by Nadya Chishty-Mujahid
the American University in Cairo
|Very little concrete historical background is known about the 1616 game Laberinto [Labyrinth] created specifically for the doge of Venice at that time Giovanni Bembo, by the Venetian nobleman Andrea Ghisi. An extant and complete copy is housed in the British Library, but sadly no precise directions exist as to how this game might be, or indeed was, played. Over the course of this essay, I will describe what the game looks like, clarify its links to the images of the famous quattrocento Mantegna tarocchi [on which many of its images are based], and then proceed with some speculative and surprising guesses about how this game might have been played, and to what it owes its unique structure.|
| At the very commencement of my explanations, I must clarify that in essence, Laberinto appears to have absolutely nothing to do with either divination [with which the Tarot has gradually become associated over the years] or even with basic card-play. Although the world-renowned Tarot expert, Stuart Kaplan, rightly claims that it is a game with figures very similar to tarocchi cards [Encyclopedia of Tarot III], the similarity ends there. Laberinto was published in book-form, as a volume containing, aside from the title, dedication etc., forty-four pages of illustrations with each page depicting two sets of fifteen images. All the depictions are drawn from sixty basic pictures. However, the images keep recurring over and over again in various permutations and combinations. Naturally, having been created for the doge, the book also contains a suitably eulogistic dedication to him, where Ghisi praises his martial prowess and military victories. In addition to this Ghisi presents us with a 23 by 23 square table, presumably associated with the game, the way a game-board might be, with a rather sweet pictorial dedication to the doge written into it. Radiating outwards from the single central square of the grid are the words Zvane Bembo Dose Per Meriti [which stand for Giovanni Bembo Doge on the basis of his merit] with Zvane being a truncated, but phonetically recognizable, form of the doge’s first name. However, in spite of all the effort that obviously went into the creation of Laberinto, the deep [and perhaps exciting] mystery that this pictorial maze presents is unfortunately tinged with the frustration that arises from the complete absence of any fixed or set rules by means of which this game might be played. In his tribute to the doge, Ghisi vaguely notes that the outcome of the game depends on the genius of the player, which is a point that can hold true for almost any card or board game that requires skill as well as luck. Perhaps Ghisi’s comment presents an implicit challenge to anyone faced with the extant pieces of the game, in that one’s ‘genius’ is to be applied to discovering how it was played, i.e. what it is based on, regardless of how simple the actual play might end up being.
Given this frustratingly elusive state of affairs, the most cogent and practical means by which one may begin to make sense of this fascinating puzzle involves examining the links between the images of the Mantegna tarocchi and Laberinto. To anyone even remotely familiar with the famous quattrocento North Italian tarocchi of Mantegna the resemblance is immediately apparent, since an overwhelming majority of Laberinto’s sixty main images are based on the fifty images that comprise the Mantegna tarocchi’s E-series. At this point, a brief history of the Mantegna tarocchi will be in order. These copperplate engravings are not strictly speaking tarot cards at all, and neither are they the work of celebrated artist Andrea Mantegna. Reliably dated to the mid-1460s, the E-series consists of fifty pictorial engravings divided into five groups of ten images each. In spite of the efforts of art-historians, the identity of the engraver remains undiscovered to this day, although it is by now well-established that this remarkable set of images originated in, and were executed by, a designer of the Ferrara school. Ranging from the bottommost group termed States of Man they continue via the Muses, the Liberal Arts, and the Christian virtues all the way to Prima Causa [the First Cause] or God. Thus this collection depicts a great Neoplatonic chain of being. It is important to note that two slightly different versions of the Mantegna tarocchi exist—in order to distinguish them from each other; these are termed the E-series and the S-series. I have personally examined the first groups of both series and have published a speculative study (Chapters V and VI of my An Introduction to Western Esotericism) about how the images of the first groups of these series collectively form a caduceus—a point that is buttressed by an examination of the 16th century German version of the Mantegna tarocchi, designed by Cologne engraver Johann Ladenspelder. This unearthing of the caduceus form lends some weight to the hermetic [or Hermesian to be more accurate] import of these engravings.
