The Grim Reaper at the Chessboard

Few games lend themselves to philosophical metaphors like the game of chess.
The two armies, one dark and one bright, have been battling each other for millennia in endless struggle. An abstract fight of mathematical perfection, as mankind’s “terrible love of war” is inscribed within an orthogonal grid which is only superficially reassuring.
The chessboard hides in fact an impossible combinatory vertigo, an infinity of variations. One should not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the scheme (the estimate of all possible games is a staggering number), and remember that famous Pharaoh who, upon accepting to pay a grain of wheat on the first square and to double the number of grains on the following squares, found himself ruined.

The battle of 32 pieces on the 64 squares inspired, aside from the obvious martial allegories, several poems tracing the analogy between the chessboard and the Universe itself, and between the pawns and human condition.
The most ancient and famous is one of Omar Khayyám‘s quatrains:

Tis all a Chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

This idea of God moving men over the chessboard as he pleases might look somewhat disquieting, but Jorge Luis Borges multiplied it into an infinite regress, asking if God himself might be an unknowing piece on a larger chessboard:

Weakling king,  slanting bishop, relentless
Queen, direct rook and cunning pawn
Seek and wage their armed battle
Across the black and white of the field.

They know not that the player’s notorious
Hand governs their destiny,
They know not that a rigor adamantine
Subjects their will and rules their day.

The player also is a prisoner
(The saying  is Omar’s) of another board
Of black nights and of white days.

God moves the player, and he, the piece.
Which god behind God begets the plot
Of dust and time and dream and agonies?

This cosmic game is of course all about free will, but is also part of the wider context of memento mori and of Death being  the Great Leveler. Whether we are Kings or Bishops, rooks or simple pawns; whether we fight for the White or Black side; whether our army wins or loses — the true outcome of the battle is already set. We will all end up being put back in the box with all other pieces, down in “time’s common grave“.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Death many times sat at the chessboard before Man.

In the oldest representations, the skeleton was depicted as cruel and dangerous, ready to violently clutch the unsuspecting bystander; but by the late Middle Ages, with the birth of the Danse Macabre (and possibly with the influence of the haunting but not malevolent Breton figure of Ankou) the skeleton had become unarmed and peaceful, even prone to dancing, in a carnival feast which, while reminding the viewer of his inevitable fate, also had an exorcistic quality.

That Death might be willing to allow Man a game of chess, therefore, is connected with a more positive idea in respect to previous iconographic themes (Triumph of Death, Last Judgement, the Three Kings, etc.). But it goes further than that: the very fact that the Reaper could now be challenged, suggests the beginning of Renaissance thought.

In fact, in depictions of Death playing chess, just like in the Danse Macabre, there are no

allusions or symbols directly pointing to the apocalyptic presence of religion, nor to the necessity of its rituals; for instance, there are no elements suggesting the need of receiving, in the final act, the extreme confort of a priest or the absolution as a viaticum for the next world, which would stress the feeling of impotence of man. Portrayed in the Danse Macabre is a man who sees himself as a part of the world, who acknowledges his being the maker of change in personal and social reality, who is inscribed in historical perspective.

(A. Tanfoglio, Lo spettacolo della morte… Quaderni di estetica e mimesi del bello nell’arte macabra in Europa, Vol. 4, 1985)

The man making his moves against Death was no more a Medieval man, but a modern one.
Later on, the Devil himself was destined to be beat at the game: according to the legend, Sixteenth Century chess master Paolo Boi from Syracuse played a game against a mysterious stranger, who left horrified when on the chessboard the pieces formed the shape of a cross…

But what is probably the most interesting episode happened in recent times, in 1985.
A Dr. Wolfgang Eisenbeiss and an aquaintance decided to arrange a very peculiar match: it was to be played between two great chess masters, one living and one dead.
The execution of the game would be made possible thanks to Robert Rollans, a “trustworthy” medium with no knowledge of chess (so as not to influence the outcome).
The odd party soon found a living player who was willing to try the experiment, chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi; contacting the challenger proved to be a little more difficult, but on June 15 the spirit of Géza Maróczy, who had died more than 30 years before on May 29, 1951, agreed to pick up the challenge.
Comunicating the moves between the two adversaries, through the psychic’s automatic writing, also took more time than expected. The game lasted 7 years and 8 months, until the Maróczy’s ghost eventually gave up, after 47 moves.

This “supernatural” game shows that the symbolic value of chess survived through the centuries.
One of the most ancient games is still providing inspiration for human creativity, from literature (Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was built upon a chess enigma) to painting, from sculpture to modern so-called mysteries (how could chess not play a part in Rennes-le-Château mythology?).
From time to time, the 64 squares have been used as an emblem of seduction and flirtation, of political challenges, or of the great battle between the White and the Black, a battle going on within ourselves, on the chessboard of our soul.

