I am very proud to announce that I earned a High Distinction for this essay at the University of Canberra.

The Genesis Of The Dining Fork in European Dining;

Renaissance Art and Article,

The Two-Pronged Approach.

 

Figure 1 The Wedding Banquet 1483 Bottacelli, Private Collection, Florence Italy

 

Deborah Murray

117620

First year student

University of Canberra

 

Modern diners owe a debt of gratitude to the farsighted people of the Renaissance.   This is where dining cutlery as it is known today had its origins.  The humble and often overlooked dining fork first started to be introduced to European dining etiquette when it began to grace the fine dining tables of Italy and Venice.  However, significant church opposition may have slowed its spread to other areas of Europe.  This limited spread of the implement meant that the dominating, yet not exclusive, influence on the design during the Renaissance remained the Italians.

 

The dining fork first appeared in Western Europe in Venice[1]. Venice was a major trade port during the Renaissance[2].  Trade links to the East were long and well established[3].  Modern texts, when referring to Italy, do not distinguish between Venice and Italy.  During the renaissance Venice was a republic unto itself[4].  An 11th century wealthy Venetian Doge is said to have travelled to the Middle East where he met and married a Turkish Princess.  The princess brought back with her to Venice a case of golden forks.  

‘The princess’s forks created an outrage that shocked the church leaders of Venice.  “God in his wisdom had provided man with natural forks,” they said, “his fingers”.  Others called her forks “luxurious beyond belief[5].” 

 

This corroborates the theory that Venice was the first point of contact for the dining fork in Europe.  Figure 2 shows a Venetian woman picking her teeth with a small fork.  In the 14th century it was common for the royalty of Europe to have one table fork, with a set of knives for common use[6].  The fact that royalty used such implements is a clear indicator of the exclusive nature of dining forks.  In the 15th century there is another account of the supposed first usage of dining forks, again in Italy.  Figure 1, ‘The wedding Banquette’, by Botticelli[7], shows a number of ladies and gentlemen seated at a table. The ladies are eating with two pronged forks[8], a further demonstration of their use by certain upper social classes, especially at formal social occasions.  In the 16th century Catherine de’ Medici, daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici and Elanora de’ Toledo, a very prominent and powerful family of Florentine bankers, was wed to King Henry II of France.  She introduced to the French court the use of one table fork for each diner.  Though by some, this was thought to be an affectation[9].  Thus, the use of the fork began to be introduced to tables outside of Italy.

 

The attitude that the use of dining forks was somehow ungodly seemed to prevail for quite some time and may indeed have hindered the spread of dining forks to other parts of Europe[10].  Many people would not have risked the wrath of god being brought upon them as the result of such an act.  However, the wealthy seemed to feel somewhat immune to such heavenly matters[11].  Written evidence of dining forks having reached further a field than Italy may also be found in an account of Queen Elizabeth I owning three dining forks.  "Forks, garnished with gold slightly [with] lyttle perles pendant’[12], but they were considered curiosities and never used[13].  Indeed, in Elizabethan England, it was considered ill mannered and the use of forks was seen as an insult to God as fingers performed that function [14].  Therefore, the actual use of dining forks was still confined to Italy.  Not until 1609 is there an English account of a dining fork actually being used.  Thomas Coryates observed in Italy, and no other place, that the Italians always ate their meals using a ‘little forke’[15] when they cut their meats.  He also observed that it was offensive in Italy to touch meat with the hands, ‘having transgressed the laws of good manners’[16], as the cleanliness of hands could not be guaranteed.  He further observed that forks were made from iron, steel and silver. Whereas in Italy, good manners dictated the use of a fork for dining, other regions did not accept the fork as good manners, but as an ungodly act. Thus, retarding the wider dissemination of the fork at this time.

 

