Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The 1603 Pastime of Andrea Ghisi

Another More Fragments of History Recovered

A couple years ago (May of 2009) I stopped most of my posting. The few entries since then have usually been to praise something exceptionally good (like Explaining the Tarot) or to condemn something really bad (like the hilarious hoo-hah about Cathars). Recent online essays about Ghisi’s Labyrinth—two of them in the last month—give me the opportunity to do both. In this post we’ll begin by talking mainly about the extraordinarily good... then, maybe, a couple more posts over the next few weeks.

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.
Nadya Chishty-Mujahid
May, 2011 ATS Newsletter

Last month the Association for Tarot Studies (ATS) published that assertion of ignorance by New Age writer Nadya Chishty-Mujahid. It was accompanied by an elaborate confabulation about Ghisi’s book and what that book might seem to be, hypothetically, assuming that we knew nothing about it. The claim that very little historical background is known about Ghisi’s 1616 Labyrinth book is false, yet the article appeared without a word of caveat from the editor. Given such apparent and demonstrable ignorance, Dr. Chishty-Mujahid’s claim may simply be that she personally knows nothing about the subject upon which she has chosen to lecture and write. In that article, and in two related chapters of her book, she fails to do any sort of literature review, repeatedly proclaims her ignorance of the subject at hand, and characterizes her own views as speculation and guesses. If the claims of gross ignorance in the May ATS article are limited to herself and those who may be expected to read that newsletter, then she appears to be correct: very little historical information is known.

In contrast, as discussed here back in March, a great deal of historical background about Labyrinth is known by others. Moreover, much of that information is inescapable to anyone who Googles ghisi labyrinth or otherwise reviews the literature on the subject(1). The links in my previous post lay out the basic material, and the English translation of Ghisi, including instructions, has been available via Early English Books Online(2) (EEBO) since at least 2007, when I first posted about it online. Several months ago the nature of Ghisi’s parlor trick was made excruciatingly clear by the subject of my previous post, Mariano Tomatis’ beautiful recreation of the trick online.

Which brings us to something equally remarkable from Mariano.

Ghisi’s First Parlor Trick

There is now an even earlier member in this sequence of books by Andrea Ghisi. Mariano Tomatis, who created the online version of Ghisi’s book which I applauded in the post three months ago, has made a new discovery in the development of Ghisi’s book. There is an earlier version of Ghisi’s mind-reading trick, named Pastime.

Romain Merlin is known to playing-card historians for his Les Cartes à Jouer (1857) and Origine des Cartes à Jouer: Recherches Nouvelles (1869). Merlin mentions a 1620 pastime by Ghisi titled Il Nobile e Piacevole Passatempo. Roberto Labanti, a friend of Mariano, discovered a copy of this work, dated 1603.

Upon examination, Ghisi’s Pastime turned out to be the same kind of mentalism or mind-reading book as Labyrinth. It permits the same kind of trick to be performed, and it works by the same progressive elimination method. It uses different subject matter for the images, and it uses a somewhat different layout for the tables. As if that weren’t enough, in addition to reporting on this find Mariano has brought it to life in another interactive version online. This implementation makes the function of the trick immediately apparent.

Here is Mariano’s online version of Ghisi’s Pastime:

The Noble and Pleasant Pastime

Here is Mariano’s blog entry about his discovery and restoration:

Before the Labyrinth: The Pastime of Andrea Ghisi

Those few of us interested in the factual history of the subject had a good understanding of Ghisi’s Labyrinth before this find. Still, the newly uncovered volume adds to our appreciation of Ghisi’s works, giving the “mysterious” 1616 edition a longer and richer historical background. The game, pastime, or parlor trick evolved through different forms, each with a different set of images. The first version even had a different name, while the two subsequent versions were each revised somewhat and dedicated to different prominent men.

Ghisi’s Fifth Parlor Trick

That was not the last of Ghisi’s Labyrinth. The magic community knows of yet another version of this trick(3), a related book dated the following year. This 1617 version is a book of saints, with 60 religious illustrations, but the trick is performed in the same fashion. The book is shown and the trick is performed by Bill Kalush at the end of the video below.

So the series of Ghisi-inspired parlor tricks contains at least five books and, with the exception of the English translation, each one uses a different set of images.

1603 Pastime: The openings show four 13-image matrices, arranged vertically. There are a total of 74 images used, although only 52 which are operative. Some of the images are merely misdirection, tending to conceal the actual design of the trick.

1607 Labyrinth: The openings show four 15-image matrices, arranged horizontally. There are a total of 60 images used. This book was dedicated to Prince Gonzaga of Mantua.

1610 Labyrinth: This was an English translation of the 1607 book.

1616 Labyrinth: The openings also show four 15-image matrices for a total of 60 images used. Most of these (45) were based on the E-Series model book, some were repeated from the earlier edition, and some were new. This book was dedicated to Doge Bembo of Venice.