Ladenspelder’s version is true to the E-series insofar as general imagery, and even nomenclature, is concerned, as indeed are most of Ghisi’s images. With the exception of the introduction of a few new images namely Matematica [that replaces Arithmetrica], Industria [that replaces Cosmico], Quatro Orbi that replaces Prima Causa, and Chiromantia and Felicita that replace two of the muses, the remaining engravings are similar enough, almost identical, to the Mantegna, for there to be no dispute about the fact that Ghisi was drawing on the E-series for inspiration. One should note at this point that Felicita bears a caduceus and a cornucopia, and the replacement of the fiftieth and penultimate image, The First Cause, by The Four Worlds may well be Ghisi’s attempt to pictorially link Laberinto to the esoteric Four Worlds of Judaic Kabbalah.
But the esoteric significance of the images aside, the game itself may simply be a board game, and the sets of repetitive images depicted on the pages of Laberinto may simply represent a set of permutations that, once decoded, may indicate how certain cards could be played on its 23 by 23 square board, rather like game-counters. Whether dice needed to be involved is simply not clear, although it would be safe to assume that several board games do necessarily involve dice, and Laberinto may be no exception. The most intriguing aspect of Ghisi’s sixty main images concerns the ones that do not appear to be based on the original Mantegna engravings, indeed that do not have any connection to the original images whatsoever. These consist of an additional set of ten images [i.e. additional to the fifty inspired by the Mantegna tarocchi] namely Rome, Cairo, Elephant, Hydra, Galley, Nave, Bacchus, God of Love, Adam and Eve, and Scene on a Platform. Although the images of Cupid, Bacchus, and the Hydra tie into the Mantegna tarocchi’s mythological theme and that of Adam and Eve with Christian aspects of the engravings, this new set of ten images does not appear to form a coherent group in the manner of the other five groups of the Mantegna E-series. The introduction of an Eastern city, Cairo, is incredibly baffling given the inherently Western nature of the Mantegna engravings, and the same can be said of the figure of the Elephant image which clearly depicts the animal bearing a tower on its back.
It is, however, the Elephant image that lends itself to one means by which Laberinto may be decoded and its myriad mysterious passages be negotiated. The tower-like image on the back of the Elephant resembles a chess Rook. Nothing other than that aspect of that particular image in Laberinto causes modern chess imagery to spring to mind. However, I believe that there are connections between early versions of chess and Ghisi’s game, that are quite clearly elucidated by even a cursory examination of an intriguing passage from John J. Robinson’s history of Freemasonry, titled Born in Blood. He writes, and the passage merits being quoted in detail:
Robinson’s main point involves illustrating that the Church did not wish to be sidelined in an important game that “pitted nation against nation.” Accordingly the ships were renamed and transformed into bishops as the Persian game was gradually Christianized for the purposes of European play. The pieces retained their original diagonal movements, however. While Ghisi’s new images [i.e. those in the group of ten that contains the Elephant] depict no bishops, the presence of an Eastern chess rook and two ships is evident. Moreover, since the king represented his entire and weighty household, the images of Rome and Cairo may well be aligned with Robinson’s descriptions of power “pitted against each other” albeit playfully in this case. Thus Ghisi’s game utilizes early Eastern chess imagery, hearkening back to a pre-European precursor of the game. One must note the absence, however, of knights, queens, viziers, or pawns. Thus Laberinto is probably not a version of chess with which the Crusaders were familiar, nor would the 23 by 23 grid created by the designer count as a chessboard, since all chessboards ancient and modern alike have an even number of squares, not odd. In addition to this, although John Robinson may be credited for providing modern-day readers with a sincere and sensational account of the history of Freemasonry, he cannot be classified as a scholar of chess or oriental games.
