Game of Geography (Jeu de la Géographie)

by Rachel Vorsanger

JdlG- Europe

Title: Jeu de la Géographie (Game of Geography)
Artist: Etched by Stefano della Bella (Italian, Florence 1610–1664 Florence); designed by Jean Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin (French, 1595–1676); published by Henri Le Gras (French)
Date: 1644
Medium: Etching, state iii
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Estate of James Hazen Hyde, 1959
Accession Number: 59.654.19(1-42)

The Jeu de la Géographie is one of four sets of playing cards commissioned by Cardinal Jules Mazarin for the instruction and educational diversion of the young Louis XIV (1638-1715; r. 1643-1715). These four sets of cards – Jeu des Fables, Jeu de Rois de France, Jeu des Reynes Renommées, and Jeu de la Géographie – were published together by Henri Le Gras in 1644. Le Gras then gave the plates for all four games to his brother-in-law Florentine Lambert, who republished them in 1664. Upon Lambert’s death, the plates were bought by Florent Le Comte and published in 1698 as a volume. The French writer, dramatist, and academician Jean Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin, who tutored the nephew of Cardinal Mazarin, was responsible for the general design and arrangement of the games, while the Florentine artist Stefano della Bella (who was living in Paris in 1644) undertook their illustrations and engraving. 1

The three aforementioned publishers released several variations of the Jeu de la Géographie over thirty-four years. Only the later versions published by Le Comte, for example, show suit and letters denoting the King, Queen, and Jack cards. 2 In one such version sold to a private collector, the four suits correspond to each continent: hearts represents Europe; diamonds, Africa; spades, Asia; and clubs, America. 3 This version in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, however, has no such suit indications. Instead, the cards are organized according to those four continents and numerically within each suit. The fact that these cards are in the third state of etching and were published by Le Gras indicates that this set was an early version of the game and probably represents the original design intended for Louis XIV’s use.

Although its rules are not entirely clear, the Jeu de la Géographie is one of the earliest seventeenth-century pedagogical games for children. The development of such an educational tool in Europe began during the fifteenth century with the Italian humanist Vittorino da Feltre, whose unique approaches to education helped remove the demonized stigma attached to playing games. 4 The presence of game playing increased among all strata of society and extended into the sixteenth century, which saw the development of educational playing cards. From the mid-seventeenth to early eighteenth centuries, the period coinciding with the reign of Louis XIV in France, the rise in popularity of didactic games suggested a growing importance for increasing memory and a desire to use images to do so. The Jeu de la Géographie was an important part of this trend. Not only did it help educate future princes and European aristocrats throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it also contributed to geographical instruction found in universities.

The Jeu de la Géographie at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is not a complete set, as it consists of forty-three of the original fifty-two cards. Four are continent cards depicting Europe, Africa, Asia, and America as female rulers in chariots with an accompanying text about each region. The rest of the cards have numbers and the names of countries found within each continent. On each of these cards is a female allegorical figure representing that country and accompanied by a descriptive text. It is noteworthy that all of the figures depicted in this card set are women.

The card depicting Europe shows a queen seated in a chariot to the right, wearing a crown and holding an orb and scepter. Her chariot is drawn by two large horses wearing elaborate headdresses and costumes. The card depicting Chile has the number “4” in the upper left-hand corner, marking its order within the cards of the category “America.” This card’s figure is a native warrior woman with her breasts exposed who is shown wearing a headdress of feathers, a skirt of leaves, and brandishing a sword and shield.

The visual devices and descriptive language used in this didactic game reveal the political and cultural biases of seventeenth-century France. For instance, the passage on the continent card of Europe reads:

The smallest but the best part of the world, for its fertility, value, civility, science, fame, and the multiplicity of its peoples and for being the seat of Christendom. It is situated towards the north, beneath the cold and temperate zone. 5

Whereas the description for the country card of Chile reads (in less exalted language):

Fertile in grains and wine, situated near the Pacific Ocean, bordered by Peru to the north and the region of Patagonia to the south, and surrounded by mountains. Cities, St. Jacques, Coquimbo, Chile, and others. 6

Some cards are mounted on card stock, perhaps by the collector James Hazen Hyde to give them durability. The majority are unmounted and are therefore thin and fragile.

Desmarets dedicated the Jeu de la Géographie and the other games to Queen Anne of Austria, Louis XIV’s mother who was serving as his Regent in 1664. Perhaps this connection explains why female rulers are depicted so prominently throughout the series. In a prologue to an accompanying instructional book addressed “à la Reyne Régente,” Desmarets explains: “These are games that I outwardly present to your Majesty, but in effect it is a book, and a study for young princes, as serious as it is entertaining.” 7

Although geographically informative, the Jeu de la Géographie perpetuated Eurocentric ideas and the superiority of Western culture – in particular, the idea of the French monarchy as the center of the universe, a theme famously developed at Versailles.


  1. William Hughes Willshire, A Descriptive Catalogue of Playing Cards in the British Museum (London: Chiswick Press, 1876), 127.
  2. “Jeu de la Géographie/Europe,British Museum, accessed March 17, 2016,,0513.587&page=1.
  3. “17th-century geographic playing cards,” Boston Rare Maps, accessed March 17, 2016,
  4. Thierry Depaulis and Michel Manson, “Les jeux pédagogiques,” in Jeux de princes, Jeux de vilains, accessed March 17, 2016,
  5. “La moindre mais la premiere partie du monde, pour sa fertilité, et pour la valeur, civilité, science, renommée et multitude de ses peuples, et pour estre le siege de la Chrestienté. Elle est située vers le Septentrion, sous la zone froide et la temperée.”.
  6. “Fertile en grains et vins, située vers la mer del Lur ou pacifique, bornée du Peru au Nort, et de la region des Patagos au Midy, et entourée de montagnes. Villes, St. Jacques, Coqhimbo, Chile, et autres.”
  7. “Ce sont des Jeux en apparence que je présente à votre Majesté mais en effet c’est un livre, et une estude pour les Jeune Princes, aussi sérieuse pour le moins que divertissante.” Willshire, A Descriptive Catalogue of Playing Cards, 127.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *