“Exhibition in Progress: Staging the Table in Europe, 1500–1800”


Staging the Table in Europe, 1500–1800
reimagines spaces of display and performance in early modern Europe through examination of the arts of the table. The heart of the exhibition is a group of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century illustrated manuals and handbooks that contain instructions for carving meats and fruits, and folding napkins, as well as directing conversation and other kinds of tableside activity. Books with surprisingly similar images appeared in Italy, Germany, France, England, and the Dutch Republic, attesting to a shared language for staging the table as well as demonstrating some of the myriad ways in which knowledge was circulated throughout Europe.

These sources reveal the rich material culture that accompanied lavish banquets and state events and enable us to build out the world in which they were created and consumed. While several of the texts are key sources for culinary 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 foods and shape-shifting textiles that defied material expectations.

By showcasing multiple copies of these sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books together with examples of the material culture of the table and credenza, including sets of carving tools, linen napkins and tablecloths, and didactic playing cards for the teaching of carving, Staging the Table and its accompanying catalogue will rematerialize early modern dining practices and shed light on the social, artisanal, and commercial networks that enabled this trans-national culture.

Where did your interest in this subject come from?

My interest in the illustrated handbooks and manuals that instruct readers to carve meats or fold napkins into table sculpture grew out of my research on early modern cookbooks, some of which overlap with the highly specialized books that I am working on now. Culinary history, which comprises food itself as well as the material culture of the kitchen and table, is the larger frame for this book, and for an exhibition that will take place at Bard Graduate Center in 2023. The idea of studying the history of food came from a random archival notice I came upon while doing dissertation research: a fifteenth-century shopping list for a town board in Tuscany. My curiosity was piqued once I realized that there was a precise historical record of how and what people ate, and after completing the dissertation and starting to teach, I returned to the topic. The group of handbooks that I’ve been working on for the past couple of years were published all over Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries are related to one another through a kind of visual language that arose initially as a way to preserve hands-on training by skilled artisans. Similarities in the diagrammatic representations of the various cuts of meat and fowl, as well as several kinds of fruit, point to a network of printmakers, publishers, and booksellers that has not yet been mapped.

How does this research question intersect with your other intellectual interests?
Approaching these books as both material objects and texts is the goal of the project, with the understanding that they record artisanal practices and social performances that are otherwise difficult to find in more conventional historical sources. The products of most of the instructions do not survive—the food itself, and the sculpted linens—but their creation is documented in the didactic texts. These texts shed light, in turn, on painted images and other prints that show the objects in use. Building on the research for my book on Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera, an illustrated cookbook published in 1570, I am interested in the ways that book history and print culture intersect with the world of food and the table. Some cutlery and linens do survive, but specific information about its provenance, patrons, and use is usually impossible to reconstruct. Instead, the texts and images show us these objects in motion. Overall, the reconstruction of the role of things in social and cultural life is the context.

Why is this question important to you?
At the most basic level it is food—its growth, preparation, consumption, and representation—that drives this research. Food is fundamental to human survival, and the cultural practices surrounding it are continuous and revelatory, starting with the most ancient traces to our current digital universe. In focusing on the early modern period, I am looking at the beginnings of global economic networks in which food played an important role in many ways, leading to innovation but also to enslavement and oppression. The study of food history and culture provides a meaningful bridge between past and present.

Related Readings

“Carving and Folding by the Book in Early Modern Europe,” Journal of Early Modern History, Special Issue: Material Cultures of Food in Early Modern Europe, Vol. 24, No. 1 (2020): 17–40.

“Reading, Writing and Cooking.” In Text, Food and the Early Modern Reader: Eating Words, edited by Jason Scott-Warren and Andrew Zurcher, 31–48. Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2019.

“Le livre de cuisine de la Reine : un exemplaire de l’Opera de Scappi dans la collection de Catherine de Médicis.” In Culture de table: échanges entre l’Italie e la France 15e-mi-17e siècle. Actes du colloque international de Blois, 13-14 Septembre 2012, edited by Florent Quellier, 151-163. Tours; Rennes: Presses Universitaires François-Rabelais and Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2018.

“Quodlibets and Fricassées: Food in Musical Settings of Street Cries in Early Modern London.” In Food Hawkers: Selling in the Streets from Antiquity to the Present, edited by Melissa Calaresu and Danielle Van den Heuvel, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2016, pp. 43–61.

Food and Knowledge in Renaissance Italy: Bartolomeo Scappi’s Paper Kitchens.
Farnham, Surrey; Burlington: Ashgate, 2015.