It is ultimately an ambiguous, dual fascination.
The chessboard provides a finite, clear, rationalist battlefield. It shows life as a series of strategical decisions, of rules and predictable movements. We fancy a game with intrinsic accuracy and logic.
And yet every game is uncertain, and there’s always the possibility that the true “endgame” will suddenly catch us off guard, as it did with the Pharaoh:

CLOV (fixed gaze, tonelessly):
Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.
Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.

(Thanks, Mauro!)

Skeletons and young girls

Come! let the burial rite be read – the funeral song be sung! –
An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young –
A dirge for her, the doubly dead in that she died so young.

(E. A. Poe, Lenore, 1831)


She will never be able to count her whitening hair, nor the lines that years and experiences impressed on her face; she shall not know the joys of marriage, she shall never be a mother: she is the dead maiden.
Whenever death strikes those who have not even had a chance to live, we are filled with a sense of injustice. “It’s not fair”, we then say, “that’s a crime, it’s not natural”, because the order of things wants the father to go before the son (or so we believe).
The innocence and sweetness of the young lady’s face, who didn’t deserve such a tragic fate, makes us think of a sacrilege.

But, in stopping the maiden’s heart, death has saved her from the ruins and aberrations of time, he has spared her from the melancholy of old age and from the weight of a decrepit body. He fixed her image in her brighter and most gracious instant: the memory she leaves behind is sublime. All vanishing beauty, is actually the highest and most excruciating beauty.

For these reasons the figure of the dead maiden has always known a certain success in the literary and visual arts; it combines sorrow with the subject’s attractiveness, and has an incomparable emotional appeal.

The virgin girl, in fact, has encountered Death in many forms since the classical era, from the abduction of goddess Persephone by Hades, the god of the underworld, to the self-immolation of Iphigenia. Then, right in the middle of XIV century, when plague, epidemics and wars were ravaging Europe, death became the central obsession of those dark times: and in almost all representations of the danse macabre, at least one of the skeletons invites a splendid dame or a sweet-looking maid to the disturbing ball.


But at the end of XV century an unprecedented, stunning depiction of the encounter between these two characters begins to appear; if, until then, they had somehow unexpectedly crossed their paths, the birth of a specific iconographic theme (called “Death and the Maiden”) shows a truly epochal transition taking place in mentality.
Yes, because the rendezvous between the two, surprisingly enough, begin to show open sexual tones.


If in the danse macabre, or in portrayals of the “three ages of life”, no sign of eroticism was present, here the female figure is indeed seduced or molested by Death. Often the decaying corpse kisses her on the mouth, sometimes he touches her breast — if his hands don’t push themselves even further. The whiteness of the maiden’s skin contrasts with the brown complexion of the mummified body, and the sense of repulsion is intensified by the obscenity of their embrace.




Of course, the moral behind this kind of depiction clearly aims at exposing the ephemeral aspect of life, the vanity of beauty and pride. But beyond this facade, this theme evokes darker thoughts, amid visions of crawling worms and putrid blood flowing. The frailty of beauty gives way to a fascination with the macabre: as will happen in Baudelaire‘s Flowers of Evil, it seems that death and ugliness are already contained, in seed form, in the maiden’s sensual appearance.
And in fact this is the first time we see recognized, and so overtly expressed, the relationship between Eros and Thanatos – a cultural theme which will become essential, for poets and thinkers alike.

Valente Celle Tomb, 1893, The Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa - Italy

Clutched by his skinny fingers, the Maiden surrenders to Death’s seduction.
The embrace we are witnessing becomes, through allegory, one between life and death: to associate the attractive Venus to the dreadful skeleton means to redefine sexuality. Ever so distant from the shyness of courtly love, this image of a new eroticism predates the idea of sex as a return to wholeness (after the “section” occured with birth), which Freud will write about, or the annihilation of the Self into the Other, as Bataille‘s work points out, or even that mix of death and life impulses which will so much fascinate the romantics and the maudits.




Death and the Maiden  poster big cartel to post

Even today, Death and the Maiden, depicted together, have lost nothing of their morbid and unsettling charm. And they still speak to the most hidden part of our souls; on one hand reminding us of the fleeting nature of the body, but suggesting on the other hand that there’s a secret complicity between beauty and repulsion, between light and shadows, between love and death.

La donna gorilla

La trasformazione a vista d’occhio di una donna in gorilla è uno dei trucchi storici che hanno avuto maggiore successo nei luna-park, nelle fiere itineranti, nei sideshow e nei circhi di tutto il mondo. Ultimamente sta un po’ passando di moda, dopo decenni di lustro e splendore, ma qualche circo (anche italiano) utilizza ancora questa attrazione per divertire e intrattenere il pubblico.

