera set was stamped: the same subject belonging to the other deck (i.e. with a different back) was not stamped.


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