Columns | October 20, 2009 19:37

Valencia lectures part 2: The amazing story of the lost chess book

José A. Garzon, The Return of Francesch VicentIn the final part of our coverage of the lectures held at the Valencia, birthplace of modern chess symposium in Valencia during last month's Karpov-Kasparov match, we will take a closer look at the mysterious 'lost' chess treatise by Francesch Vicent, and why its discovery implies an absolutely spectacular revolution in chess history. 

There were actually several lectures dedicated to the Valencian origin of modern chess, a complex issue which we've introduced you to before the match between the two K's. However, the true meaning of the symposium, in my opinion, shouldn't have been the location of the origin of modern chess, but rather the revolutionary discovery that everything we've always thought we knew about chess history is (probably) wrong. So let me repeat that once again: everything we've always thought we knew about chess history is wrong. But this is something I only found out back in Amsterdam, after the lectures.

The problem of most lectures was that it was quite hard to figure out for unknowning spectators what was at stake exactly, since none of the speakers stated it explictely. For instance, draughts historian Govert Westerveld, who played a major role in identifying Queen Isabela la Catolica as main inspiration for the new powerful queen in chess, was assisted during his talk by former draughts World Champion Harm Wiersma, and while Wiersma did make some interesting general remarks - such as that life in the 16th century was itself rather like a game, and that chess was played mostly by noble families but draughts was considered to be a game 'for all people' - I'm afraid his detailed and lengthy explanation of ancient draughts problems was quite beyond me and presumably the rest of the (chess oriented) audience.

Westerveld himself mainly talked about the Valencian origin of draughts in his talk. Central to his - very interesting - hypothesis is the enigmatic Timoneda draughts book, published in 1635 but containing material that's much older. Unfortunately, due to time restrictions Westerveld had to skip many parts of his lecture, rushing through complicated linguistic and historical discussions - hard to follow even on paper let alone in a live presentation - leaving the audience merely confused. (Wiersma, who finsished Westerveld's lecture, even had the organizers in a slight state of panic when he appeared totally oblivious to the fact than within a couple of minutes, two guys called Kasparov and Karpov were supposed to enter the stage where he was presently explaining draughts problems.)

Equally tough to understand was Professor Alessandro Sanvito's lecture on the Perugia codex, a fascinating manuscript from the early 16th century. But due to Sanvito's monotonous presentation, his - again - very technical arguments and the insufficiently clear English translation of it all, it was extremely tough to follow. This was something that not only I myself experienced, but also various other spectators whom I taked to after his lecture, such as GM Emanuel Berg. I think many of the distinguished scholars who spoke at the symposium somehow assumed they were among academic peers rather than chess enthusiasts.

Still, it could be felt in the air that the subject Sanvito's lecture was part of the key of an extremely important discovery: namely that the first ever modern chess book was not Lucena's Repeticion de amores y arte de ajedrez from 1497. In fact, Lucena's book was an almost exact copy of a yet older printed book on modern chess - written by the same author as the Perugia codex, who was also the chess teacher of the infamous Italian lady Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519).

Lucrezia Borgia by Bartolomeo Veneto, 1st third of 16th century

Lucrezia Borgia's teacher was a Spanish chess master, or Maestro Francesco Spagnolo maestro de scacchi as he was described in a contemporary document. So who was this 'maestro Francesco'? Sanvito thinks it is the mysterious Francesch Vicent, who published a chess book on modern chess in Valencia in 1495 - a book which was last seen over two centuries ago and has been conspicuously missing ever since. It was José Antonio Garzon, about whom I already wrote in my introduction to the symposium, who gave the keynote lecture on this very subject: the return of Francesch Vicent.

Garzon's thesis is as spectacular as it is complicated, and this is probably the reason why so little has been written about the subject since the publication of his magnum opus in 2005, El regreso de Francesch Vicent. Still, as I discovered when I read the English translation of this book (given to me by the author during the symposium) Garzon's theory deserves a much bigger audience because it is, as far as I can see, absolutely spectacular and moreover quite convincing and well argued. Here's a brief abstract.

