17th-century geographic playing cards

Henry le Gras / [Stefano della Bella (1610-1664), etcher], Geographie. Libraire au 3e pilier de la grande sale du Palais, Paris, [1644/1698.]
52 etched and engraved playing cards printed on laid paper then mounted on card stock. Each 3 ½”h x 2 ¼”w, hearts and diamonds with spot color to pips. Plus engraved and etched world map title sheet, 2 1/8”h x 3 3/8”w at plate mark. Housed in recent vellum folder.

A delightful and excessively rare deck of hand-colored geographic playing cards, complete and in brilliant condition.

The deck consists of 52 cards in 4 suits, as with a regular pack of cards. Here, however, each suit is assigned a continent: Hearts represent Europe; diamonds, Africa; spades, Asia; and clubs the Americas. The Ace through Queen of each suit bears a female figure personifying a country, while the Kings personify the respective continents. The figures on the court cards all mounted on horseback or on more exotic creatures. The images are all lovely, a few rather dramatic, and some delightfully fanciful—the figure of the Americas, for example, sits in a chariot drawn by mammoth armadillos, while that of Asia is drawn by elephants. Each card bears a brief paragraph or two describing the country or continent represented, always in a manner that betrays the misconceptions and outright prejudices of the time. Europe, for example, is

“The lesser [smaller?] but the first part of the world, for its fertility, and for value, civility, science, fame and wealth of its peoples and for being the seat of Christendom. It is situated on the north, in the cold zone and temperate.”

The cards were etched by Stefano della Bella (1610-1664), a Florentine engraver and printmaker active who spent several years in Paris working for French publishers until driven out in 1650 by anti-Italian violence. The British Museum describes him as an “etcher of [a] vast range of subjects.”

The Geographie was one of a group of educational card games produced for the young Louis XIV on the order of Cardinal Mazarin. The plates passed through several hands, and the publication history is consequently somewhat complicated:

“This set of playing cards was made, along with the Jeu des Fables, Jeu des Rois de France and Jeu des Reynes Renommées, for the young Louis XIV as an educational diversion. They were designed by Jean Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin on the orders of Cardinal Mazarin and were published together by Henri Le Gras in 1644, who then gave them to his brother-in-law Florentin Lambert, who republished them in 1664. At Lambert’s death the plates for all four games were bought by Florent Le Comte and published in 1698 as a volume [“Jeux historiques des rois de France, reines renommées, géographie et metamorphose”]. Only in states published by Le Comte do indications of suit and letters denoting the King, Queen and Jack cards appear…” (British Museum, #1871,0513.587)

Our deck bears numbers and suit markings and hence presumably dates from the Le Comte issue of 1698, though—contra the British Museum—the cards are mounted on heavy stock and cut rather than bound in a volume (It is possible, of course, that they were extracted from the volume and mounted at a later date.) At any rate, the cards are rare in any form, particularly so when cut and mounted as here.

Schreiber, Catalog of the Collection of Playing Cards Bequeathed to the Trustees of the British Museum, #115-116. Not in Yale University, Cary Playing Cards Database (but see below).  Shirley, Mapping of the World, #361 describes the world map title sheet.

Due to the complex bibliography OCLC should be taken with a grain of salt on this matter. However, as of August 2015 it shows multiple holdings at the BNF (#457736830, 461143401, 461143406, 847571289) and BL (#54156668, 558010786) as well as other examples at the Biblioteca Nacional de Espana (#434008863), National Library of Poland (#832558520), Princeton (#179256144) and Yale (#54156668). Of these, all except one (at the BNF, #847571289) appear to be bound in the 1698 Jeux historiques des rois de France, reines renommées, géographie et metamorphose published by le Comte. OCLC lists additional copies of the Jeux at the Getty (#84032846), New York Public Library (#82461902), and Princeton (#179159735), but these appear to lack the Geographie cards.


Very minor soiling and a bit of bumping at corners, but generally excellent.