64. Chess in Italy
Necessarily some words about Spain first.
After the chess work ‘Libro de la invencion liberal y arte del juego del Axedrez’, in 1561 published by Ruy Lopez, there was in Spain a chess silence which would last well into the 19th c. This silence was not a proof, claims Richard Eales [1984:99], that Spain was country without chess; no, chess was confined to a domestic pastime. By this he applies the model of a pyramid. The athletes representing Spain at the Olympic Games or the players of the Spanisch football team at a European Championship are the best of a vast stratum of sportsmen, they form the top of a pyramide. Ruy Lopez was the top of a pyramide of chess players, Eales claims.
This assumption is valid when Spain was a country where chess rooted. I have my doubts. A game is rooted when played by all social classes, by because in the Middle Ages chess was only played by an elite ‒chess historians argue‒ the game did not get the chance to root. This fits in with the results of my research into board games in the 16th and 17th c., bases on meanings of words: the author of a chess book was a member of a small closed group, chess was not a generally played game.
Illuminated Italian chess manuscript, translated title The Delightful and Judicious Game of Chess (1724-1735)
Richard Eales [1985:120]: “Only in Italy in the eighteenth century were there chess players whose abilities and achievements were comparable with those of Philidor. As in Germany, the persistence of local rules showed that there was still little organized competition and only a limited market for theoretical literature. Nevertheless Italy was the natural center of European chess, Eales [1985:98] argues. After 1750 chance brought together three very talented individuals in one centre, the northern town of Modena.
The first of them, Ercole del Rio, published his book ‘Sopra il giuoco degli Scacchi’ there anonymously in 1750 and little is known about his life except that he seems to have been a lawyer”. He included a good number of openings with some comment.
In the nearby town Bologna, Giambattiste Lolli published the vast and compendious work ‘Osservazioni teorico-practiche sopra il giuoco degli scacchi’ (1763), 632 pages, with the widest range of games and detailed comment.
The third work was ‘Il giuco incomparabile degli scacchi’ (1769) by Domenico Ponziani, a reader in law at the university of Modena; later he became a priest. He built his book on the ideas of his predecessors but preferred a much more compact style. Eales 1985:121]: there was a reprint in Venice (1773) and, in a revised edition, in Modena (1782). Around 1800 there were some reprints.
After this Eales [1985:121-3] examines the matter whether these three books helped to improve the understanding of chess, to improve the quality of the games the Italians played.
Ruy Lopez rose to te surface from the mass of less talented chess players, Eales claimed for Spain. There were more writers of chess books in Italy than in Spain; were they the top of a pyramid, like in Spain? No, in Italy there was no great lower layer of chess players, says Eales without further explanation [1985:109].
Giuseppe Maria Mitelli
Eales may be right, because engraver, painter and sculptor Giuseppe Maria Mitelli (1634-1718), working in Bologna, did not include chess in his 1702 engraving with 21 games. Mitelli was very successful with his recordings of a large number of subjects, such as his many scenes from everyday life and his sacred and profane allegories. In addition, he ventured into political, sometimes provocative, satire. The central text in the engraving below, Zugh d’tutt i zugh, is Venetian for Gioco di tutti i giochi (play all games). The Z replaces the G, as in Zuogh d’I cart = “Gioco di carte” (card game). Recognizable are tables (Tuccatigli), morris (Schiera) and draughts (Dama).
Two scenes from plays by the successful Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) tell us that draughts in 18th c. Italy was a game recognizable to everyone. Goldoni, originally from Venice, was trained as a lawyer but preferred to write comedies. The two engravings are from “Opere teatrali del sig avvocato Carlo Goldoni Veneziano”, published by Antonio Zatta and sons, Venice 1788-1795.
The first engraving depicts the opening scene from the comedy “Le Donne Curiose” (The Curious Woman). Four men in a room, the door closed. Two of the main characters (Florindo and Leandro) are playing draughts, Lelio follows the game sideways and Ottavio reads.
“How is the game going?”, Lelio asks.
Florio: “I just made a king”. Leandro: “And in a moment I will do the same”.
Lelio: “I assume you are playing for fun?”.
Florio: “Indeed. We play for the honor, not for a bet”.
Lelio: “Yes, I already knew that. No one is playing for a bet here”.
Florio: “That is exactly what keeps our group going. Otherwise, everyone would be playing for that bet, and no doubt one of us would ruin ourselves. I have a king!”
Lelio: “Still another pleasure ensures that we remain one group”.
Florio: “Certainly, and for that reason we do not allow women”.
Florio speaks of ruining himself; apparently some Italians were playing draughts for large sums of money.
Goldoni’s “Le Donne Curiose” is timeless because it is still performed in our time, as the photo below proves.
The second engraving is the opening scene from the 1771 comedy “Il Burbero benefico” (the charitable cack-handed guy). Dorval, standing behind the draughtsboard in the home of Messrs. Geronte and Dalancourt. He is a friend of Geronte. Goldoni’s text speaks of “un tavelino con una scacchiere”, a table with a chessboard. Geronte, someone who easily gives away his money, is under supervision.
To Dorval’s right is Martuccia, the supervisor’s wife; she makes an appeal to Dorval.