Prints in play:
printed playing cards, board games, fans, fire screens, targets, masks and the fashioning of social roles in early modern europe

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This research investigates the collection of printed objects with applied uses that are housed in the British Museum's department of prints and drawings, focusing upon printed games, targets, masks, fans and other printed objects, primarily from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The project will explore how such prints, handled within specific social settings, could take on distinct and formative roles in social exchanges. The prints' popularity has led to their disappearance over time as they wore out and were discarded. The British Museum's collection is thus unique in having a large number of extant works.

'Playful' prints had more significant social roles than is customarily realised: printed fans served both women and men at social gatherings, printed masks were worn during carnivals, printed board games were played as polite games of chance, and printed playing-cards were used both to teach and to entertain their players.

One of the most famous examples hails from 1644. The French Prime Minister Cardinal Mazarin asked the etcher Stefano della Bella to design playing-cards for the young Louis XIV. Della Bella's images of the French kings, famous queens, fables and the geography of the known world adorned cards that were used both to teach and to entertain the child ruler. The writer Desmarets de St.-Sorlin provided a didactic framework for the prints, whose role in forming the mental horizons of the French king was seen as of paramount importance.

Whether fans, masks or games, the prints were at times provided for elite patrons, but were then published and sold to the public. This was the case for both Della Bella’s cards and Jacques Callot's etched fan, made in 1619 for Medici festivities in Florence. Conversely, mass-produced board games with crude imagery, such as the 'Gioco detto il Barone' game of vagabonds and tradesmen, could be preserved in elite Roman libraries. High and low in society were on common ground when it came to consuming these printed goods.

This research will focus on the prints' social and political functions as these broad 'types' of print were produced across Europe in different social climates. As well as investigating their use, the project will question how the prints' imagery interacted with the specific social contexts in which they were used, using evidence from contemporary documents, literary texts, and other representations. As well as producing a substantial written thesis, the research will be focused towards staging an exhibition of these 'prints in play' at the British Museum in the final year of the CDA.