Valencia and the origin of modern chess
In just over a week, Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov will play an exhibition match in Valencia, Spain, as part of the festivities of the Valencia Cuna del Ajedrez Moderno program: “Valencia, birthplace of modern chess”. ChessVibes will be in Valencia to report on the match between the two K's. As an introduction to the festivities in Valencia, I will try to shed some light on the complicated but very interesting Valencian link with modern chess.
Miniature from a book work by Jacques de Cessoles - Liber de moribus - XIVth century - The chess players
For non-historians, it's not easy finding out about the history of modern chess - not on the internet, at least. The problem is that there are many recent developments when it comes to the origins of chess as we know it - so recent that it's not easy to find actual books on them: books in the English language, that is. There are many excellent online resources, with very long and detailed articles written by most respectable historians, but they hardly ever refer to each other, and most if not all offer just pieces of the puzzle. While trying to figure out the origins of modern chess, I often felt like a detective on a murder case. This article is my final showdown, the confrontation of the suspects.
This much we know for sure: chess as we now play it emerged somewhere between the end of the Middle Ages and the birth of the Renaissance, i.e. between 1450 and 1500. This was perhaps one of the most importantly periods in all of human history, in view of the capture of Constantinople (1453), the invention of the book press by Johannes Gutenberg (1455) and the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1492). The rough dating for the new chess rules in this period, however, doesn't satisfy historians. When, where and why did chess make such radical changes in this timespan? These are questions that are still heavily debated even today. As to the 'where' question, virtually all contemporary sources point towards Spain. But the precise answering of 'when and why' is much more complicated, as we will see.
The love poem and allegory Scachs d'Amor by Francesch de Castellvi, Narcis Vinyoles and Bernat Fenollar was analysed extensively by chess history pioneer Ricardo Calvo
The game of chess itself, of course, is much, much older than the Renaissance. In the Middle Ages, it was a highly popular board game, and there are many medieval manuscripts documenting rules, positions and problems. Some of the most beautiful images of chess playing people are from this age. The rules of the game were different from the ones we're using now in many ways. Most importantly, the movement of the queen and bishop was very different under these old rules. The queen (or 'fers' in Arab) was the weakest piece on the board: it could only move 1 square diagonally. The bishop, or 'fil', was also a very limited piece, having only access to 8 squares regardless of where it stood. Pawn promotions did exist, but pawns could only promote to fers. These rules made chess a rather slow game, with little room for opening theory. But all this was about to change.
Modern research on the origin of modern chess started in 1905, when a late-fifteenth century Catalan manuscript (that is, a hand written book) titled Scachs d'Amor (Chess of Love) was discovered in the Royal Chapel of the Palau de Barcelona. Scachs d'Amor is a love poem and an allegory describing a game of chess between two players representing the gods Mars and Venus, while a referee (Mercury) is watching over them. Two of the poem's authors, Francesch de Castellvi (with white representing Mars) and Narcis Vinyoles (with black representing Venus) play a chess game according to 'modern' rules. (The third author, Bernat Fenollar, performs the role of arbiter.) The game, as indicated in the manuscript itself, was not played in real life, but was invented for literary purposes - quite in style of Renaissance writing. The game can be reconstructed as follows:
Game viewer by ChessTempo
As anyone immediately must notice, in this game the bishop and especially the queen, called dama in the manuscript, move in a dramatically different way from the old medieval rules: they wander the board according to our modern rules, and have suddenly become very strong and important pieces. These new rules are also formulated in the manuscript - albeit in a poetical, 'hidden' sort of way. Clearly, something had changed by the time Scachs d'Amor was written. But when did this change take place, and what triggered it? Enter the chess historians, who have done extensive research on this and other questions.
First, we must properly indentify the authors of the Scachs manuscript: Francesch de Castellvi, an advisor to the court of King Ferdinand; Narcis Vinyoles, an influential judge and politician; and Mossen Bernat Fenollar, a clergyman from the province of Alicante. All were well-known members of an avant-garde literary circle in Valencia in the late decades of the 15th century. In 1474, the three of them published a piece (which appeared in print) together for a contest in honour of the Virgin Mary. This, together with the Valencian dialect in which the poem is written, easily locates the Scachs-manuscript in Valencia itself, and there is no controversy over this issue among scholars. But can we establish when Scachs d'Amor was actually written? This question is more difficult to answer, but there are many clues. The most basic one is that Castellvi died in 1506, so this is the last theoretical date for the manuscript to have appeared. But it was probably written years before that.
