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Roman Dice Rollers Meet Egyptian Gamblers in French Show

January 06, 2013

'Tristan and Isolde drinking the love potion'

"Tristan and Isolde Drinking the Love Potion" (ca 1470) by Luce de Gast. The illuminated manuscript is part of the exhibition at the Musee de Cluny through March 4. Source: Musee de Cluny, Paris via Bloomberg

“The die is cast,” declared Julius Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. and led his troops from Gaul, where he was governor, into Italy.

What he did was illegal, and so was the game he was referring to.

Despite the ban, playing dice was wildly popular in ancient Rome. Emperor Claudius, one of Caesar’s successors, even wrote a book on it.

If you want to know more about gambling in antiquity, the Musee de Cluny in Paris is the place to go. “The Art of Games and Games of the Art, from Babylon to Medieval Europe” is a delightful show, bringing together 250 pieces spanning four millennia.

The wing of the museum in which they are on view seems particularly apt: It used to be the frigidarium, or cold pool, of a Roman bath when Paris was still Lutetia.

One of the oldest items is the so-called palm tree game from ancient Egypt. It was played with 10 ivory pieces, five with the head of a dog, five with the head of a jackal, to be moved across a small piece of furniture with animal legs and 58 holes.

The game was found in a tomb, suggesting the Egyptians expected to keep up their gambling habits in the hereafter.

Royal Tomb

Another, even older, board game was excavated from a burial site at Ur Kasdim, Mesopotamia, the place where Abraham is believed to have come from. The noble materials and the superb craftsmanship have led archaeologists to believe that the tomb belonged to a king.

From ancient Rome, you find the game of 12 lines, a precursor to backgammon. You’ll look in vain, however, for the equally popular ludus latrunculorum, or game of robbers, a distant relation to what later became chess.

It’s not the only gap in the show.

The organizers don’t aspire to completeness nor do they try to outline a comprehensive history of games. The objects have been chosen with the eye of an aesthete, not the thoroughness of an archivist.

Chess arrived in Europe around 1000 A.D., more than three centuries after it was invented in India.

On its way through the Islamic world, some pieces changed their names and their functions: The fers, or vizier, morphed into the queen; the aufin, or elephant, evolved into the bishop.

Lovers’ Chess

The most amusing item in the show is an illuminated manuscript from 15th-century France.

It tells the story of “Tristan et Yseult” and shows Tristan sipping the love potion while playing chess with Isolde -- a detail that, so far, has escaped the attention of adventurous opera directors.

Card games arrived even later in Europe, probably from China. The exhibition includes a small number of lovely hand- painted cards.

Their real boom, though, started only after the invention of the printing press, too recent for the time span covered in the show.

For that, you have to go to the Musee Francais de la Carte a Jouer (French Museum of Playing Cards) in the chateau of Issy- les-Moulineaux, a suburb of Paris. Information: http://www.issy.com/musee.

“L’Art du Jeu, Jeu dans l’Art, de Babylone a l’Occident Medieval” runs at the Musee de Cluny through March 4 2013. Information: http://www.musee-moyenage.fr.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market, Peter Rainer on film and John Mariani on wine.

To contact the writer of this review: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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