NUREMBERG, circa 1570-1580.

Height: 41.5 cm (16 ¼ in.)
Width: 41.5 cm (16 ¼ in.)
Depth: 13.4 cm (5 ¼ in.)

Provenance : Private collection, Belgium.

Literature: - Lencker (Hans), Perspectiva Literaria, Nuremberg, 1567
- Stoer (Lorenz), Geometria et Perspectiva, Augsburg, 1567
- Jamnitzer (Wenzel), Perspectiva Corporum Regularium, Nuremberg, 1568

- Kreisel (Heinrich), Die Kunst des deutschen Möbels, first volume “Von den Anfängen bis zum Hochbarock”, Munich, 1968
- Jamnitzer, Lencker, Stoer. Drei Nürnberger Konstruktivisten des 16. Jahrhunderts, exh. cat. directed by M. M. Prechtl, Nuremberg, 1969
- Klesse (Brigitte), Museum für Angewandte Kunst, gegründet 1888 als Kunstgewerbemuseum. Querschnitt durch die Sammlungen, Cologne, 1989
- Spielwelten der Kunst Kunstkammerspiele, exhibition catalogue, Vienna, May-August 1998, pp. 160-162, n° 81.

The square, hinged case is composed of marquetry in a geometric pattern made of fruitwood, ebony, ivory, and mother of pearl. The edges of the case are decorated with fine ivory squares and triangles on an ebony background.
On the outside is a chessboard with ivory and brown ebony squares framed by rectangles, squares, and triangles.
The opposite outer side is decorated with a game of Nine Men’s Morris (Mühle) made of ivory and adorned with various polyhedra arranged around a central cartouche.
Inside, the backgammon game consists of 24 alternating elongated triangles of ivory, engraved in black, and ebony, engraved in gold, with six different motifs representing grotesques and foliage. The space between these triangles and the frame are decorated with polyhedra and geometric figures.

Polyhedra and perspectives:

This box is a masterpiece of marquetry both by its technical virtuosity and the originality of the decoration composed in particular of polyhedra.

A polyhedron is a geometrical solid in three dimensions. The polyhedra come from Euclidean geometry as theorized in the Elements by Euclid. Only five polyhedra are both regular and convex: these are called the five Platonic solids. Their names come from their significant role in the philosophy of Plato who associated – in Timaeus (c. 358 BC. AD) – each of the four elements with a regular solid. Earth was associated with the cube (or hexahedron), Air with the octahedron, Water with the icosahedron and Fire with the tetrahedron. As the fifth solid – the dodecahedron – Plato associated it with the All. Aristotle called this fifth element aithêr (“ether” in English).

Jamnitzer and Nuremberg:

Wenzel Jamnitzer in his book Perspectiva Corporum Regularium (Perspective of Regular Solids) published in Nuremberg in 1568 (Fig. 1) used the theory of the five Platonic solids associated with the elements. The polyhedra and geometric patterns that adorn our game box are directly inspired by his scientific work.

Fig. 1: Wenzel Jamnitzer, Perspectiva Corporum, 1568

Based on Euclidean and Platonic geometry, Jamnitzer’s studies were the synthesis of a century of research on perspective and polyhedra, initiated by Paolo Uccello and Leon Battista Alberti around 1435, followed by the studies on divine proportion of the mathematician Fra Luca Pacioli helped by Leonardo da Vinci and published in Venice in 1509. These tables were used and transposed north of the Alps by Albrecht Dürer in 1525 and later by Augustin Hirschvogel (Anweysung in die Geometria, Nuremberg, 1543).In the humanistic and artistic circles of Nuremberg, Jamnitzer was not alone in his passion for geometry, perspective, and polyhedra. His fellow goldsmith Hans Lencker published in 1567 his Perspectiva Literaria (Fig. 2), which probably was an additional source of inspiration for the wood inlayer who made our games box.

Fig. 2: Hans Lencker, Polyhedron, Perspectiva Literaria, 1567

In the same year, the artist Lorenz Stoer published in Augsburg a series of twelve prints entitled Geometria et Perspectiva, placing polyhedra in landscapes of ruins, which had a strong influence on the inlayers of Augsburg and Nuremberg (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Lorenz Stoer, Frontispiece and table, Geometria et Perspectiva, 1567

The transcription into marquetry:

Marquetry is particularly suited to the use of polyhedra. There had been examples of the transcription of geometric solids onto wooden panels since the late 15th century with the art of Italian “intarsia”, like the stalls of the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Tuscany) by Fra Giovanni da Verona (Fig. 4), or, in the basilica of St. Dominic of Bergamo, by Fra Damiano Zambelli.

Our games box perfectly illustrates the link between drawings of geometric figures and the art of marquetry.

Fig. 4 : Intarsia, 1520, Fra Giovanni
Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Tuscany)

A workshop identified:

Four other objects clearly from the same anonymous workshop have been identified: a very similar games box kept at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and mentioned in the imperial inventory from 1596 (Fig. 5); another games box in a private collection (Fig. 6); a cabinet in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Cologne (Fig. 7); and a casket forming a lectern in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Frankfurt (Fig. 8). These objects were probably made around 1570 amid the excitement generated by the publication of Jamnitzer and probably in Nuremberg where a more formal and rigorous influence of the master was felt rather than in Augsburg – the other major artistic center of Southern Germany – where inlayers, less formal, were more inspired by the fantasies of Lorenz Stoer.

Fig. 5: Games box
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienne (Inv.-Nr. 3792)

Fig. 6: Games box
Private collection

Fig. 7: Cabinet with geometric pattern and detail of a door
Ebony and other wood, ivory, mother of pearl
Museum of Decorative Arts, Cologne, Inv.Nr. A 1451

Fig. 8: Casket forming a lectern
Wood and ivory inlays.
Museum of Decorative Arts, Frankfurt

A games box:

Trictrac is the French name of the medieval “jeu de tables” (tables game) also called in its variants backgammon or jacquet. It derives from the Roman game of twelve lines, ludus duodecim scriptorum.

The game of chess may originate from Northern India in the 5th century. Introduced into Western Europe by the Arabs, chess enjoyed a renewed interest in the 15th century.

The game of the Mill, which is on one side of our box, was a traditional game in Europe, played with a board that already existed in Ancient Egypt and Rome. This game is also called mérelles (or marelles – hopscotch) in France, Mühle in Germany or Nine Men’s Morris in Anglo-Saxon countries. The game consists of a board composed of four concentric squares connected to the center of their four sides by perpendicular lines. The game pits two players against each other and is played on the 24 points of the board. Each player has nine pieces and tries to reduce the opponent to two pieces so he can no longer move, by forming Mills (three pieces in a row) with his own pieces, which allow him to take the opponent’s piece. Ultimately, the goal is to capture the opponent’s pieces by forming rows of three pieces.