1617 Devotion of the Lord(4): The openings also show four 15-image matrices for a total of 60 images used. The images include well-known saints, different aspects of the Virgin, (such as the Virgin of Loreto), named archangels, a few biblical figures, and one square with a crown and lilies, with the words, Dignare me laudare te, Virgo sacrata. Da mihi virtutem.

Images and Pastimes

Tarot enthusiasts seem interested in Ghisi’s Labyrinth, or their fantasies about it, because of a concatenated string of blunders. One mistake is their incurable, pathological belief that Tarot is an occult manifesto of some sort. (Those who do not accept an esoteric view generally adopt a neo-Jungian view of the trump cards, which is almost equally unrelated to the actual design of Tarot.) Another mistake is their confusion of the E-Series model book with Tarot. This makes the Renaissance pattern book into another esoteric treatise, of some vaguely conceived sort. A third howler is to confuse Ghisi’s book-test mentalism trick with the E-Series model book. Other, arguably lesser mistakes are mixed in, along with limitless speculation. Ghisi’s actual book apart from such fictions holds no interest for them, hence the abiding lure of socially-constructed ignorance and speculation. If the history is lost in the mists of time, why not make stuff up?!

For magicians, however, this series of books is of genuine personal interest because it is a part of the history and development of technical illusions. These books constitute not only a unique type of book test mentalism but also the earliest examples of this family of magic tricks. And for those interested in games and pastimes generally, although questions of Kabbalah, alchemy, secret societies and so on may be naive or biased to the point of embarrassment, additional legitimate questions do exist.

Information about the author is one such area of interest. His relationships, actual or desired, with the Prince of Mantua and Doge of Venice are open to inquiry. The possibility of some precursor trick is certainly intriguing, and the 21-Card Trick might represent an earlier example of such progressive elimination mentalism. A connection with a card trick seems plausible: in the card trick, as in Ghisi’s Labyrinth or Pastime, the “third turn” reveals the result; and also in the earliest version of Ghisi’s book the images were arranged in four groups of thirteen, reminiscent of a deck of cards.

Another area of possible investigation is the subject matter of the images. One aspect of that is the obvious borrowing from the E-Series. These stylish designs, themselves part of a personified cosmograph, added panache to the trick as it was upgraded for dedication to the Doge. The book of saints version may have drawn from an earlier list, perhaps even borrowing from an illustrated book. The other images Ghisi used, however, show a great range of subject matter and a seemingly random selecton. In general terms, the subject matter used in all four books appears similar to the subject matter used in contemporaneous board games(5). This type of game became popular in Italy in the late 1500s. A printer might have borrowed woodblocks from such a game to create Ghisi’s Pastime or the original Labyrinth, or vice versa. Here are a few examples.

Nuovo et Piaccevole Gioco detto il Barone
Center figure after Jacques Callot (Italian, late 16thC)

Il Nuovo et Piacevole Giuoco Romano
Matteo Cadorin (Padua, 17thC)

Il Nuovo et Piacevole Giuoco del Biribisse
Giovanni Giacomo de' Rossi (Rome, 1642-91)

Gioco nuovo di tutte l'osterie che sono in Bologna
Giuseppe Maria Mitelli (Italian, 1712)

Years before these two new finds, enough historical background was known, (known, at least, to those who bother to read before writing), to brush off empty speculation. Mariano’s new find and the book held by Bill Kalush both indicate that looking things up can be more rewarding than just making things up. Having now discovered four different generations of this same magic trick, using different layouts and different images, we can be extremely confident that we understand the essential point of Ghisi’s Labyrinth. We can watch the trick performed in the Conjuring Arts Research Center rare book room, or interact with online incarnations of two earlier versions. Other lines of research may yet add to this list, but we need not strain our imaginations to understand this book.

  1. Not surprisingly, the best review of the literature appears in an article by Mariano Tomatis. The good early literature is admittedly skimpy. The best description appears to be in Frank Percy Wilson’s 1946 essay, "A Supplement to Toynbee’s Dante in English", (Italian Studies, Volume 3, Numbers 1-2, 1946 , pp. 50-64). It discusses the three editions of the Labyrinth book and explains the gist of Ghisi’s parlor trick clearly.
  2. Early English Books Online is a subscription service. To access Thomas Purfoot’s English translation of Ghisi, Wits Laberyinth, therefore requires a trip to the local university library.
  3. References to this book are a 7/1/11 postscript to the post. The video, also brought to my attention by Mariano, has been online for a month, and in the two days prior to this postscript it received about 500 views. The video of Bill Kalush is the only description/depiction of the book I am aware of, and he does not give its name or author, although a glimpse of the title page is shown.
  4. 7/3/11 update: Ross gleaned this title, Devotione del Signore, from a close examination of the video. See the screencaps below.
  5. The 1528 inventory of Alessandro di Francisco Rosselli listed several seemingly elevating games including giuco d’apostoli chol nostro singnore, a game of the Apostles and Our Lord.