On May 15, 1495, the book Llibre dels jochs partitis del schachs en nombre de 100, ordenat e compost per mi Francesch Vicent was published in Valencia. It was printed by the printers Lope de Roca and Pere Trincher. From the frontispiece of the treatise, which was miraculously preserved when the book was still in existence, we learn that the author was originally from the city of Segorbe and was also connected to the city of Valencia. After the year 1501, all traces of Vicent disappear from the archives of Valencia and Segorbe, until he reappears in Italian documents of 1506. So Vicent did end up in Italy, but where was he between 1501 and 1506?

We already know that Alessandro Sanvito hypothesized that he went to Italy in 1501, where he appears as 'maestro Francesco' at the Borgia court. How could he reach such a conclusion? The reason is yet another manuscript, the Perugia codex, which turns out to be the most crucial part of the puzzle that restores Vicent as the true author of the first ever chess book in history. The Perugia manuscript, now dated 1502-1506 (it had been dated wrongly on several occasions in the past), contains 72 modern chess compositions and has always puzzled historians - not in the least because it is incomplete: virtually all solutions to the problems are missing. But a recent very important discovery changed all this: another manuscript, titled Ludi Varii, discovered as recent as 1995, from the Malatestiana library of Cesena, which after close examination turns out to contain, in a different order, all problems - and more - from the Perugia  codex!

We now have two Italian manuscripts, both dated in the early 16th century, containing much of the same material. This is already intriguing, but Garzon actually analysed all manuscripts and books published written between 1450 and 1530. Two more need to be mentioned here, the first being Damiano's famous treatise, titled Questo libro e da imparare giocare a Scachi et de le partite, printed in Rome, 1512 (the first printed Italian chess book). It contains the modern chess rules and 72 problems. As Garzon notes, its style is clearly pedagogical, hence its popularity. But the most remarkable aspect of the book is that the problems - yet again - are largely the same as the problems in the Perugia and Cesena manuscripts. Alert readers will already see a pattern emerging: the problems all stem from one source... Vicent's lost treatise.

Damiano's Questo libro e da imparare giocare a Scachi et de le partite (1512)

The last book that is part of the decipherment, is Lucena's good old book printed in Salamanca, 1497: Repeticion de amores y arte de ajedrez con CL juegos de partido, a.k.a. history's oldest known printed book containing modern chess problems. Surprisingly (actually not so surprisingly anymore for readers of this article), the lion's share of the problems in Lucena's book also appear in the Cesena and Perugia manuscripts and Damiano's book (some of the mirrored or slightly altered), implying Lucena didn't invent 'his' own problems himself at all. Actually, this fact was suggested back in 1985 by the famous Russian grandmaster Yuri Averbakh, who, at 87 years of age, gave a very lucid lecture on this discovery in Valencia.  This was one of the highlights of the entire symposium.

José Antonio Garzon and Yuri Averbakh in Valencia

Well, with all these books and manuscripts overlapping on so many chess compositions, the only thing that needs to be done in order to reconstruct the original source is to categorize the problems, compare the various sources and put them together again. And this is precisely what Garzon has managed to do: he lists 100 chess problems, collected from the Cesena, Lucena and Damiano books, and presents them as the true source of all these problems. And, needless to say, he claims this is precisely Francesch Vicent's 'lost' 1495 book - which he actually publishes, on pink paper, right in the middle of his book. Truly, this is the amazing return of Francesch Vicent if ever there was one.

This is the 6th position from the reconstructed book (a mate in two), its counterpart in other sources, and commentary by Roger.

Vicent 6 Vicent 6 (Cesena 99-2, Lucena 7, Damiano 3)

De la dama de ii
Solution: 1. c7 Re6 2.Nc6#; if 1...d1Q 2.Nb3#; if 1...Re5 2.c8Q#

The text is very similar to Lucena. The letters of the solution are the same in Damiano and Cesena. In Lucena the letter "c" has been replaced by a dotted square (e5). The author of the manuscript records again with a miniscule number at the end of the solution the correspondence with Damiano (Dam. 3), thus confirming that his base-text is Vicent's book, since the order does not correspond to Lucena's.

Of course, to many this will all sound very speculative, ridiculous even. Lucena's book we all know and love: simply a copy of an earlier book, now lost in the mist of time? Yeah, right. Francesch Vicent, not only from Valencia - the same city as the origin of the Scachs d'Amor manuscript- but also the private teacher of Lucrezia Borgia, and the hidden author of other famous chess books including the Damiano (which is clearly a pseudonym) treatise? Should we perhaps rename the Damiano opening (1.e4 e5 2.Pf3 f6?) to 'Vicent's opening'?