L’attrazione consiste in questo: voi (il pubblico) entrate in una piccola stanza oscura, e vedete sul palco una gabbia illuminata. All’interno della gabbia, una donna discinta. L’imbonitore sale sul palco, e comincia ad affabularvi con la sua storia. Il più delle volte vi racconterà del celebre “anello mancante”, quel primate che si troverebbe fra lo stadio di scimmia e quello umano, che Darwin non riuscì mai a individuare. Dopo avervi rassicurato della robustezza della gabbia, e avervi preparato allo show più elettrizzante dell’intero pianeta, vi annuncerà che la ragazza sta per mutare di forma sotto ai vostri occhi! Sì, proprio lei, quella bella prigioniera che scuote le sbarre della gabbia grugnendo, è l’anello mancante! Può passare indistintamente dallo stadio umano a quello di scimmia e viceversa! “Guardate i suoi denti divenire feroci fauci, signore e signori!”

Mentre, scettici, aspettate il momento clou, comincia davvero a succedere qualcosa: lentamente, come in un morphing cinematografico, alla ragazza spuntano dei peli, le braccia divengono nere e muscolose e per ultima la sua faccia assume i tratti di uno scimmione tropicale… e poco importa se capite benissimo che il gorilla è in realtà un tizio in un costume, siete colpiti e ipnotizzati dall’effetto della trasformazione, che è talmente vivida e reale… in quel momento sospeso, in quell’attimo di sorpresa, il gorilla con un colpo secco sfonda le sbarre della gabbia, e si avventa verso di voi urlando! Nelle grida di panico e nel fuggi fuggi generale (aiutato dai circensi che, con la scusa di salvarvi la pelle, vi indirizzano gesticolando verso l’uscita), senza sapere come, vi trovate fuori dall’attrazione, insicuri e un po’ frastornati da ciò che avete visto.

Cosa è successo? Si tratta in verità di un ingegnoso trucco ottico messo a punto nei lontani anni 1860 da due scienziati, Henry Dircks e John Henry Pepper (l’effetto prenderà il nome di quest’ultimo, data la sua celebrità nell’epoca vittoriana, nonostante egli avesse più volte cercato di dare il giusto credito al vero inventore, Dircks). Inizialmente studiato per il teatro, non prese mai piede sui grandi palcoscenici: fu invece “riciclato” per i luna-park e viene tutt’ora impiegato nei più grandi parchi a tema del mondo.

Il segreto sta in un pannello di vetro o uno specchio semitrasparente, camuffato e posto tra il pubblico e la scena. Il vetro è angolato (in verde nella figura) in modo da riflettere gli oggetti che vengono illuminati in una seconda camera (nascosta al pubblico, il quale vede soltanto il palco, delimitato dal quadratino rosso). Visto da una posizione più elevata, l’effetto sarebbe visibile in questo modo:

Le due camere (quella di scena e quella “segreta”) devono combaciare perfettamente nel riflesso sul vetro. Il fantasmino nascosto nella stanza di sinistra, quando è illuminato, è visibile nel riflesso come se fosse presente veramente sulla scena; se è illuminato fiocamente, appare come una presenza ectoplasmatica; e se resta al buio, rimane completamente invisibile.

Una volta preparate con cura le due camere e il vetro, il resto diviene semplice: la donna mantiene una posizione fissa in fondo alla stanza visibile, e mentre il gorilla (il fantasma, nello schema) viene gradatamente illuminato, il pubblico vedrà i suoi peli “comparire” a poco a poco, come in una dissolvenza incrociata, sul corpo della giovane fanciulla. Finché, ad un certo punto, resterà soltanto il gorilla, capace (grazie a un cambio di luci repentino e a un calcolato “sbalzo di tensione” che oscura la scena per un paio di secondi) di balzare fuori dalla sua stanza segreta e sfondare la gabbia per gettarsi sul pubblico.

L’effetto, come già detto, era stato pensato per il teatro. Gli attori avrebbero avuto la possibilità di fingere un combattimento o un dialogo con uno spettro realistico. Il vero problema erano però i soldi: sembrava una follia riadattare tutti i teatri soltanto perché Amleto avesse finalmente la possibilità di parlare con uno spettro del padre più “evanescente” del solito.

Oggi la tecnica del “fantasma di Pepper” è utilizzata invece, oltre che nei circhi, anche in molti musei scientifici e culturali, per movimentare la didattica di alcune esibizioni.

Pagina Wikipedia (in inglese) sul Pepper’s Ghost.