Renaissance Feasts. Cooking and Table Treasures

Blois, Château royal, from 7 July to 21 October 2012.

1. Follower of Jan II Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678)
Allegory of Taste, 2nd quarter of the 17th century
Oil on Canvas - 76 x 106 cm
La Fère, Musée Jeanne d’Aboville
Photo : F.Lauginie

The château in Blois is highlighting Renaissance feasts by presenting objects - archeological and museum pieces - related to aristocratic dining in their context. This is a challenging choice as sources are rare and the 16th century is a transition period in terms of cooking and customs. The visit, both chronological - it ranges from Charles VIII to Louis XIII - and thematic, takes a look at Renaissance food, table etiquette and reception tableware, three aspects presented in their most splendid form by the Allegory of Taste (ill. 1) ; these themes reveal three different universes : cooking and kitchen dinnerware, the room where the meal takes place with "dignified" tableware and finally the private cabinet with its formal porcelain and silver pieces.
The museum staging is clear, despite the spaces which feel cramped and the overly-dimmed lighting (ill. 2 and 3). We might also mention the hindrance caused by the reflections of the showcases which prevent visitors from observing the objects but these are nonetheless presented in a didactic and lively manner. The accompanying publication is a real catalog as it reproduces the works with detailed entries, while the essays reflect the close collaboration between archeologists and art historians, offering the first in-depth study of a subject which had never been treated before and pleasantly interspersed with quotes from L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, Rabelais or Erasmus. However, the lack of index makes it hard to consult.

2. View of the exhition
The kitchens and tableware
Photo : F.Lauginie

3. View of the exhibition
On the left the table is set,
on the right the sideboard presenting the formal service
Photo : BBSG

Kitchens and feasts - the curators obviously included Flemish, Dutch and Italian paintings, some from later dates, to illustrate the theme here and there. French iconography rarely includes images of the banquets held by kings and princes as opposed to the descriptions provided by foreign ambassadors and chroniclers. The illustrations of the meals are interpreted with the help of the Bible or mythology, of course adapted to 16th century fashions, but there is no way of knowing if these are faithful representations. Surprisingly, previous historical periods - Antiquity and Middle Ages - are better documented thanks to abundant research and thus iconography.

Veronese’s Wedding at Cana gives us an idea of the food and customs prevalent in the 16th century : in the far back on the left a display of silver stands majestically ; the seated guests are using in one case, a toothpick, elsewhere a fork, trenchers and flat-bottomed glasses for wine. The sweets which now fill up the table indicate this is the end of the meal : jams, fruit, sugar beads, quince cheese...They embody the pleasure of eating and earthly temptations. The painting exhibited in Blois is not the original obviously, but a 17th century copy lent by the Musée de Nantes. Visitors will also admire The Meal at Syphax’s, a tapestry after Giulio Romano from the series The Story of Scipio in which we see a superb buffet table displaying formal dinnerware.

4. After Jan Müller (1571-1628)
Balthazar’s Feast, Antwerp, 1st quarter of the XVIIth century
Oil on Canvas - 108 x 132 cm
Orléans, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : F.Lauginie

5. Jérôme Baullery (c. 1530-1597) or
Nicolas Baullery (c. 1560-1630)
The Sandricourt Tournament : the Banquet
Brown Ink, Brown Wash, Graphite,
White Heightenings - 35.5 x 54.3 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP / M. Bellot

The Antwerp painters, with the Francken dynasty at their head, developed these representations of biblical or mythological meals, such as Balthazar’s Feast painted by an artist in the circle of Frans I Francken, the elder, after an engraving by Jan Harmensz Müller, circa 1598 (ill. 4).
There are however, some works actually illustrating eating at court. One of the eight drawings narrating the Sandricourt tournament attributed to Baullery or Bollery (Jérôme or Nicolas) thus represents a banquet (the illustration was produced after the event itself) (ill. 5). The guests are seated at long tables. In the back, a sideboard holds the drinks (there are no drinking instruments on the table as drinks were served by servants) ; we also glimpse a cooler with a tiered buffet set up in front of it showing precious ewers and cups.
Blois also presents one of the two versions of Henri IV and his Family Dining in the Fontainebleau Forest, a rare representation (perhaps also retrospective) of a king’s meal. There are very few pieces of dinnerware on the table, the wealth being represented instead by the linens. The gold brocade dais marks the place of honor. The grooms who have the privilege of serving are stepping forward, while the rest of the assembled group stands to one side. During the Renaissance, the king or prince sat alone at the table when he dined or had supper in public ; if others shared in the meal, there was a strict hierarchy in the seating.

