This past February, the toy manufacturer Hasbro announced that it was introducing a new token for Monopoly, the board game it acquired from Parker Brothers. The Scottie dog now has a counterpart. As they had asked folks to vote on Facebook about what the new piece should be, there’s no surprise that it’s a cat. I can’t imagine that a cat would really care about getting control of utilities or railroads, though it might be interested in napping in the Community Chest.
Speaking of such “game animals,” there was a fascinating post in yesterday’s Smithsonian blog about the development of the Staunton chess set. While they are now the standard, it was not until the 1840’s that the chess pieces took on their canonical appearance. According to the post, the designer Nathan Cook drew his inspiration for the look of his pieces from the neo-classical architecture of the Victorian London in which he lived. A row of Staunton pawns evokes Italian balustrades enclosing of stairways and balconies, the post reads.
More significantly for me, as a classicist, however, is this statement: The Staunton Knight was likely inspired by a sculpture on the east pediment of the Parthenon depicting horses drawing the chariot of Selene, the Moon Goddess. Wow! The carved horse head from the so-called Elgin Marbles in the British Museum is, arguably, the most beautiful piece of art from classical antiquity. With the graceful arc of its mane and expressive face, Selene’s horse presses an abstract geometric form into the service of a powerfully-felt portrait.
Now the Elgin Marbles themselves summon up powerful emotions, strongly expressed all last summer when the Olympics were being held in London. Should these masterpieces of ancient Greek sculptures be returned to the Acropolis? Or is there an ironic sort of justice at work in that these artworks, themselves paid for by Athens’ confiscation of moneys from the Delian League, now belong to another naval empire, also now passed its prime?
As a boy, I always enjoyed Monopoly, and would make a mad dash for the Scottie dog if the race-car wasn’t available. To make one’s way around the board, securing properties by dubious means, was the height of family fun. But to think that, throughout my childhood playing of chess, I was gripping in my hand a version of a classical masterpiece, one that symbolized the struggle over the ownership of antiquity and the claims of Empire? Now that is a move I had not anticipated.