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Irene Brin would amuse herself by wrong-footing her dinner guests with surrealist dishes colored blue with methylene. Pour épater les bourgeois, deconsecrating one of the classic social rituals and a cliché of the upper classes. Jean Des Esseintes, the hero of the Decadentist novel À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, was even more daring, having a total-black funereal meal served, worthy of the crepuscular darkness of Marchesa Casati, in a room decked out for mourning and with coal dust scattered over the gravel paths in his Paris garden. On this subject, Valentino Garavani, has always followed a philosophy of taste similar to his idea of couture, in 2014 even dedicating an illustrated book to the subject, At the Emperor’s Table. At Casa Crespi, in Milan, there are plates in gold for two hundred people and in silver for at least two thousand. How can we forget the Jester’s Supper by Sem Benelli, with Amedeo Nazzari and his shrieked curse: “a plague on anyone who refuses to drink with me!”, The Ash Wednesday Supper by Giordano Bruno and Plato’s Symposium? Legendary are the diners and luncheons served by Maria Angiolillo, the Roman socialite who copied Madame de Staël and Julie Clary Bonaparte, in her Villino Giulia at Rampa Mignanelli 8, on the Trinità dei Monti steps. A tiny lift led to a dining-room where three tables, christened Alba, Meriggio and Tramonto (Dawn, Afternoon and Sunset) saw more political decisions made than in the Italian parliament, a venue where power and economics met up during the first Republic and beyond.

Everyone is free to interpret the art de la table exactly as they like and are able. With many hard and fast rules, different from one country to the next, having been abandoned and etiquette that mainly dates back to the Baroque era now outdated after being perfected in the nineteenth century by the upper middle class, today it is all more bold and global. The question is often solved with ‘fusion’, to use an overworked term, which reflects the eclecticism of our many borrowed eating habits and a changing aesthetic connotation, filled with exoticisms and contrasts. Our desire to amaze and stand out is unceasing, as is our pursuit of special effects and an aspiration to achieve something memorable and personal. “Nobody has any idea of how we should entertain,” a Milanese lady whispers to me, recalling with nostalgia the dining tables of a lunch and dinner pro, the art dealer Dino Franzin or ‘Pranzin’ as he was called by many, a little envious, who, in his home in Corso Matteotti surrounded himself with a varied milieu, an international melting pot of ancien régime and the newly powerful, artists, politicians, millionaires and fashion designers, plus any celebs who happened to be passing. An alchemy that was difficult to repeat and a source of inspiration. Chez Franzin, a lunch was social mapping, diners were selected with the same care as the strategy in a game of chess, but also based on friendships, affinities or old affections. Not least was a calculation of the diners’ conversational skills and their ability to mingle. This was what made the difference, a crucible of shared nuances, ideas, humor and esprit exactly as used to occur in the eighteenth century. 

These two homes generated more than a few liaisons dangereuses and weddings, the first called Mongiardino, the second originally Franzin’s art and antique gallery, located on two floors in the same building, which also saw the endorsement of political affairs and alliances. At Dino’s, there was expectation, the eternal miracle of representation and scorn. It mattered not whether it was a buffet on a regency table in the central gallery, left unadorned or decorated with a series of urns, antique vases and crystal pyxides, or lunch for a select few. Every day, rotating a selection of people chosen according to the day’s theme, lunches were held in the dining-room, cocooned by tucked up Flemish tapestries. A St Sebastian by Desubleo over the multi-colored marble fireplace, the naked ivory body standing out against the petrol blue of a Baroque sky. All around a ballet of gilded Chinese flowers in bronze and enamel cloisonné vases. After the lunches, before coffee was served on the terrace (during the spring and summer, under Canadian maple and thuja trees), or in a small drawing-room with embroidered armchairs and guéridons, the waiter would place gilded neoclassic plates on the table, of Russian manufacture, which remained there untouched, their function purely ornamental. This was how the game ended.