Artefacts brought in from the East gave the prototype for the design of the dining fork in Europe. The original dining forks had only two tines. This can be seen in figure 1, 3 - 6.  Although the reasons for two tines are not exactly clear, it could be surmised that the cost factor involved in producing these forks and the value of the base material used may have restricted the design.  There was a precedent for spoons to have been used for the storage of wealth instead of money, with silver than as the base metal[17].   Another theory is that the two tines were simply a preferred ratio in the design.  In figure 1 the detail of the forks cannot be made out beyond a long slender handle and the two tines that were straight not curved as they are today.  This is possibly the basic design that the Italians then built on.  Going beyond the design principles alone, figure 3 shows a two tined fork that has transcended its mere functionality of a fork, to become a thing of great artistic expression.  The entire body of the fork could have been made of silver, or it could have been a composite formation of steel and silver.  Steel used for the tines, and silver used for the ornate handle and its elaborate decoration.  Viewing the fork from the tines up, the decoration appears to be a possible mythical reference.  The delicate scrollwork at the base of the tines extends slightly along the arms of each tine.  The proportions of the handle are that it is divided into thirds.  The scrollwork at the base of the tines leads into the first third of handle, not unlike the columns seen in the classic architecture of Italy the time[18], and is narrow and straight.   The second third of the handle begins to flare out with a floral and scroll arrangement that has a draped effect at its base.   In the top third of the handle the scroll and floral arrangement gives way to expose a naked female form that appears to be holding onto the floral arrangement below.  The over all affect is one of balance and beauty.  The base article had now become a work of art.  The designers of the age were the gold and silver smiths[19].  Gold and silversmiths were not humble metal workers or blacksmiths; they were highly skilled crafts men and artisans.  Goldsmiths were responsible for creating original designs for their clientele[20].  The originality of the design scene in figure 4 displays innovation in this 16th century Italian fork.  The materials used to create this piece are truly inspired.   Intricately carved rock crystal beads and gold caps were used to adorn the handle of this fork[21].  The time and detail taken to hand carve each bead in turn would have been considerable.  Each gold cap has been shaped into a leaf formation, even so far as to have serrations on the edge of leaves, and then shaped to fit each bead.  This was prior to the industrial revolution and the tools used would have been crude by modern standards.  The base metal of the handle could have been as simple as iron or steel; the tines appear to be of a more precious metal, gold, as suggested by the colour.  The time used in this forks creation alone would have made it a very precious and expensive item.  The materials chosen would justify the time spent one its creation.  The functionality of the fork was not lost at the expense of striving for a unique item in the goldsmiths’ pursuit of originality in design.  As previously stated Italians had the major design influence in dining for design, but not the exclusive designers within Europe at the time.  Whist the spread of the dining fork met with opposition, it did still find its way to other parts of Europe.  Germany was another place that took up forks as part of the dining etiquette[22].  Possibly it was only the aristocrats that did this, as extant pieces are of similar quality to those found from Italy at the same time.  Figure 5 is a dining fork from a dining set reported to be of German origin.  Design elements such as the two tines and straight handle are the same as other forks of the time.  The ornamentation placement in the design is what sets this piece apart form other forks.  Again the metals used could be gold, silver or iron, used in any singularity or combination.  The tines are left plain at the pointed end to allow the user full function of the fork.  However at the base of the tines just before they join the handle the times have become ornamented, possibly in gold.  The handle starts out narrow near the times and becomes thicker at the end.  The handle ratio could be divided into quarters.  The first quarter is left unadorned exposing what might be the base metal for the fork.  The next three quarters of the handle appear to be heavily adorned in a kind of intricate leaf pattern.  At the very end of the fork is terminated by a hemisphere knob, this has more of the leaf design on it.  Just as the Italian designs had been intricately work, so have the German designers in their treatment of this new fashion in dining.  The last and by no means the least extant dining fork is also from Germany, figure 6.  This fork was an innovation in design for this new dining implement.  It appears to be from the same set as the fork seen in figure 5, but has some innovative changes.   This fork is designed to fold[23].  Exactly how it does this is not clear, but is an interesting design innovation.  The other major design feature of this piece is that is also intended to be used as a spoon[24].  The tines in this for are curved to accommodate the addition of the soup bowl; this could have become the forerunner to the modern fork with its curved tines.  The tines slotted into the receptacles on the back of the spoon bowl to convert it from fork to spoon.  The ornamentation covers the entirety of the handle only the points of the tines are left unadorned.  This piece stands out from the four extant Renaissance pieces for the brilliantly innovative approach shown to dining forks.  The functionality of this piece has not been compromised, while the artistic urges of the goldsmith have likewise been expressed.

 

The origins of the dining fork in European society started in Italy through Venice.  Whist it met with opposition form the church this did not stop the aristocracy from availing them selves of this interesting and often thought affectatious item.  Extant dining forks of the time show that goldsmiths, the designers for such things in the Renaissance, were willing to add their own personal interpretations and innovations.  The dining fork during the renaissance was both art and article.