Narcis Vinyoles and Mossen Bernat Fenollar
There's more than one argument for this hypothesis: one of those is the emergence of printed books (instead of manuscripts) in Valencia around 1474, making the appearance of a costly manuscript for a much later date unlikely; another is that the manuscript itself doesn't yet mention Vinyoles' honorary title 'mossen', which he obtained in 1488. So the manuscript was probably written before 1488, implying the new rules for queen and bishop were already in use before 1490. And what's the earliest date that can be attached to it? Well, we know that the latest 15th century chess manuscripts (from the so-called Civis Bononiae family) are dated around 1460, and that none of these mention the new queen and bishop rules, thus indicating that the new rules were probably not yet known around this time. Therefore, the Scachi manuscript must be dated somewhere between 1460 and 1490.
The date 1490 is important, by the way, because this implies that the new rules are older than the oldest printed book that's still around: Lucena's famous Repeticion de amores e arte de axedrez con CL juegos de partido, printed in Salamanca in 1497 and dedicated to King Ferdinand. Lucena is one of the most mysterious chess authors in the history of the game. He was Jewish by birth and as a consequence threatened by the Spanish Inquisition, which he escaped by converting to Christianity. His highly curious book, probably the most famous chess book of all time, is very interesting not only because it is so old but also because it is an unusual mixture of a love story and a treatise on chess. For this reason, it has been studied extensively by scholars. For clarity's sake, I will focus on the chess-part only.
Lucena's Repeticion de amores e arte de axedrez con CL juegos de partido
In the chess-related part of the book, then, Lucena explicitly states the distinction between the old and new rules of chess, which he calls 'el viejo' and 'de la dama' respectively. The 150 (CL in Roman numerals) chess problems in the book are also classified according to this distinction. Problems with the new chess rules include the new queen and bishop moves and a relatively advanced version of castling. It has long been assumed that Lucena's book was the first official account of the new rules of chess, which also include capturing en passant. But where did Lucena get these rules from? Could Lucena have learned them from the Scachs d'Amor manuscript, its authors, or by another trace to Valencia?
To be sure, the Lucena family can easily be linked to Castellvi, Fenollar and Vinyoles through their mutual connections with King Ferdinand of Aragon. Also, it's not unlikely that Lucena went to the port of Valencia to embark on his journeys through Europe, possibly having contact with the Scachi d'Amor circle of poets. According to many sources, Lucena probably met both Vinyoles and Fenollar. So yes, Lucena, too, can be linked directly to Valencia and he may very well have gotten the new rules by this route.
Do we have any other sources around this time documenting the new rules? Indeed we have - well, sort of: in 1495, two years before Lucena’s book was printed, the first chess book ever appeared in print: it was Fracesch Vicent's incunabulum (or pre-1500 printed edition) treatise on chess, called Libre dels jochs partitis Scachs. This mysterious book has been subject of much speculation because it was ... lost in the 19th century and has never been seen since. Through various sources, we partly know what was in the book and we can also infer that Lucena probably 'borrowed' extensively from the Vicent manuscript directly. To show the definitive Valencian influence, what needs to be shown is a link between the Vicent book and the Scachi group and/or Valencia, and this is precisely what the Valencian researcher Jose Antonio Garzon Roger has done in recent years. Let's have a look at the evidence he presents.
El Regreso de Francesch Vincent by Garzon Roger
In his 2005 book El regreso de Francesch Vicent (The return of Francesch Vicent), Garzon Roger shows - based on technical analysis - that Libre dels jochs partitis Scachs was indeed printed in Valencia. (What's more, Garzon Roger suggests it must still exist somewhere. Unfortunately, as long as the book hasn't actually been located, it all remains somewhat speculative.) According to Garzon Roger, the book can also be linked – through their connection with book printers at the time - to the Valencian literary group, mentioning the new 'queen rules' (which were described in a still concealed form in the Scachs manuscript) for the first time in a formal way in print.
Thus the circle of the Valencian origins of chess seems closed. As Garzon Roger says in a recent interview: "Everything happens in Valencia". And so, there is now little doubt that the first sources (the Scachs manuscript, the Vincent book and the Lucena book) of the new chess rules are all linked to Valencia, and this makes the city by far the best candidate for the origin of modern chess.
But still Garzon Roger was not satisfied: he wanted an even more exact dating, and even better explanations. When exactly was Scachs d'Amor written, and what inspired the Valencian poets to invent the new rules? At this point in our whodunit, another detective, draughts-history expert Govert Westerveld, who has worked closely with Garzon Roger, appears on the scene. According to Westerveld, the new rules (and especially the rules for the queen movement) coincide precisely with the coronation of dama Isabella the Catholic (who had married King Ferdinand in 1469). This coronation took place at 13 December 1474, and it literally turned the dama into a Queen.
