Tuesday, 4 December 2012

17th Century Playing Cards -- Made from Silver

So, in my inbox this morning I found a news story about the re-discovery and sale of a set of playing cards created in Augsburg, Germany, in 1616.  These are no ordinary cards though -- these are actually made of silver and gilded with gold using an archaic mercury gilding technique.  The process is entirely illegal today; given that he would have added gold dust to mercury and then painted that solution onto the silver before firing it in a kiln... yeah.  I'm kind of glad it is illegal.  What's even more mad is that the artist creating this work (a chap named Michael Frömmer) knew it was dangerous at the time; no one really knew how or why it was a health hazard though.

Photograph by Jay Weston.  Visit here for a bigger and better picture.

Thing is, these cards weren't even for playing with.  They were Renaissance bling.  They sat inside a kunstschrank (art cabinet) and looked nice.  It was a way of saying "I have so much money, I can have this work of art and human engineering created for me."  Of course, should the owners fall on hard times, they also had an awful lot of silver on hand that could be melted down.  Security, currency, art and wealth all in one shot.  It'd be a crying shame if it had happened to these though.  The level of detail on these cards is immense and apparently on the same level as copper plates for print.

 King of Swords, dressed as the Holy Roman Emporer -- Likely Charlemagne.  That's an insane amount of detail -- though given it's mercury gilding, insane is possibly the correct word.  Photo by Patrick Debremme.

The Cavalier (or Knight) of Batons, dressed in early 17th century military gear, rocking the popped collar.  I'd love to know what his dog is looking at.  Photo:  Patrick Debremme, via LiveScience. Though I totally object to their use of the term "ancient".  400 years is not ancient!

You may have noticed that these aren't your standard suits that you find in playing cards today.  Back when these cards were produced, most countries in Europe had their own suits.  This German-made deck actually uses Italian suits, which are those of swords, coins, batons and cups (ace to 10).  Like modern decks, there are three face cards in each suit, although these comprise of king, cavalier/knight and knave.  The deck therefore contains 52 cards -- no jokers.

Each card is blank on the back and only around 1mm thick -- thin enough to play with, but not to shuffle.  They measure 3.4" by 2" and are one of only five sets of silver cards... and the only complete set in the world. 

I'm not really sure why this news story has become prominent now, given that these cards were re-discovered (and went on sale) in 2010 at Christie's for a small fortune -- $554,500 to be precise.  But it was an interesting thing to find in my inbox this morning.

If you want to read more about the provenance, Christie's has more info here.

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