Some centuries-old table conventions are still more or less in force. Everyone knows that the knife must be placed on the right, its blade turned in towards the plate, at a distance from the edge that will vary according to personal taste and available space, next to the spoon, with the fork on the left. At banquets in Buckingham Palace, the cutlery in silver or vermeil for the various courses is laid in order from the outside in, starting with the smallest and ending with the largest. The cutlery used for dessert and fruit, smaller in size, is laid above the setting. Each place has a charger plate in vermeil that floats like a mirror on the mahogany surface. At the top, diagonally from right, a series of glasses are lined up for the various wines with a personal mustard pot and salt shaker, to the left is the bread plate. An imaginary dividing line between the opposing rows of diners is provided by bouquets of flowers and leaves in nineteenth-century style, alternated with pairs of candlesticks. The rule says that when table linen is used of whatever kind, even simple place mats, charger plates should never be used. Some prefer a French setting, with cutlery for successive courses after the entrée laid out in compass style, the knife stuck into the prongs of the fork, on the plate that is served from the right, while, the previous one is removed by the waiter from the left with a nimble rotating gesture.

For the French and the English, both spoons and forks should be placed face down, in order to show the shields or initials engraved on their backs. The triumph of fruit that often replaces floral decorations is left over from the ancestral custom of putting it on the table to be eaten as desired during or after the meal. Rather outmoded today is the use of small bowls with lukewarm water and lemon, or even rose petals, corollas or leaves and aromatic berries, for the cleaning of fingers. The same ones gulped down with gusto by the comic Italian film character Fantozzi at a VIP-style ‘luncheon’, declaring them to be most delicious. Comments, whether positive or negative, are not allowed, especially if direct, about what has just been eaten, neither is it done to wish everyone ‘bon appetit’ (in any language) before being seated. How right Lina Sotis was, all those years ago when she revealed the verbum even to those who hadn’t a clue about it. Customs have altered, and things are definitely simpler, mainly due to a lack of trusted personnel, but certain Diktat given in Bon Ton are still valid, as are suggestions, some serious, others less so, offering a clear, vitriolic analysis of the plot of ongoing social changes. Various forced ideas with an outmoded branché feel would now seem ridiculous. Nobody lays on those theatrical table decorations any more, triumphant centrepieces, complex architectures in marble, porphyry or silver, gilded bronze, pottery or glass, and micro-sculptures: busts, pavilions, memorial stones or columns in an attempt to build an ephemeral Olympus.

How boring, when dining, (with no offence here to starred chefs elevated to the rank of media superstars), are those never-ending, know-it-all, pseudo-learned discussions about cooking, recipes and ingredients certified for one reason or another. It is always a pleasure to watch someone who knows how to peel a piece of fruit with nonchalance and the appropriate cutlery, or who takes cheese to their mouth using bread, breadsticks or crackers after having casually cut off a tiny piece using just the specific knife with its curved tip. No forks allowed in this case. If absolutely necessary, wave a specific spatula knife at them or, in the extreme case of semi-liquid dairy produce, a large teaspoon. Luckily, the various Ine or Fräulein Rottenmeier characters no longer exist today, all too ready to drill children in order to instill correct table manners. Such as eating with a book under each arm without dropping them to force the poor things to eat with their elbows tucked in. Neither is it true that a white tablecloth instantly produces that catering effect. It all depends on its inherent fineness, its elaborately embroidered or lace details or lack thereof, its rich texture in damask or fine linen. It is fundamental that it is clean and smells freshly washed and starched. Napkins should be large, as large as possible, as they used to be in patriarchal homes, so that they do not fall to the floor easily once open and laid across the knees. Crowns and initial, heraldic emblems and crests should be used parsimoniously. While candles of any kind are definitely allowed, even if the most elegant are still smooth, long and tapered, in white or ivory, which create an intimate atmosphere, set the mood and lend beauty and mystery to the diners’ faces.

