Section 8. Playing with Herbs and Plants: The Garden of Magic
Each epoch has its own games through which one can understand the spirit of the times in which they were devised. In the last showcase were displayed a game published in Milan in 1831, Il giuoco dei fiori ossia Alfabeto simbolico (The Flower Game or Symbolic Alphabet), and a game created for this exhibition, The Garden of Magic Plants. The subject is the same, the flora quite distinct. The Symbolic Alphabet, the only copy of the game thus far found in Italian libraries, uses 25 lithographically illustrated cards to teach children the alphabet by featuring a flower/plant name for each letter. Each flower is associated with a symbolic meaning – a human quality or (more often) a flaw – written in larger characters than the name of the plant. The moralistic concern is preponderant, over and above the laudable intent to delight children as they learn both the alphabet and the shapes of the most common flowers. The Garden of Magic Plants is the result of the collaboration of four individuals who have spent their weekends together over several months, devising a journey through plants and their properties. The intention was to bring flora back to being materia medica – and not only that. We selected 95 plants, all of which have some medicinal properties, but otherwise are variously edible, or ornamental, or fragrant, or poisonous, or melliferous. Bees play a special role in the game because of their indispensable function in our ecosystem. It is a game that intends to recover in a light-hearted way a closeness with nature that half a millennium ago, as we have seen, was much more common – a closeness that needs to be cultivated now more than ever. Most of the 63 squares are taken from a 1565 edition of Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s Commentarii to Dioscorides. The aim is for players to accumulate cards for creating their own gardens and, in doing so, to learn about some of the properties of the plants they are gathering.