                      

 

Knife, Fork and Spoon

From the Victoria and Albert Museum site:

Knife, fork and spoon
16th century, Venice
Silver and rock crystal
Museo Correr, Musei Civici Veneziani, Venice

 

 


BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  Caldicott, J. W.  The Values of Old English silver and Sheffield Plate, from the XVth to the XIXth Centuries. London, Benrose and Sons Limited. 1906

  Came R. Silver. London, Octopus Books 1972

  Hernmarck, C. The Art of the European Silversmith 1430 – 1830, Plates. London, Published and produced by Philip Wilson Publishers limited for Southerby Parke Bernet Publications 1977

  Hernmarck, C.  The Art of the European Silversmith 1430 – 1830, Text. London, Published and produced by Philip Wilson Publishers limited for Southerby Parke Bernet Publications 1977

  Janson H.W. Janson A.F., History of Art, Sixth Edition.  New York, Thames and Hudson Limited 2001

  Manquardt, K. et al The Art of Evolution of cutlery, A Goldsmiths’ Company Exhibition 26th May – 09 July 1999  The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths 1999 the Pulse Group 1999

  Manquardt K. Eight Centuries of European Knives, Forks and Spoons, an Art Collection Germany, Arnoldsche Art Publications

  Norwich J.J. A History Of Venice, London, Penguin Books Ltd 1983

  Wollfman, P. and C, Gold. Forks Knives and Spoons London, Thames and Hudson Limited 1994

   

IMAGE CREDITS:

  Botticelli The Wedding Banquet. 1482-1483 Tempera on panel, Private collection, Florence, Italy. Image 1

  Manquardt, K. et al The Art of Evolution of cutlery, A Goldsmiths’ Company Exhibition 26th May – 09 July 1999  The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths 1999 the Pulse Group 1999. Images 3 - 4

  Manquardt K Eight Centuries of European Knives, Forks and Spoons, an Art Collection      Germany, Arnoldsche Art Publications. Images 5 - 6

  Veronese P. The Marriage at Cana.  1563 Oil on canvas, 666 x 990 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image 2 

Veronese P.  Feast at the house of Levi. 1573  Oil on canvas, 555 x 1310 cm Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice.  Image 7

   


[1] Wollfman, P. and C, Gold. Forks Knives and Spoons London, Thames and Hudson Limited 1994 pp 22

[2] Norwich J.J. A History Of Venice London, Penguin Books Ltd 1983 pp 3

[3] ibid pp 3

[4] Norwich J.J. A History Of Venice London, Penguin Books Ltd 1983 pp 24

[5]Wollfman, P. and C, Gold. Forks Knives and Spoons London, Thames and Hudson Limited 1994 pp 22

[6]  ibid pp 23

[7] Hernmarck, C. The Art of the European Silversmith 1430 – 1830, Plates. London, Published and produced by Philip Wilson Publishers limited for Southerby Parke Bernet Publications 1977 pp 192

[8] Hernmarck, C.  The Art of the European Silversmith 1430 – 1830, Text. London, Published and produced by Philip Wilson Publishers limited for Southerby Parke Bernet Publications 1977 pp 205 - 213

[9] Wollfman, P. and C, Gold. Forks Knives and Spoons London, Thames and Hudson Limited 1994 pp 23

[10] Caldicott, J. W.  The Values of Old English silver and Sheffield Plate, from the XVth to the XIXth Centuries. London, Benrose and Sons Limited. 1906 pp 287

[11] Wollfman, P. and C, Gold. Forks Knives and Spoons London, Thames and Hudson Limited 1994 pp 22

[12] Caldicott, J. W.  The Values of Old English silver and Sheffield Plate, from the XVth to the XIXth Centuries. London, Benrose and Sons Limited. 1906 pp 287

[13] ibid

[14] ibid

[15] ibid

[16] ibid

[17] Hernmarck, C.  The Art of the European Silversmith 1430 – 1830, Text. London, Published and produced by Philip Wilson Publishers limited for Southerby Parke Bernet Publications 1977 pp 205

[18] Janson H.W. Janson A.F., History of Art, Sixth Edition.  New York, Thames and Hudson Limited 2001 pp 413

[19] Came R. Silver. London, Octopus Books 1972 pp 17 - 42

[20] ibid

[21] Manquardt K Eight Centuries of European Knives, Forks and Spoons, an Art Collection Germany, Arnoldsche Art Publications

[22] Manquardt, K. et al The Art of Evolution of cutlery, A Goldsmiths’ Company Exhibition 26th May – 09 July 1999  The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths 1999 the Pulse Group 1999

[23] ibid

[24] ibid

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