Was there ever a time in history when hosts and hostesses did not worry about seating plans for dinner parties? It seems not. For centuries, the meals of royals, aristocrats, and state leaders have been an opportunity to showcase the power of the host, whether to simply underscore that nation’s wealth or to accomplish a particular political agenda. These lavish occasions have also been moments where conviviality could meet an undercurrent of fear. Sometimes rulers worried about the threats of poison, either from their own people or from guests.
Now Tables of Power, a new exhibition at the Louvre-Lens museum, an hour’s train ride from Paris, traces the role of dining in the agendas of the powerful from the ancient Near East to the present. It is part of a cycle of exhibitions planned by the museum’s director, Marie Lavandier, to examine major constants of everyday life from the perspectives of history, anthropology, and art history. The exhibition includes objects ranging from ancient Mesopotamian reliefs illustrating banquet scenes from 3000 BC, all the way to porcelain pieces from the Sèvres manufactory in the 18th century. There are also menus designed for dinners hosted by the French government for modern visitors, including Queen Elizabeth II and the late Duke of Edinburgh.
But whether it was the 300 silver vessels for royal meals described in the archives of ancient Mari or the use of fine Meissen and Sèvres porcelain in European banquets, the goal was to impress visiting dignitaries with the host’s power and extravagant wealth.
One important source of information is the Mari archives – a collection of some 20,000 tablets primarily written in Akkadian cuneiform. These tablets were discovered at the site of the royal palace of Mari, an important city of north Mesopotamia, now in Syria, excavated by French archaeologist André Parrot from 1933. Most of the texts date from the reign of King Zimri-Lim (c.1775-1761 BC) and open a window on to politics, diplomacy, and administration of the ancient kingdom. They record who was living in the palace – from royalty to cooks and guards – as well as correspondence between the king and other rulers. These documents show that the King of Mari sent wine as a gift to the Babylonian King Hammurabi. Yet despite this act of diplomacy, relations between the two powers were not always smooth. Hammurabi eventually defeated Mari in 1761 and destroyed the city, leaving the tablets untouched in the palace until their discovery in the 20th century.
Thousands of years later, in the early 19th century Napoleon sent a porcelain dinner service with coloured flowers for the marriage of his adopted daughter Stéphanie de Beauharnais and the Crown Prince of Baden: a union that was crucial in forging a relationship between the imperial family and the elite circle of established European dynasties. Culinary gifts like these have long been important.
Indeed, it turns out that, although the food is different and the seating style is different, a lot of things have remained unchanged. One thing that has changed significantly over time, however, is the role of women. While Sumerian women of the 3rd millennium BC ate with men, they were not allowed to dine with them during the 2nd millennium BC. Later, the symposium of ancient Greece, as depicted in vase- and tomb-paintings from around the 6th century BC, was an all-male affair. Yet much else remained the same in terms of preparing gifts and meals that not only impress important mortals but that also honour the gods.
In the earliest times, there were no such grand dinners. They were the result of the creation of states and dynasties, as Hélène Bouillon, chief of the department of exhibitions at Louvre-Lens, explained in a telephone interview. The influential archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe developed the theory that, at first, human societies regrouped into villages and then began to domesticate plants and later animals: sheep, pigs, and goats. He argued that small groups of villages eventually grew into larger, socially complicated urban societies. This transformation was studied in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk, where the magnificent vessel known as the Uruk Vase was found. The alabaster vase discovered in the city’s temple area is today in the Iraq Museum. Dating to c.3000 BC and measuring about a metre in height, its tall surface is decorated with reliefs showing agricultural tributes being carried to the goddess Inanna.
The food in ancient Mesopotamia was more sophisticated than one might imagine. According to work done by Jean Bottéro, a French Assyriologist who deciphered Akkadian tablets from 1900 BC, the menu of possible foods included nearly two dozen cheeses, and even more choices of soups and breads. In his book The Oldest Cuisine in the World, Bottéro describes these culinary choices, which also featured pigeon pies and duck and vegetable stews, among other dishes.