6. The Banquet
South Netherlands, c. 1510-1515
Tapestry, Wool and Silk - 282 x 366 cm
Paris, Musée des Arts décoratifs

The exhibition and especially the catalog give very precise descriptions of the food favored by the aristocracy in the Renaissance : the noblest meats were game and fowl. New products appeared on the table, such as turkey and also melon ; a craze for fruit and vegetables emerged in the 16th century. Pastries and confectionery were also much sought after. "The Middle Ages was the period for reasonable tastes, the Renaissance the age of delicacies." wrote Jean-François Revel. Visitors can see here cook books of the time, notably that of Nostradamus, who was also a doctor and published in 1555 in Lyon a short work in which he spoke of beauty and hygiene as well as jams.
Besides cook books, the exhibition presents "traités de civilité", notably Erasmus’ published in 1530 and soon known throughout Europe. He treats, among other things, table manners, indispensable for social distinction, providing valuable advice : "Before drinking, finish emptying out your mouth and do not bring the glass to your lips before wiping them off with your napkin or handkerchief, especially if one of the guests hands you his own glass or if everyone is drinking out of the same cup."

Nonetheless, this new refinement was not welcomed gladly at first ; Henri III who encouraged it was in fact criticized. Napkins, for example, were considered useless especially when losing time in folding them into complicated shapes for decorating the table. Cutlery became more varied : forks reappeared progressively but were generally still considered the devil’s tool inciting one to excessive eating. Finally, plates eventually replaced trenchers.
Feasts no longer have the liturgical dimension afforded them in the Middle Ages, they become rather a theatrical ceremony. The gentlemen or grooms who were granted the honor of serving the king or the prince at the table surrounded him according to strict dispositions of place and role : the chief officer in charge of the king’s food was the Grand Maître de la Maison du Roi ; the meal was directed by a "maître d’hôtel" ; the "panetier" or pantler was in charge of the bread, the "échanson" or cup-bearer of the wine, the "écuyer" or squire of carving the meat, then were followed by the rest of the gentlemen servants (ill. 6).

7. Attributed to Hans Rappolt (goldsmith in Nuremberg from 1579)
"Nef", known as that of Cardinal de Lorraine,
last quarter of the 16th c.
"Nautile", setting in gilt and engraved silver - 51 x 26 x 15 cm
St-Nicolas-de-Port, basilique Saint-Nicolas
Photo : Laurianne Kieffer – Musée de la Cour d’Or – Metz Métropole

8. Sideboard à la Du Cerceau, circa 1560-1570
Oak - 152 x 107 x 48 cm
Paris, Collection of Gabrielle Laroche
Photo : BBSG

Dinnerware was also a sign of power and ostentation. While the everyday one was simple in form and décor, reception services, notably the "nef", marked the place of honor. This table vessel (hence the French word "vaisselle") is an object of medieval origins containing the prince’s personal cutlery (spoon, knife, napkin, toothpick), as well as spices and tests ("épreuves") antidotes to poison. Visitors will discover a vessel attributed to Hans Rappolt, silversmith in Nuremburg as of 1579 (ill. 7). Progressively, the "nef" was replaced by the "cadenas", adopted at the time of Henri II, which was used to present the napkin, knife, fork, spoon and the salt for the king and the princes. Unfortunately, none remain today.

