Naomi Lebens

Prints in play: printed games and the fashioning of social roles in early modern Europe

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

This project investigates the significant collection of printed games housed in the British Museum's department of prints and drawings.

Start Date: September 2012
End Date: September 2015
Theme: Objects, meanings, and knowledge
Research discipline: Fine and decorative arts
Locations: Europe
Staff member: Hugo Chapman
Department: Department of Prints and Drawings
University and department: Early Modern Section, Courtauld Institute of Art
University supervisor: Sheila McTighe
Profile: Courtauld Institute of Art profile
In(ter)ventions: object histories and the museum

Why did games become the site of such invention in print?

Inventive games were made for many reasons. Some were meant to be humorous, some political, some educational. The playfulness associated with games allowed makers to experiment.

What motivated the selection of certain subjects?

This was very dependent upon the identity of the maker and the intended audience for the game. For example, professional geographers developed map games to sell in their shops.

What place did games have on the early modern print marketplace?

It is difficult to tell. However, games feature in the inventories and catalogues of a wide range of early modern print-sellers, which suggests they were readily available.

About my research

Games were among the most frequently re-invented forms of printed object on the early modern marketplace.

Common models like the Game of the Goose (a spiral race game thought to have a 5000 year history) were subject to numerous variations in print. And new subjects were frequently drawn upon to act as novel sites for play, from street-sellers and commedia dell’arte characters to body parts, European heraldry, geography and modern warfare.

Surviving examples encompass everything from crude woodcuts to elaborate engravings and famous printmakers, publishers, pedagogues, authors, clerics, engineers and geographers, among others, have all been involved in their early manufacture and sale.

Aims of my research

Organised around a series of discrete case studies, my thesis will explore how such ‘playful’ prints, produced and handled within specific settings, could take on distinct and formative roles in social exchanges.

One of the most famous examples hails from 1644. The Florentine etcher Stefano Della Bella and the French writer Jean Desmarets de St.-Sorlin designed a series of playing-cards for king Louis XIV. These were originally intended to teach and entertain the child ruler. However, they were then republished in successive states across the seventeenth-century. At each new moment of publication, material changes were made to the form and presentation of the card decks. Among other things, they became a book, a collector’s item and a new type of game.


A paper on the Jeux des Cartes created by Stefano Della Bella and Jean Desmarets for Louis XIV. Postgraduate Symposium 2015: Showcasing New Research, The Courtauld Institute of Art (In progress)

‘A World of Play: Printed Games in a Marketplace for Maps in Seventeenth-Century Paris’. Thinking with Things, 1500-1940, Conference, CRASSH, University of Cambridge, 25 April 2014

‘Enacting Education: Prints, Play and Didactic Games in Seventeenth-Century Europe’ Research Seminar Series, The British Museum, 5 March 2014