Well, perhaps we should, because the sceptics are in for a surprise: Garzon presents most of his evidence and conclusions with as much scientific rigour as possible. Not only does he analyse all chess problems (both de la dama - modern chess - and del viejo - medieval chess) in great detail, he also provides 'lists of correspondence' between the various manuscripts and books, a 'table of dependencies' of the two printing projects of Lucena's book with respect to Vicent's 1495 book, and he reproduces photographs of the manuscripts to show, among others, similarities in handwriting and notation, all pointing to one source. He also gives linguistic evidence - backed by Alessandro Sanvito and others - to support the theory that the Italian manuscripts were in fact written by someone who spoke a Valencian dialect. There are extensive notes about details in watermarks, printing technique and other technical stuff. I'd say people who want to disprove Garzon's theory will have to dig very deep indeed.

Vicent 55 Vicent 55 (Cesena 221-1, Lucena 103, Damiano 40)

De la dama de v

Solution: 1. Qe6 Kh8 2.Nf7 Kg8 3.Nh6 Kh8 4.Qg8 Rg8 5.Nf7#

This is the celebrated smothered mate, popularly - and wrongly - known as Philidor's legacy. It is probably the most beautiful mate, although not the most difficult one, of the three treatises. This mate being in the 1495 book, as we have pointed out several times, many years of practice in modern chess are required (Scachs d'Amor c. 1475), because of its technical precision and the position of the transposed [i.e. castled, AWM] king. With this problem the mates in 5 are at last labelled as modern chess in Lucena's treatise. Once again the texts overlap, whereas Damiano, as usual, is briefer and abridged, a thing not always easy to achieve.

It is striking that the chess player hiding behind the name Damiano states (primor 4) that this combination "se haze alguna uez in partido de rei transpoesto i es mucho sutil" ["is made sometimes in games with the transposed king and is very subtle"]. (The same judgemental assessment appearing in Ces. and Luc. which Damiano does not include in his problem 40!) It is surprising that the judgemental assessment only appears in the text in Spanish, and that it is presented up to twice in the subtleties. The mysterious author has many years of practice in modern chess. There is a number 8 at the end of the solution.

In the end, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: were a copy of Vicent's treatise ever to appear - a possibility Garzon shows is not as unlikely as some might think! - we can see compare the reconstruction with the original and see whether it's truth for ourselves. Unfortunately, as someone already noted in a comment to my first article on the origin of modern chess, the evidence for all these conclusions is "shrouded in layers and layers of erudition, research and reading". This very true reality makes it impossible for me to go into more detail on these fascinating questions and problems, if only for fear of making mistakes or misinterpreting things.

I do not doubt, however, that Garzon's conclusions are profoundly important for chess history and that his discoveries deserve a broader audience than the people who went to the symposium or who have read this article. Indeed, what I've written about here is just the tip of the iceberg: the discovery of Vicent's lost book has far-reaching implications for books by much later authors such as Ruy Lopez and the Sicilian Paolo Boi. And then there's the fantastic theory that the game of draughts was actually an invention of Vicent as well - enter Govert Westerveld again. So, I hope more people will read The Return of Franchesch Vicent or even become inspired to go out and do research on these ancient books or manuscripts themselves.

During one of the press conferences after the Kasparov-Karpov rapid match, someone asked Kasparov what he thought about the fact that the origin of modern chess was supposed to be in Valencia. Kasparov's reaction was noteworthy: he referred to the fact that some years ago, he was in Spain celebrating the birth of modern chess in ... Salamanca, the place where Lucena published his book on modern chess. In the end, Kasparov said, it doesn't matter where modern chess originated. The important thing is to inspire people with it. Well, Kasparov was certainly wrong to consider Salamanca equally important as Valencia. But it's true that the really interesting question is not where modern chess originated. It's who did it. Perhaps another symposium should be held to answer that question once and for all.

José A. Garzon, The Return of Francesch Vicent, 2005, Generalitat Valenciana, ISBN 8448241940

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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Castro's picture

1. I always knew the smoothered mate as Lucena's mate OR Philidor's mate. It is not exactely "wrong" to call it the latter name. It's something very common in chess, otherwise no one should ever call Petroff to the Petroff, scandinavian to the center-counter (maybe Vineoles to that?), Sokolsky to ourangutan...

