The daily ritual of sitting down at a table to eat a meal has all the markings of a natural habit, a sequence of elementary actions that meet primary needs – a need that in humans is closely linked to the ideal life. The search for, preservation, processing, and consumption of food played a key role in developing human intelligence and skills, eventually achieving extraordinary beauty and sophistication.
Emilia-Romagna’s museums approach “the table” from a wide-ranging, complex perspective, as a banquet and a simple convivial moment, family reunion, or social event. The works of art showcase the various aspects that make food the key element in a rite, that of feeding oneself, which can be enriched by many symbolic components, reaching spectacular heights in court banquets.
During the Renaissance, the House of Este were among the earliest to adopt the banquet tradition, a highly complex representation of power through which the table symbolizes a prince’s greatness. The food was plentiful and delicious, and the setting gorgeous: the furniture must be heaving with glistening silverware, and the countless dishes were served to the sound of trumpets and flutes. The banquet was a theatre of sorts: it was divided into several parts, much like a play, to create a cosmos that recalled The Feast of the Gods. Shows were put on before or during the banquet, while other forms of entertainment were also available to guests: music, poetry, and dance accompanied the dishes, in synchrony with the theatre happenings.
The setting of the table followed a strictly codified ritual that required highly professional technical equipment, which such specialized jobs such as the carver, the pantry and larder stewards, the servers, and the cup-bearer. At the head of this imposing machine was the head steward, known as the scalco, the most famous of whom was Cristoforo di Messisbugo, who worked for the House of Este.