Both the Mari archives and the Amarna letters – a similarly informative trove of 382 cuneiform tablets documenting relations between the Egyptian authorities and neighbouring kingdoms in the 14th century BC – show the increasingly important use of dining as a diplomatic tool among mortals themselves. The texts from the Mari archives record that when foreign dignitaries visit one another or send their emissaries, it is cause for festivities and the exchange of gifts. These banquets took place in courtyards furnished with palm trees that had been brought in. The dignitaries are warned not to offend anyone and advised that certain kings can only be served by nobles and that certain ambassadors have to be given specific foods to eat. Certain nobles or ambassadors must receive wine and mutton.
Seating, of course, has been a key sign of importance throughout history. According to the Mari archives, the best seat was opposite the ruler. As travellers were advised, this choice seat allows you to deal directly with the king on delicate matters – better dealing with God than with his saints! But if you don’t have direct access to the king, at least you want to be on a seat. Characters of lower ranks have the choice only of sitting cross-legged or squatting. It is also key to check out various customs including the necessity of bowing, and how many times to do it.
We can be certain that people in antiquity took seats for eating and drinking, as they are depicted doing so in reliefs and figurines. For example, one object in the exhibition – a small bronze figurine dating from between the 12th and 10th century BC and found at Enkomi in Cyprus – shows a person sitting on a chair, leaning back with their feet up on a footrest and holding a cup as if about to sip from it.
The reclining that eventually became standard in stylish dining rooms of ancient Greece, Etruria, and Rome seems to have developed in Persia and Assyria. It appears to have been the custom already by the time of the great Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (r. 669-631 BC). The famous ‘Banquet Scene’, first discovered in about 1847 at the northern palace of Nineveh in Iraq and now in the British Museum, shows the king, who is celebrating his victory over the Elamites, reclining on a sofa, drinking, and being fanned by servants in a lush garden. His queen sits in a chair, her feet on a footstall. Happy as the celebration may be for the diners, the relief includes the Elamite king’s head hanging from a nearby tree.
As curator Alexandre Estaquet-LeGrand points out, in both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, written down in the 8th century BC, there are several mentions of banquets, including one given by Agamemnon in front of the walls of Troy where guests sat at tables.
But it is thought that in the 7th century BC Greeks showing off their international connections and cultural knowledge began to adopt the Eastern custom of reclining while eating and drinking. Exactly why dining while reclining became the style remains unclear. Nonetheless, it seems to have suited the spirit of Athenian democracy where, rather than the seating arranged to defer to the ruler, a group of people could dine together without a strict hierarchical arrangement.
The Greek banquet has other particularities. Dining was divided into two parts, one under the protection of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture who provides humans with solid food, and the other under Dionysos, the god of wine, son of Semele and Zeus, who brings the liquor that puts an end to suffering and then gives sleep. The importance of wine in Greek social rituals was crucial. Fine wine may have been the privilege of the powerful, but it could also cause the wreck of the one who gets drunk. To implement elegant drinking and avoid the dangerous effects of wine, the Greeks used a raft of specific objects. Wine is transported in an amphora and then mixed with water in a krater, which rests on a tripod, to make it less strong, before being drunk from a kylix.
Drinking, according to Plato’s Symposium, is part of a ritual that brings together ‘good people’ who, by interacting with their peers, get their education. Interestingly, while the Greeks do not include women at such rituals – they take place in the andron, the men’s quarters of a house – women are included at banquets both by the Etruscans and by the Romans.
If Greek and Roman evenings assumed a communal sense of learning, dining in the Middle Ages was infused with a shade of mistrust, even fear. Once again, the ruler was at the head of the table, but if the feudal king has great powers, he was keenly aware of his enemies. As curators Zeev Gourarier and Michèle Bimbenet-Privat write: ‘Fear of poisons seems at its height in the 14th century.’ This fear can manifest itself in some impressive pieces of tableware. Indeed, one of the most striking objects in the exhibition is a nef: a gilded silver and shell masterpiece in the form of a miniature boat. These ship-shape containers offered a place for the head of the household to keep their salt and spices, securely locked so that no enemy could mix in any poison.
Should monarchs fear they had been poisoned, they could turn to their bezoar – a concretion formed from indigestible materials in the stomachs and intestines of animals, thought to be an antidote to poisons and remedy for a number of diseases. First introduced to Europe in the medieval period by Arab and Persian physicians, these stony lumps were costly. In the early modern period, the wealthy figures who could afford them often placed them in intricate gold cases, thus turning them into ornaments and even pieces of jewellery.