Classic table settings are coming back into fashion, with different purposes and combinations. The bright white tablecloth, to avoid that dreadful corporate look, must stand out in terms of weave or color from those cloths used to cover the table down to the ground, in the case of a table juponnée. Traditional dinner services, once dictated by the setting, kind of food and level of formality, are today interpreted more freely and often dialogue with fun trouvailles, with the addition of vintage or contemporary objects that also influence the colors and flowers used. Any variation, judiciously chosen and with no hint of brashness, be it even gold or vermeil flatware, is welcome and a sign of personality. In Venice, at the home of Vendramina Marcello, a doyenne of the aristocracy in Veneto until the early nineties, used to put Murano glass frogs in her finger bowls. The Lepanto flags on the master staircase bore the family crest featuring the wave, as did the Compagnie des Indes plates, teamed with elaborate stemmed antique glasses. Nazzareno, the master of the house, knew how to carve a roast, holding a carving fork aloft just like a Rinascimento court meat carver. Memories, ideas, images that seem to be straight out of another era. The thousands of patterns and interpretations in a multitude of colors and gold by the Ginori, Meissen or Herend pottery manufacturers are today used alongside controversial metamorphoses by Fornasetti and Moooi, with minimalist details or with flatware and glasses from Zara Home, where the imagination can be given free rein thanks to shelves and shelves of low-cost items. Hermès has an infinite series of items, with plates, cups and glasses featuring patterns like chain links and horse-related references often repeated in images used by the brand, but which experiment and interweave with animalier, geometric, floral or plant decorations. At the end of 2018, Dior launched a capsule collection for the table and the home based on a reworking of the Toile de Jouy that characterized the 2019 Cruise Collection created by Maria Grazia Chiuri. Classic patterns, hydrangeas and bucolic scenes, teamed with wild animals, lions, tigers, monkeys and intertwined snakes, in black, red and blue, or green, used on lots of different articles and accessories. Starting with tablecloths, hand painted with butterflies, ramage and convolvulus, plates and candles. The Toile de Jouy has deep roots chez Dior. In 1947, Monsieur Christian asked the decorator Victor Grandpierre to use it as the neo-eighteenth-century inspiration for the walls of his Colifishets boutique at 30 Avenue Montaigne, following the wise advice of his friend Christian Bérard.

Tavole d’autore, the photo book by Massimo Listri, from which images have been borrowed to illustrate this article, traces widely diverse, marked attitudes and aesthetic definitions of the modern, contemporary art de la table, laid down by well-known figures and professional decorators, and also taken from private universes of taste belonging to aesthetes and amateurs. They range from the flamboyant eclectic fifties orientalism of the Dawnridge Estate belonging to Tony and Elizabeth Duquette—restored to new splendor in 2000 by Hutton Wilkinson, Duquette’s protégé and business partner for more than three decades—to the “Florentine English” chic of Sir Harold Acton and villa La Pietra in Florence. A photographic journey featuring the opulent formality of the dining-room in the Gazzoni family home in Bologna, with its conservative, British stamp. Waterford cut glass and neoclassic vermeil, to reflect the many colors of lacquer and sheen of mother-of-pearl on a spectacular Chinese screen. The Salento family dinner in Ferzan Őzpetek’s Loose cannons brings to mind that of Visconti’s Conversation piece, held in the nostalgic setting of a Roman palazzo in Piazza de’ Ricci. More than a simple dinner, this was the epitome of the contradictions of an entire society and a complex passage in Italian history in the mid-seventies.

Today’s table, from an aesthetic point of view, therefore ranges from romantic references to superfetation of meta-Baroque elements, with minimalist abstraction and hi-tech practicality brought together in pursuit of sensorial value. Matteo Corvino, the inventor of events all over the world, stigmatizes this spreading of exaggeration, this exasperated vision of the mise en scène that is everywhere today. “We must not exaggerate with colors and purely ornamental elements or floral decorations that hinder the view,” observes Corvino, “whereas all this should develop low down, or be suspended from above, so that the diners can see each other’s’ faces. You must think long and hard about who you want to seat next to who. Very few respect place names and everyone gets up all the time, mainly to go and smoke. Not to mention a lack of cell phone etiquette, which often interrupts the flow of dialogue. The art of civil conversation is starting to die out. Not infrequently do couples, whether married or not, expect to be seated together at the table, which goes against a custom dictated by etiquette. It is disastrous when there are many diners and some swap the place name cards, the result of calibrated selection and thought, leading to protests and unpleasant chain reactions. Often neglected, the food should instead and always be an important focus, as should the wines served. It is better not to exaggerate, this is my advice. There must always be water on the table. Pasta or soup plates are ideal for a more familiar occasion, but must never be used for a banquet. It must also be considered that today nobody wants to sit too long at the table. Times must be shortened; appetizers served beforehand, during the cocktail. For desserts I prefer to set up a buffet not far from the table, and a pavlova is an excellent idea as are whipped jellies to be eaten with a spoon. It is just a question of balancing, of equilibrium, of taste. A recipe from the nineteenth century like Boeuf Rothschild, with huge theatrical impact, must dialogue with less opulent, complicated food.” Unicuique suum.