2. Or Damiano to the "Damiano"! He surely wasn't the first to present the infamous 2. ...f6, and surely didn't claim to be. He merely presented it and criticized it.
BTW, it seems (I don't remember the source) that there was a called "portuguese defense" that was no more no less than 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 ! From which, for instance, a spanish opening (or Ruy Lopez) evolved.
Maybe it was because Damiano adviced Nc6 (and condemned f6). But history was somewhat cruel on him :-)

3. Why would Damiano be "clearly a pseudonym"?
As far as I know it is merely a "un-portuguesation" of the true name that would be Pedro Damião, because this concrete orthography didn't (doesn't) exist in the other latin languages. (Not exactely a "translation", as the word "damiano" is also acceptable in portuguese, if that was his name).
Note that "to support the theory that the Italian manuscripts were in fact written by someone who spoke a Valencian dialect" is also something to take carefuly (something maybe the authors did, I realy don't kow, but again the "portuguese connection" could have being negleted, as the languages/dialects portuguese-catalan-valencian have lots of things in common that bridges over and strongly differ from the castilian spanish, and hence allows many confusions.

4. Where, Arne or those erudites, think the "Gottingen manuscript" fits, on this story? Lucena? For sure?

Arne Moll's picture

Castro, concerning your questions: Garzon's book is almost 500 pages full of footnotes, bibliographical references and other fine points. He analyses 28 manuscripts and books from the period 1450-1530 in great detail. It's impossible to mention them all and list all his arguments, but they seem quite convincing to me.
You really have to read the book yourself if you're interested, but I'll just quote what Garzon says about the Göttingen manuscript:
"(...) As we saw, it contains 12 rules and 30 problems that appear in Lucena's book. We do not have any doubt that it is from a later date than the Salamancan treatise, from which it derives. Our hypothesis is that it was indeed made by someone from Lucena's family. (...)"
Cheers, Arne

Mark's picture

Thanks Arne for letting us know about these intriguing recent developments in chess history research !

It's noteworthy that the Vicent 55 problem allows for a parallel, less spectacular solution: 3. Nd8+ Kh8 4. Qe8+ Qf8 5.Qxf8#

Apparently the early masters didn't care that much about parallel solutions (let's assume they were smart enough to spot them), and the second black rook, which we may consider superfluous, seemed to add to the amazement of the solution.

Arne Moll's picture

Mark, you're right but it's not the fault of the composer! You see, there is an extra condition to this problem which has to do with fixing the black pieces. I assumed it was irrelevant so I didn't include it here, but I didn't spot the dual! I guess it's relevant after all, and I will look it up for you later today.

Mark's picture

Thanks for looking this up, Arne.
I suppose you are right about the meaning of 'fidated', because the highly elegant queen sacrifice is indeed the only solution that doesn't require taking an opponent's piece (the other solution implies 5. Qxf8# in Vicent 55, or 3. Nxe8+ in Ces 94-1). Still, the solution without queen sacrifice is one move shorter in Ces 94-1, so Ces 94-1 can hardly be called an improvement over Vicent 55, don't you think ?

Arne Moll's picture

Mark, I tried to find out about the stipulations. In the book it reads "Conditions: Mate has to be given in 5 or less. The black pieces are fidated."
I'm not sure about the translation of 'fidated' but I suppose it means that the black pieces cannot be taken. This would at least explain the current solution.
In the later Cesena manuscript, presumably also by Vicent, there is another version of the same problem, or rather called 'subtlety' (Ces 94-1). Here is the position: white: Ka1, Rd1, Qd6, Nb5, pawns a2, b2; black: Kb8, Qh8, Rf8, Re8, pawns a7, b7.

Mark's picture

Alright, Arne. It's nice to know that our modern rules were developed by people who paid attention to the subtleties of the game.

Arne Moll's picture

Actually I don't know that, Mark, for the conditions of these old problems were somewhat different in this respect, too. A mate in 5 had to be delivered in 5 moves and 5 moves only. To give mate in 4 was simply not a valid solution. I know it sounds crazy now, but some very elegant medieval problems have been composed with these stipulations. Ah, those were the days!

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