Purchased and added to the collection in 1981, this reproduction of a c15th century chess set and table from Florence, Italy was produced by Tag, Inc., New York City, and acquired at a "Flea Mart" in Richmond, Virginia.
Chess was introduced into Spain and Italy from the Islamic world probably around the 11th century, and was a game played and crafted for the upper classes and ruling clergy at the time. The "Book of Games" was the first encyclopedia of games in European literature. Alfonso X (1221-1284), the King of Castile (Spain) commissioned the book. Many of the pages of this book provide instructions with hand-painted illustrations for the game of chess. To view some of these pages, click on the item in the left menu above.
The elaborate chess table and pieces pictured above, was typical of the type of sets commissioned by upper class and rich people in Medieval Europe. The table stands on legs that are 41cm high and 2.5cm in diameter. Each leg is threaded at the top and screws into the table top, and has a "footed" base at the other end. (It is not known if this ability to remove the legs from the top was part of the original design, or an idea of the contemporary manufacturer to permit easy storage.)
The table top is 14.5cm square by 9.5cm thick and features an 8x8 chess matrix with alternating gold and silver painted squares. Beneath the table in it's base is a 27cm wide by 5.5cm high by 35.cm long drawer which sits on runners. The drawer is lined with red velvet and has a center divider 3.8cm high by 32.6cm long by 2cm thick. On the front of the drawer is a floral metal knob painted gold and silver. The drawer is intended as a storage source for the chess pieces.
Upon examination, it is apparent that the pieces from both sides are identical, only the color of the pieces has been changed. Like the squares in the board, one set of pieces are "gold" and the other is "silver". The pieces have been cast from some composite material. Each pieces is weighted at the bottom, and a circle of felt covers the weight.
There are 32 pieces, 16 on each side. Each piece varies in height. The shortest pieces at 6.5 centimeters by 2.5cm in diameter are the pawns, while the tallest pieces are the kings (photograph of one at the left) at 10.5 centimeters high and 3.5cm in diameter.
The thirty-two standard chess pieces follow the pattern of the European chess set having, kings, queens, bishops, knights, rooks, and pawns. However, the design of these pieces is unique and offers a degree of information about the history of the game of chess. Looking at the photograph above of the knights and the rooks, one is aware that as in most European chess sets, the knight is usually designed as being on a horse - but what about the rook? As indicated by Parlett in The Oxford History of Games, Oxford, 1999, p.303: "Elephants had no more place in the European consciousness than in the Arabic."
Yet this Florentine set includes a rook designed as an elephant rather than as a castle as is found in other European sets. Parlett explains that the early rook as an elephant points to the East Indian origins of the game of chess. Later, the chariot was introduced in Arabic cultures in place of the elephant, and still later, Europeans changed the design of the rook to that of a castle for reasons which are explained in Parlett's book.
Last update February 15, 2010