At an exhibition in St. Petersburg, an unusual chess set was presented – the whites depict Napoleon and his army, and the blacks – the Russian army. Why not the other way round? Well, in chess, the whites usually start the game, and in 1812, it was the French army who started the “game” of war with invading Russia. The chess set was made by Russian jewelers from black and white nephrite and gold and decorated with precious stones.
One of the authors of the set is Robert Melnikov. His favorite place in St. Petersburg is the portrait gallery of the 1812 war heroes in the famous Hermitage museum. Robert studied the portraits in this gallery to make the chess characters look more like their prototypes. However, it turned out to be a difficult task. “There are many portraits of this war’s commanders,” Robert said in an interview to the Voice of Russia, “but sometimes different portraits of one and the same person are not alike. This is why I managed to achieve only generalized likeness.”
“As for the commander of the Russian army Field Marshal Kutuzov, I depicted him with a fur coat on his shoulders, holding a spyglass. I put no bandage on his eye. Kutuzov’s right eye was damaged, but sometimes he wore a bandage, and sometimes he didn’t. However, all official portraits feature him without a bandage. I depicted the French general Eugène de Beauharnais the way he is usually presented on portraits – muffled in a fur coat, with hands crossed on his chest, as if defending himself from the cruel world. De Beauharnais treated the population of conquered countries, including Russia, in a very humane way. In Russia, many churches and monasteries were saved because de Beauharnais didn’t let his soldiers plunder them.”
There are 32 pieces in this chess set, each one symbolizing a certain branch of troops. Bishops symbolize infantry, knights – cavalry, castles – artillery. The kings are, of course, Napoleon and the Russian Emperor Alexander I. The queens are Kutuzov and the French marshal Louis Davout. The pawns are grenadiers of Napoleon’s Old Guard and the Life Guards of the Russian Izmaylovsky regiment who gloriously defended Russia in the decisive battle at Borodino near Moscow.”
“At first, I was tempted to depict the soldiers in different poses,” Robert Melnikov says, “but then I decided that pawns must all be of the same type. I only made the faces different – some young and some older, with moustache, some with a broken nose or a scar. There are also drummers and flutists. I took into account that in the French army, drummers were, as a rule, 14-year old boys, and in the Russian – adult men.”
The pieces of this chess set are from 120 to 140 mm high and are decorated with precious metals and stones.
“The characters’ heads and hands are made of gold,” Robert Melnikov says. “The picturesque uniforms of the French are decorated with blue sapphires, and of the Russians – with red rubies. At that time, officers wore scarves around their waists. We made silvery scarves for the Russians and light golden ones for the French. Plumes of the Russian soldiers’ shakos are decorated with white diamonds, and of the French – with rubies.
The chess pieces have many “surprises” – sabers and swords can be taken out of their scabbards, star wheels on the spurs can roll, the pistols’ cocks also can move. If you look thorough a magnifying glass at the orders, you can read mottos on them. Some details can be understood only by experts in history.
“One of the peculiar details,” Robert explains, “that from all the characters, only the French marshal Murat is wearing golden boots. Murat, a fearless horseman, was also known as a snappy dresser. For the Russian campaign, he took several pairs of high boots of different colors with him. The Russian Emperor is sitting on a throne decorated with two-headed eagles – Russia’s coat-of-arms. Napoleon is featured on a field chair decorated with an image of bees – his family coat-of-arms.”
The chessboard is made of white and black nephrite and polished by hand. The set will soon be added with a chess clock – work on it is already coming to the end. The clock is made in the form of the pavilion of Mars, the god of war.
“This chess set has a symbolic message,” its creator Robert Melnikov says. “The idea is that all conflicts must be settled peacefully, like in a chess game.”
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