Just as beauty is essential to the nourishment of the human spirit,
so is the telling of a good story.
And what more accessible, more comfortable, more receptive place
to provide that succor than at table and at this season.
History offers us splendid models for this effort. Not surprisingly, the most extravagant derive from 18th century European court life, a world in which love, wealth, education, and creativity in art, music, theater, dance, and fashion went hand in hand with sports, the rewards of travel, trade, and exploration, and the intrigues of politics. The French love of protocol and elegance spread to palaces from Russia to the Rhineland where the nobility all aspired to the aura of gentility and glamour. Philosophers, writers, poets, and scientists lent their knowledge and wit to salon---and--table conversation. Artists were commissioned to design tables' settings of silks, crystals, silver, and porcelain, to arrange bouquets of newly discovered flowers and imported blooms, and to create narrative centerpieces.
The themes for these complex tablescapes were rooted in the festival traditions that had governed court society since the Renaissance. The earliest examples, which illustrated the dances, rituals, and costumes used in the various celebrations, were made, surprisingly--of sugar. The custom of sugar sculpture, in fact, dates as far back as the 12th century when the Egyptian caliph al'Zahir dressed his tables for the Islamic feast days with hundreds of sugar-formed figures and table-sized models of palaces. The practice reached the European courts in the 16th century. Scenes of the life of the goddess Minerva were crafted in sugar for a banquet celebrating the entry of the newly-wed queen of France, Eilsabeth of Austria, into Paris. In the early 17th century, the Labors of Hercules and a winter scene of hunters and mechanized animals, all of sugar, decorated the tables at the wedding banquet of Maria de' Medici and Henri IV of France. By the end of the century, sugar table sculptures had become a regular part of court festivals throughout Europe.
As porcelain replaced sugar as the formative medium toward the middle of the 18th century, narrative scenes grew even more elaborate. Gods, goddesses, animals, allegories, figurines of courtiers, soldiers, shepherds, peasants, actors, tradesmen, musicians, Orientals, Amazons, Spaniards, characters from the Commedia dell Arte and personifications of the Four Seasons were arranged in tableaux for the delight of the emperor, empress, monarch, or noble and his or her company.
The garden, a central feature of 18th century court life, was among the most popular re-creations on the banquet table, which was natural enough since garden ornament and table ornament shared the iconography of leisure. Imagine the statues, grottoes, trellises, and fountains of the formal French garden as diversions for repast. Imagine a dessert centerpiece composed of walks and parterres made of colored sands and sugar, tiny porcelain urns filled with orange blossoms or artificial flowers with gilt and varnished branches, porcelain architectural follies, and miniature pedestaled figures framed in porcelain arbors like garden statuary, and all supported on a gilt bronze tray.
Extraordinary as these scenes might seem,, we must remember that their extravagance was even more fantastical to the 18th or 19th century beholder for whom porcelain was a rarity as precious as we find platinum or pearl today. Europeans had been obsessed with the beauty of this high-fired vitreous clay ever since Marco Polo brought the first examples from China in the 13th century. However, for the next four hundred years, its formula remained a mystery. Rulers such as Augustus the Strong, the 18th century King of Poland and Europe's foremost collector of Chinese porcelains sponsored desperate efforts to unlock the secret. In 1710 his court potter, Johann Friedrich Bottger, succeeded. Intent on safeguarding the discovery, Augustus promptly imprisoned Bottger and his staff.
Russia's Peter the Great was so enthralled with porcelain that he sent emissaries to Peking to uncover the secrets to the formula. They failed. Decades later his equally determined daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, chained her court potter, Dimitry Vinogrodov, to his workbench until he discovered the key. He succeeded, but the mission drove him to drink and an early death.
Fortunately, none of us have to resort to such extremes to set an extraordinary table, although I'm sure we could go around this room and learn that each of us has a story about an extravagance, a sacrifice, some over-the-top gesture we've made for the sake of elegance. After all, style, beauty, and good stories are not just our business. They are our passion.
For this reason, the legacy of exquisite design passed along to us by history's patrons and artisans, nobles and slaves provides a wealth of models for emulation and reinterpretation. Just as they borrowed from other cultures to expand their own language of beauty, we can look to them for inspiration. Perhaps the richest resource of all is the Russian Imperial style. For the Russian rapture with Western taste brought together the refinement of European art with a notion of grandeur unparalleled since the time of the Pharoahs. The result is timeless.
These decorations and Faberge settings illustrate one way of bringing history and narration to the table. They illustrate a traditional theme -- the celebration of the season, rebirth, the revivial of the earth -- in a visually exalted context. The motif of the egg, which you find in the centerpieces, was chosen for its associations with spring, with Passover and the rebirth of the earth, with Easter and the resurrection, and with Faberge, who so luxuriously reinterpreted the Russian custom of decorating eggs.
Creating such tablescapes is much like the performing of a ritual. It provides a focus for congregation, a context for communion. It brings us together with pleasure and encourages our gratitude for what we have -- and are about to receive: nourishment for the body, nourishment for the soul, and a feast for the eye.