Staging the Table in Europe 1500–1800 provides a window into the culinary spectacles created during Europe’s early modern period. The exhibition explores the dining customs and practices of the time through gloriously illustrated books used by servants in the wealthiest households. The manuals include instructions for carving meats, fishes, and fruits and folding napkins into elaborate sculptural forms. Images from the books are displayed alongside the material culture of the table: rarely seen table linens and carving knives and forks made of precious materials. Together, these words, pictures, and things provide a glimpse of the ephemeral world of the early modern table.

Exhibition Description

Staging the Table in Europe 1500–1800 reimagines spaces of display and performance in early modern Europe through examination of the material culture of the arts of the table. The exhibition will focus on several sixteenth- and seventeenth-century manuals and handbooks which contain instructions for carving meats, fruits, and folding napkins, as well as directing table talk and other kinds of performance. The exhibition will feature Vincenzo Cervio’s Il Trinciante (Rome, 1581, and after), Mattia Giegher’s Li Tre Trattati (Padua, 1629, and after), and Georg Philip Härsdoffer’s Vollständiges Trinicir-Büchlein (Nuremberg, 1640, and after), among other illustrated manuals. Books with surprisingly similar images appeared in Italy, Germany, France, England, and Holland, attesting to a shared language for staging the table and demonstrating one of the myriad ways in which knowledge was circulated throughout Europe.

While several of the texts are key sources for food history as well as histories of manners and domestic service, they have not been mined for their significance for decorative arts or material culture studies. Many of them preserve evidence of ephemeral sculpture made of edible meats and shape-shifting textiles that defied material expectations. The illustrations depict a rich material culture of linen, starch, and steel that enables us to build out the world in which these texts were created and consumed.

By showcasing the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books together with period examples of the material culture of the table and credenza, including sets of carving tools, linen napkins and tablecloths, and a set of didactic playing cards for the teaching of carving, Staging the Table in Europe 1500–1800 and its accompanying catalogue will rematerialize the early modern table and shed light on the social and commercial networks that enabled this trans-national culture.