As unlikely as it might seem, chess games actually used to be longer than they are now. Our modern version of chess was invented in 16th century Spain and included, among other rule changes designed to quicken the pace of the game, the development of the queen as the most powerful and efficient piece on the board.
Chess is about metaphors and games of strategy, and the significance of the only female piece on the board being promoted to a position of power was not lost on the Spaniards. They called the new version of chess “Mad Woman’s Chess.”
If chess was often considered to be a metaphor for war, the queen emerged as the victor, imbuing the battleground with gendered warfare. Contemporary female artists cleverly used this newly feminized game to their advantage, including it in their arsenal of iconographic images.
The world of female painters during the Renaissance was fairly limited. Women were considered incapable of “pure creation” by their male counterparts, and successful female painters were often described as “marvels,” relegating them to a zone of artistry far outside the expected realm of female creativity.
So when artists like Sofonisba Anguissola, a prominent female painter in Bologna in the 16th and 17th centuries, painted a group of women playing chess, it wasn’t simply a genre painting of women idly engaged in a board game. It was a multi-faceted commentary on female intelligence and the incremental empowerment of women in a thoroughly male-dominated society.