For a more sound scholarly opinion, one can turn to the 1892 text Games Ancient and Modern and How to Play Them [note by jmd: more commonly published as Games Ancient and Oriental and How to Play Them], authored by the well-travelled Edward Falkener. In this classic and invaluable text Falkener documents that the Indian precursor to later Indian, Arab, and Persian chess was a game titled ‘Chaturanga’ from which one gets the modern Indian word for chess Shatarang. He identifies this game as being played in a manner similar to modern Double Chess. However, the Vizier [Prime Minister] is absent, and the four main pieces are King, Elephant, Ship, and Cavalryman. As is evidenced by his novel and interesting additions to the images inspired by the Mantegna tarocchi, Andrea Ghisi may well have been incorporating early Eastern chess imagery into the otherwise markedly Western Laberinto. The point also implicitly clarifies that this game would require at least two individuals, playing against each other.
Chaturanga requires an even-square board, however, so the above points do not help to explain the mystery behind Ghisi’s 23 by 23 grid. Fortunately, when one peruses Falkener’s text further, one finds a fairly detailed section on the Indian game Pachisi—that even now counts as one of the sub-continent’s most popular games. Falkener engages in an extensive discussion of how this popular game helped to bridge social gaps, it was a favourite with king and pauper alike. Over the centuries it was gradually modified for the Western world, and is now most commonly identified as Ludo. Falkener goes on to mention a modified version of Pachisi [called Ashta Kashte] that can only be played on a board involving an odd number of squares. The game involves between two and four players that are expected to enter their respective counters at the points marked by crosses on the diagram. The main goal of each player would thus be to spiral from square to square in order to reach the central square. A player who is able to move his or her counters to the center square before the others would therefore be the winner. In his dedication to the doge Ghisi mysteriously mentions that “at the third turn” the secret of the game may be revealed. This could imply that the successful negotiation of the pathways of the Laberinto would enable one to arrive at the centermost square, from which one can see the board’s dedication to the doge radiating outwards in all directions.
Neither art history, nor Tarot studies have as yet discovered how Ghisi could have found out about Indian Chaturanga and Pachisi, let alone why he would have decided to combine them in order to create his Venetian Laberinto. One may assume, however, that the introduction of ten new images [that are combined with those that derive from the Mantegna tarocchi] was deliberately done in order to underscore the points that 1. the game must involve at least two opposing players, and 2. that the main aim of the game is to lead its players towards honouring the dignitary for whom it was created. I find it feasible and manageable to visualize two teams, Rome and Cairo, of five pieces each [represented by Ghisi’s set of ten new images] being played out on a 9 square by 9 square board that includes the abbreviated name of the doge ZVANE radiating out from the center square that would necessarily bear the letter Z. However, it is nothing short of an unpleasant nightmare of scale to imagine four players with 15 pieces each [since the total number of images contained within Laberinto number sixty] playing on Ghisi’s 23 by 23 grid. Perhaps, however, this is precisely how the Venetian nobleman’s quirky and charming version of Ludo was meant to be played. For the successive and consecutive sets of thirty images per page that comprise the main portion of the book may indeed be meant to provide us with a composite and thorough picture of how the various pieces would spiral towards the center and the game would play itself out. Yet conversely, the beauty of an enigma such as Laberinto may also lie in the fact that it can be effectively scaled down to a more manageable size without really losing any of its inherent charm.
In conclusion, therefore, one may assume that Laberinto is a playful, yet undeniably respectful tribute to both the doge as well as to his military victories, especially since chess [Eastern and Western, ancient and modern alike] is nothing if not noble and playfully military in nature. Since any form of Ludo involves dice, one may speculate that Ghisi’s game was one of chance and luck rather than much mental effort. Moreover, unlike the original Mantegna tarocchi, Laberinto does not appear to exhibit any major hermetic or Hermesian characteristics. It would not even classify as esoteric in any fundamental sense of the word, since its machinations can be at least partially explained by a little applied history, creativity, and logic. However, its ostensibly Western exterior, and enigmatically Eastern interior give it a pleasant Renaissance multiculturality that certainly merits further research and examination.