Giovanni Battista Tiepolo 1696- 1770) painted the Banquet of Cleopatra, a grand work, which is an integral aspect of the National Gallery of Victoria’s famed Felton Bequest, 1933.
It is all about feasting, the Art of Dining; depicting a tale drawn from the Roman author Pliny’s Natural History (AD 77), about a famous wager on a contest between Egyptian and Roman rulers.
Queen Cleopatra of Egypt wagered she would stage a feast far more lavish than seen before, outdoing one presented by Roman Politician and General Mark Antony.
Tiepolo reveals the dramatic moment when Cleopatra wins the wager by producing her trump card; one of a pair of priceless pearl earrings, which she dissolves in a glass of vinegar and drinks, causing Mark Antony to lose. Not something I suggest, any of us would care to do today.
Among the ruling classes in England, Europe and indeed in Middle and Far Eastern countries as well, the focus for centuries on hospitality, meant society in each age, deemed a certain amount of equipage necessary for success; a social duty as well as a splendid means of displaying your power and influence. Everyone, whether rich or poor, took pride in giving the best of the best to their visitors.
Some forty tables decorated by some of Australia’s leading designers, architects, florists and couturiers will celebrate the considerable Art of Dining in our modern age in a unique special event to be held in the Great Hall of the NGV International on May 2 and May 3, 2019. Tickets essential – Bookings
Artists involved are Adelaide Bragg • AZB Creative • Bergman & Co. • Brett Mickan Interior Design • Broached Commissions • Brownlow Interior Design • Cameron Kimber Design • Christopher Boots • Coote & Co. • Craft Victoria • David Hicks • Diane Bergeron Design • DKO • Fenton & Fenton X Styled by Heather Nette-King • Flack Studio • Flowers Vasette • Georgie Seccull • Giannarelli International • Gloss Creative • Harry the hirer • Hecker Guthrie • Homme & Femme
• Janno McLaughlin for VCA • Justin Bishop • Kate Rohde • Danielle Brustman • Kay & Burton • Lisa Roet • Mark Douglass • Martyn Thompson Studio for NGV • Matilda Davis for Neon Parc • MECCA Brands • Michael Strownix – Styled By Louisa Curtis • Nyary ES • Porcelain Bear • Royal Copenhagen • Russell & George • Simone Haag • The Style Co • Studio Wonder • The Company You Keep • Thomas Hamel & Associates with de Gournay • Tigger Hall • Vicky Zaparas Interiors • Andrew at Home • Victoria Whitelaw • White Story
Many are names well known, but the proof of who the best of the best will turn out to be, is sure to be in the ‘pudding’. Personally, I will be looking forward to viewing tables by Thomas Hamel, Victoria Whitelaw, Cameron Kimber, Adelaide Bragg and Homme and Femme, as well as being surprised by so many others.
Surely, the simplest food lovingly prepared and executed with style is one of the greatest pleasures and pinnacles of delight in life. Especially when shared with someone you love and care about.
Preparing and procuring a meal, by making it the best we can with what is available at the time, helps us to know life is worth living and there is a promise of better things to come.
Roman feasts originally given by the pontiffs of pagan Rome, men of exquisite delicacy and mature taste, were often held in the open air, a custom that has continued through in Italian culture until today.
The Emperor Nero in his Domus Aurea or Golden House, was known to have saturated the air with exotic perfumes and showered flower petals on his guests.
His bread, his ale were finest of the fine
And no one had a better stock of wine
His house was never short of bake meat pies
Of fish and flesh and these in such supplies
It positively snowed with meat and drink
Over the centuries following the fall of Rome the Art of Dining changed considerably, although in the end there was no better passport than gaining a great reputation for giving good dinners.
Dining evolved to represent and reflect the cultured, civilised state of the host. Until around 1800 there were no fixed dining tables or ‘dining rooms’, it was all about bringing in and setting up trellises and covering them with white damask cloths.
The hostess escorted in the most important male guest, the host the most important female guest…dining became a ceremony of progress.
Revolutionised during the 1860’s in England and Europe, dining in style meant laying the table with complete place settings, name cards and to have all the courses handed round in silver dishes by a retinue of servants served from the sideboard.
An invitation to dine meant most of the afternoon and evening…say from 3 – 10 or 5 until midnight.
The serious business of eating took at least two hours with the ladies withdrawing for coffee, tea and scandal.
They left their ‘heroes’ to their pleasure, to settle the nation’s destiny, to toast their mistresses and perhaps to pray they didn’t ever meet their wives, while drinking themselves under the table.
All of that tradition began to break down in the trenches of World War I.
During the second half of the twentieth century some traditions were observed, while yet others emerged as my generation led the way forward.
The setting would be flexible; in a dining room, on a deck overlooking a view or in the backyard under a rose covered trellis or near the BBQ. It was truly a moveable feast.
Raising funds by holding dining events for many different groups and worthy causes was certainly to the fore in the fifty years or so following World War II.
This Art of Dining was also about courteous consideration of both host and guests; it focused on the art of fellowship, with fine food and frank discussion high on the agenda.
There were lovely linens, marvelous music, new faces and fresh flowers too.
When combined with wondrous wines, which complimented the food, it was all about enjoyment, whether personal or professional.
It will be interesting to view this new generation’s take on what the Art of Dining; is really all about in 2019.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2019