Interior design also reflected this fear of poison among the powerful. In castles where the trip from the kitchen to the dining area was a long one, creating plenty of opportunities for rivals to secretly poison food, servants left the covered dishes on a credenza, a type of sideboard. The food would then be tested for poison and gain the ‘credence’ of safety. In the famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a lavish (‘very rich’) Book of Hours created between around 1411 and 1416, the manuscript’s illuminations open a window on to court life. In one illumination, the duke is dining at a table covered in a white tablecloth. In the background, there is a sideboard covered in gold vessels and, in front of it, a butler tasting the wine.
Some royals were enthusiastic eaters and their meals were elaborate. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition describes the menus of the House of Bourbon, whose kings ruled France from the 16th to 18th centuries. One courtier noted that in one sitting, Louis XIV (1638-1715) could eat soups, salads, ham, pastries, fruit, and eggs, as well as a partridge and pheasant in their entirety. Pheasant, for example, was served roasted but covered with its beautiful dress of feathers. Like the peacock, which represented eternal life, the pheasant had symbolic meaning in the Christian tradition, being associated with the resurrection.
As the years passed and the manufacture of precious items became more elaborate, so did various dining rituals. French-style service emerged in the 17th century, and thus began the era of extravagant table settings with a multitude of dishes, since the meal was divided into a host of courses. At the court of Louis XV (1710-1774), for example, there were many choices for each course, and a new course was put on the table every 20 minutes.
Crowning the sprawling settings was the centrepiece, often worked out of precious metals that catch the eye. One stunning example in the exhibition is the glorious 1736 silver surtout de table of the Prince of Condé. French influence spread around the courts of Europe; also on view is a 7m-long table laid out with 45 pieces from one large service, commissioned by George III (1738-1820) from Robert-Joseph Auguste, silversmith to Louis XVI.
While French silverware clearly made an impression, porcelain had its place, too. One of France’s greatest cultural achievements is the manufacture of Sèvres porcelain and the ensuing use of these refined porcelains as a political tool to enhance the importance of the French aesthetic, foster economic growth, and cement the alliances the French kings wanted to make with Russia, Great Britain, and throughout Europe. Originally set up in Vincennes and then moved to Sèvres in 1756, the porcelain manufactory received the patronage – and financial backing – of King Louis XV and his mistress the Madame de Pompadour. Initially the factory had 16 shareholders, relatives of the king and his mistress. But King Louis bought the others out and the Royal Manufactory was born, noted curator Christine Germain-Donnat.
The importance and value of politics in dining that has lasted from ancient Mesopotamia was evident in the king’s vision for Sèvres. To ensure the superb aesthetic, he enlisted the artist François Boucher to create some of the designs for what would become France’s ‘weapon of mass seduction’.
And seduce the porcelain did. Sèvres graced the tables of the powerful, such as Napoleon, both within France and beyond. The allure of the grand meal was also alive and well in Russia. Catherine the Great (1729-1796) ordered a 744-piece service. Known as the Cameo Service, it took the factory two years to complete the service (and the production of around 3,000 pieces to get the right number that were perfect). It was executed in a brilliant blue – a formula that was known only to the Sèvres painters and for which the factory became famous. The service was given to Prince Potemkin, who, it is said, gave the Empress an angora cat in gratitude.
Over the coming centuries, French leaders continued to use Sèvres porcelain as a weapon of diplomacy. According to curator Soazig Guilmin, when Princess Elizabeth married Prince Philip in 1947, the Élysée wanted to send a vase from the Sèvres manufactory. However, Michelle Auriol, wife of the French president at the time, opposed the idea because she thought it inappropriate that the future queen would get a vase. Instead, she insisted that the government give Elizabeth a set of Sèvres plates; the future queen wrote that she was delighted.
From the king of Mari’s wine to Sèvres porcelain, gifts for the table have long had their place in politics, and the exquisite objects that were exchanged and displayed give a glimpse of how rulers turned sustenance into spectacle.
Tables of Power: a history of prestigious meals runs at the Louvre-Lens, France, until 26 July 2021. Visit www.louvrelens.fr for details.
A catalogue accompanying the exhibition is available (in French)either at the museum or online at www.boutiquesdemusees.fr/fr/catalogues-d-exposition/les-tables-du-pouvoir-une-histoire-des-repas-de-prestige-catalogue-d-exposition/23147.html.