Given how long it has been since we’ve been able to eat or drink with friends, the forthcoming exhibition at the Louvre-Lens museum in northern France seems both tantalising and torturous. Tables of Power: A History of Prestigious Meals deploys more than 400 objects to explore the protocols and politics of dining for the wealthy from Mesopotamia to Paris over 5,000 years. It may represent a view from the top but it is still a poignant reminder of the conviviality we have all been missing.
Organised into five chronological sections, Tables of Power starts with the ritual of handwashing. “The prologue is a kind of [Covid] joke,” explains Hélène Bouillon, an Egyptologist and one of the exhibition’s six curators. “But, of course, it’s also based on something historically important.” Over the centuries, pre-meal handwashing has been as much about symbolism as hygiene, she says via Zoom. “Having food is so precious, almost sacred, that, throughout time, purification preceded eating.” Among other ornate sanitation paraphernalia, there is a tapered earthenware vase with a vivid turquoise glaze that belonged to an Egyptian Pharaoh in the 14th century BC and an impossibly intricate 19th-century silver water pitcher.
Tables of Power is the brainchild of head curator Zeev Gourarier. The idea for it came to him while attending a wedding. An ethnologist by training, he was struck by how many elements of a modern wedding — from the seating arrangements to the “epergne” (ornamental centrepiece) to the mix of formality and sociability — derived from historic practices passed down the centuries. “Even though we don’t know it,” says Bouillon, “we owe our manners and etiquette to ancient rituals of power.”
Having washed their hands, visitors are invited to explore the ancient origins of etiquette. According to Bouillon, codes of kingship, religion and feasting were inextricably connected during the Uruk period in Mesopotamia between the fourth and first millennium BC. “The main function of the king was to feed the gods,” she explains. “The gods created this weak creature called man to serve them drink and food.” Alongside a mesmerising array of silver bowls, bronze platters and glazed vessels dating back 5,000 years are bas‑reliefs and carved tablets detailing the rituals of religious banquets. What looks at first glance like a neatly written page of notes turns out to be a terracotta tablet from 305BC with carved instructions for preparing night-time meals for deities. Another tablet from the same period records a hymn in honour of the goddess of beer. “This was funny for us because in the north of France we like beer just like they did in Mesopotamia,” says Bouillon.
Next comes an exploration of eating in the ancient Greek and Roman republics. “In this section, we explain how the classical banquet was as much about food as it was about conversation and entertainment,” she says. “After two courses of food, the symposium course was for wine and discourse.” In the classical world, rivalry between empires, rulers and factions helped fuel an industry of designers and artisans creating culinary decorative arts — elegant, expensive tableware was evidence of wealth, taste and power. Any one of this vast array of carefully crafted urns, vases, pots and plates is worthy of attention but a small glass coupe dating from the first century BC stands out. Decorated with pale green mosaic fragments, it is so delicate that its survival down the centuries seems miraculous.
The largest part of the exhibition is dedicated to the evolution of etiquette and dining from the Middle Ages to the end of the ancien régime in late 18th-century France. In wealthy homes a dressoir — sometimes painted, gilded or draped in extravagant textiles — displayed valuable objects, spices and flagons of wine. Objects in the dressoir here attest to ritualised, almost fantastical, customs associated with elite dining. There is a 16th-century nef de table, for example — a galleon on wheels made of rose-pink nautilus shell, gold and silver. Both ostentatious and playful, it was used to store its owner’s salt, spices, eating utensils and handkerchief. It also helped to stave off poisoning. “These items could be easily poisoned,” explains Bouillon, “so they were kept conserved in a nef de table.”
With the threat of poisoning ever present, a bézoar could come in handy too. A stone from the intestinal tract of a goat or other ruminant, a bézoar was believed to reveal or eliminate poison in food. The 17th-century one displayed here is encased in an oval of gold thread woven like lace. “We think children will love this,” exclaims Bouillon. “There are references to bézoar in Harry Potter.”
For the ruling classes, dining was often an exercise in sheer spectacle, as illustrated by the seven-metre table with the lavish silver service commissioned by King George III in 1783. It also provided opportunities to build alliances and bestow favour. In mid-18th-century France, Louis XV commissioned the famous porcelain manufacturer Sèvres to make tableware for diplomatic gifts. “Giving these elegant objects as presents showed the world how great our manufacturers were,” explains Bouillon. “This is soft power in action.”
Pomp diminished somewhat in the decades after the ancien régime, but the last section of the exhibition documents the enduring role of food in government up to the present day. Lavish menus for state banquets attest to this. One, for a dinner in honour of Tsar Nicolas II in 1896, cites an imperious 20 dishes, including oysters, foie gras, lobster terrine and carp.
Though we may not keep our own intricate gold handwashing basins, decorative porcelain tableware or carefully crafted cutlery, people have always cherished the rituals of eating together — and now perhaps more than ever. Tables of Power invites us all to the feast.
Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram the_history_cook
‘Tables of Power’ runs from March 31 to July 26 at Louvre-Lens; louvrelens.fr
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