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400 year old Gold-and-silver playing cards have colorful back story as well

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
November 30th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A complete set of silver playing cards etched in gold have since turned up. The cards date back 400 years, and as colorful as these items are, the fairy tale story that accompanies them is even more colorful.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Created in Germany around 1616, the cards were engraved by a man named Michael Frömmer. The cards were at one point owned by a Portuguese princess who fled the country, cards in hand, after Napoleon's armies invaded in 1807.

The owner of the 17th-century card set is not known, but according to the family who previously owned the cards in the early 19th century, the cards were in the possession of Infanta Carlota Joaquina, a daughter of a Spanish king, who was married to a prince in Portugal. She fled to Brazil when Napoleon's armies marched into Iberia in 1807, the cards among the personal effects she carried with her.

After Napoleon forced her brother, Ferdinand VII, to abdicate the throne of Spain, she made several attempts to take over the Spanish crown and control the country's holdings in the New World. According to legend, she gave the card set to the wife of Felipe Contucci, a man who helped in her efforts.

Spain still controlled a wide-reaching empire in the New World at the time of Napoleon's invasion. Among its territories was the viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata, a large swath of land centered in Buenos Aires in modern-day Argentina.

Contucci was in contact with leaders in Buenos Aires in 1808, according to a conference paper presented last February by Anthony McFarlane, a professor at the University of Warwick. Contucci told the princess they had made her an offer that would see her gain control of a new kingdom in South America.

"Contucci raised her hopes by informing in mid-November 1808 that 124 leading men were ready to support a military intervention by a military force led by the Infante Pedro Carlos [a relative of the princess] and supported by Admiral Smith [of Britain], to install her (as) the constitutional monarch of an independent kingdom," McFarlane writes.

This was not to be. The plan was foiled when government officials from Portugal, Spain and Britain all objected to it, and so Carlota's dream of becoming a ruling queen was simply - "not in the cards."

The playing cards were first put on auction by an anonymous family at Christie's auction house in New York in 2010.

Creating the card set would have been extremely dangerous. For the gilding, its designers used mercury, a poisonous substance that can potentially kill.

The gold was ground up into kind of a dust, and artisans would mix it with mercury, and you painted that onto the surface where you wished the gilding to appear. The mercury gets burned off in a kiln, a process that would leave the gold chemically bonded to the silver.

The process is illegal today, and the process, even in Renaissance times, was known to be hazardous.

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