This event, Westerveld claims, inspired the Valencian poets to change the rules in accordance with Isabella's newly gained powers - powers that were, as they are in the new chess, even greater than those of her husband, the king. In fact, according to both Garzon Roger and Westerveld, there are obvious hints within the Scachs d'Amor poem to Isabella's actual coronation. The most important one is the following line (stanza 54), spoken by Fenollar:
"Mas nostre joch de nou vol enremar se stil novel e strany a qui bel mira prenent lo pom, lo sceptr'e la cadira, car, sobretot, la Reyna fa honrar se."
(But our game still wants to adorn itself with a new and surprising style for mainly the queen's dignity is enhanced, as she is given the sword, the sceptre and the throne.)
As Garzon Roger points out, historical records duly note that Queen Isabella I was crowned with the sword of justice raised in front of her, and the sceptre and throne were given to her. This allusion to the real-world event is so clear that for Westerveld and Garzon Roger, the inspiration of Queen Isabella for the new chess queen is unquestionable. Moreover, Westerveld has evidence that the invention of the game of draughts can also be traced to Valencia, and he told me in a private e-mail that he and checkers champion Harm Wiersma will present this evidence, from an hitherto unknown draughts book showing that the game was invented in 1495 in Valencia, during the festivities next week. And yes, you’ve read it on ChessVibes first!
To return to chess, Garzon Roger also discovered that in June 1475, Mars, Venus and Mecury were in close conjunction at the Valencian sky. What better evidence for the appearance of the poem than this mystical moment? And what better evidence for the exact date of the invention of the new rules? It's clear where Westerveld and Garzon Roger are heading to: it were the authors of Scachs d'Amor themselves who invented the new rules of chess, in honour of their new queen Isabella I, and they did it in the city of Valencia, in 1475 or 1476 at latest.
Garzon Roger and Govert Westerveld with Anatoli Karpov
So, that's where, when and why modern chess begun. Quod erat demonstrandum, and Westerveld and Garzon Roger actually present their solution to the puzzle with some triumph, as if they want to show the world how wrong other historians - such as Murray - have been in the past by ignoring Valencia so far. It's hard not to think of this as a bit of 'Valencian chauvinism', which in my opinion goes badly together with the scientific rigor they show in their research.
So, have we solved the mystery? Apart from the missing Vicent book, it seems there is little room for doubt or skepticism in this chain of reasoning. Certainly the upcoming festivities in Valencia speak for themselves. Still, as far as I can tell a few things remain unclear. Perhaps this is simply due to my ignorance in the matter, or because much of Garzon Roger’s work is published in Spanish only – whatever it is, I hope the following questions will be answered in Valencia next week.
First of all, it seems perfectly plausible to me that the Valencian poets didn't invent the new rules themselves, but borrowed them in turn from others, who may or may not have been inspired by Queen Isabella: perhaps it was the poets who first connected the two in a poetical way (after all, they were poets.) We may never know.
Also, based on what I've read so far (which is not all), I do not see why the Scachs manuscript cannot have been written a few years after 1475 - say, in 1480. Sure, the later it appeared, the simpler it would have been to print it in book-form instead of writing it in manuscript, but who knows what happened in those days?
Isabella I (a detail of the painting Our Lady of the Fly, attributed to Gerard David and/or someone of the circle of Jan Mabuse)
A more relevant point than all this seems to me connected to the rules of castling. Garzon Roger has claimed that the Scachs manuscript mentions castling in the almost-modern sense, namely based on the fact that the king needs a safe haven with a very strong enemy queen around. According to Garzon Roger, the writers of the Scachs d'Amor manuscript 'with great intuition forsaw how to mitigate her power by seeking the King's safety'. All very well, but in the game they present, neither side castles! I find this distinctly suspicious - if you invent a new rule, and even realize its future importance, why not demonstrate it in a game you can invent yourself?
Finally, as always, the term 'modern chess' seems to me a matter of definition. Garzon Roger and Westerveld, as well as others, seem to advocate the view that modern 'de la dama' chess was born in Valencia, when the new queen rules where likely being invented. And since Lucena and others after him also used this as a way of distinction between the old and new forms, there seems little reason not to call it the birth of modern chess.
Or is there? What about other, later, changes in the rules, most importantly castling? The great Ruy Lopez castled differently as late as 1561, so isn't 'modern chess' really that: chess as we now play it? By these standards, the first 'modern' castling was not established officially until 1620, and even then the rules still varied locally. However fascinating the Valencian connection, however true its origin, for me, personally, 'modern chess' really is chess as it is played by, well, by Karpov and Kasparov.
Perhaps we will never be able to pinpoint the exact emergence of modern chess, whatever that means - simply because it happened too long ago. But one thing is certain: next week, Kasparov and Karpov will be in Valencia to celebrate the origin of modern chess, and who can blame them? Valencia deserves it.
- Goddess Chess
- The History of Draughts, by Govert Westerveld
- Chess and Chess Players of the Renaissance
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