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Members' Research Report Archive

The Art of Play: Games in Early Modern Italy

Kelli Wood [University of Chicago]
Samuel H. Kress Fellow, 2014–2016


Giovanni Antonio de Paoli, publisher, Il novo et piacevol gioco del giardin d’amore, Rome, 1589 – 1599. British Museum; Trustees of the British Museum

Gregorio Comanini’s Counter-Reformation treatise The Figino, or, On the Purpose of Painting (1591) makes an intriguing declaration about the nature of painting: paintings are imitations, and they are games. The Mantuan writer continues on the theme of play, and his interlocutors discuss a game’s ability to be like art, arguing that games are imitations and that their purpose is to delight through variety and innovation as art does. “The Art of Play” is an art-historical study of game play in Cinquecento Italy that takes on Comanini’s premise, treating game play as a mode of representation grounded in artistic expression, material culture, and ritual. My project takes the relationship between games and art in two directions: it redefines how we conceive of art by embracing game play as a crucial element and adds new methodology for considering the playful and competitive elements in paintings, prints, and performances. Working from period-specific understandings and practices of games, I explore the paradigm of game play as artistic representation among interweaving courts and intellectual circles in Italy during the emergence of an early modern culture of leisure. A fuller understanding of the intersection of art and game play illuminates the playful potentiality of viewership, sociability in the home and civic sphere, and the way in which works of art actively draw viewers into play.

“The Art of Play” is organized in four chapters, arranged around spaces of play. From chapter to chapter the work expands progressively outward, beginning with the visual structure of games and the paradigmatic grid of the chessboard and then moving out to the spaces in which games were played in the home and in the city. Each chapter builds upon the previous ones, therefore not considering links between art and play in isolation but rather showing the dynamic interactions initiated by games, the movement within and between social spaces. The concluding chapter proposes the work of art as a site of game play Ultimately “The Art of Play” demonstrates that the same strategies, imagination, and engagement with the visual demanded by board games, parlor games, and public games were employed in the appreciation of art and, furthermore, that particular works themselves encouraged play.

To set the stage, chapter 1, “The Grid as Symbolic Form: From Chess to Linear Perspective,” focuses on the paradigm of the grid and on the gridded chessboard’s resonance with urban and pictorial space. By examining the analogy of the game of chess as society and how chess represented mastery over intellectual systems, this chapter considers the relationship between chess and pictorial representation, positing the artist as master of the system of linear perspective and the painting as game (like the chessboard), mediating interactions between the artist and viewer through the system of the grid and the dialogic format of both the game and the painting.

Chapter 2, “Pathways of Play: Printed Game Boards in Counter-Reformation Italy,” considers the material culture of play in the salon in the form of printed game boards and the network of agency among artist, print, and player in the home. Printed table games in the style of the “game of the goose” became immensely popular by the end of the sixteenth century, not merely serving as entertainment but also mapping and reinflecting social and moral structures as players participated in virtual travel related to pilgrimage.

Moving outward into the spaces in which games were played, chapter 3, “Performing Pictures: Parlor Games and Visual Engagement in the Cinquecento,” examines how the play and performance of parlor games in mid-sixteenth-century aristocratic salons invoked and created models for sensory, and in particular visual, engagement. This chapter contributes to the central thesis of the dissertation—that game play was a mode of representation grounded in artistic expression, language, performance, and material culture—by exploring how aristocratic participants imaginatively created and performed works of art during parlor games.

Chapter 4, “Power over the Piazza: Civic Ritual and Quotidian Play,” considers the significance and evolution of a century of public games in the urban space of Florence, from the foundation of the duchy in 1530 to the plague of 1630 and the rapid economic decline that followed. Public games sanctioned by the Medici government as well as transitory activities of play in the communal street forged competing jurisdictions over urban space. Transgressive quotidian games had a direct impact on the city’s socially invested topography, thereby contributing to Florentine identity within, between, and beyond factions.