Although there was no specific furniture designed for partaking in a meal (the table was set on boards placed on a trestle), the sideboard or buffet table (ill. 8) had a very specific function : presenting the valuable dinnerware, a sign of the host’s wealth, like this goblet from the Trois-Epis treasure, in partially gilt silver with an aquatic décor of algae (ill. 9). We also find "enamel buffets" (ill. 10), for example the gift offered to the Duke d’Epernon in 1589 by the city of Limoges, that is an ensemble of glasses, vases and ewers in painted Limoges enamel, a technique developed in the 16th century. The shapes of these pieces are often inspired from silver work. Tall stemmed cups, large coolers for bottles, basins, vases, ewers in silver, glass, painted enamel, china... formal dinnerware for "showing" was not meant to be used, except for the eye of the beholder ; it was in fact carefully put away in a special cabinet once the meal was over. As of the 1530’s, buffet tables display mainly basins and ewers.

9. Paulus Gaseck (master in Strasbourg in 1559)
Stemmed"hanap" with cover, Strasbourg, later XVIth c.
Partially gilt silver - H. 26.3 cm
Colmar, Musée Unterlinden
Photo : Musée Unterlinden

10. Showcase with Limoges enamel tableware,
notably by Pierre Reymond and the Master I.C.
Photo : BBSG

Visitors will discover a few unpublished objects in this exhibition, such as this glass dish with Anne de Bretagne’s coat of arms, found in storage at the Musée Jacquemart-André (ill. 11). It is part of an ensemble of four pieces today residing at Ecouen, at the Metropolitan, in Toledo and at the V&A, fragments of an exceptional service of royal glassware. Was this perhaps a diplomatic gift - from the Republic of Venice ? The shape of this smooth dish on a small pedestal, or tazza, is typically Italian ; the border is ornated with a double crown of white enameled drops and a checkered guilt frieze with blue dots. As we know, this drop décor is characteristic of Murano glass.

11. Glass Dish with
Anne de Bretagne’s Coat of Arms
Venise, c. 1500 ?
Blown, Enameled and Gilted Glass - D. 24.2 cm
Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André
Photo : Studio Sébert Photographes

12. Cup or Crystal Dish, c. 1540-1560
Fine Saint-Porchaire Faience - H. 10.7 cm, D. 15 cm
Sèvres, Cité de la céramique
Photo : BBSG

There are some rare objects in fine Saint-Porchaire faience (ill. 12), which also imitate silver pieces. Blois presents a cup or crystal dish, a reception piece presenting the French coat arms of circled with the collar of Saint Michael and topped with a flowered crown. The décor is made up of traditional motifs in two colors on the stem and a polychrome intertwined pattern with arabesques on the cup.

13. Pendant Made for Picking Teeth or Ears, France ?, XVIth c.
Gold, Pearl - L. 8cm
Ecouen, Musée national de la Renaissance
Photo : RMN / R-G Ojéda

Among the more unusual objects, of special note is a pair of gold pendants made for picking teeth or ears (ill. 13), at times even ornated with enamel and precious stones, worn as jewelry, like the one for example in the portrait of Anton Fugger by Hans Maler. A "furgeoir" or toothpick found in Château-Thierry (but strangely enough, not reproduced in the catalog) serves as toothpick, earpick and nailpick, a diversified instrument whose etymology comes from the French verb "fouiller" or "dig for" !

Curators : Elisabeth Latrémolière, with Pierre-Gilles Girault and Hélène Lebédel-Carbonnel as collaborators.

Under the supervision of Elisabeth Latrémolière and Florent Quellier, Festins de la Renaissance. Cuisine et trésors de la table, 2012, Somogy, Château de Blois, 320 p., 39€. ISBN : 9782757205679

Visitor information : Château Royal de Blois, 41000 Blois. Tel : 00 33 (0)2 54 90 33 33. Open every day from 1st July to 31st August from 9 am to 7 pm ; from 1st September, 9 am to 6:30 pm. Admission : 9.5€ (reduced : 7€, 4€).

Website for Château de Blois.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, lundi 13 août 2012

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Exhibitions : The Last Night in Troy. History and Violence surrounding Pierre Guérin’s Death of Priam

Next article in Exhibitions : Bodies and Shadows. Caravaggio and European Caravaggism