Every so often, I come across an object in a museum that so captures a past time and place that it stops me cold. This wonderfully baroque tureen is one of those pieces.
Made of ormolu-brass between 1720-1750, the tureen was most likely made in France. It's very large, even for a serving dish: I could probably just circle my arms around it. The tureen was commissioned by Prince Marc de Beauvau-Craon (1679-1754), below, connetable de Lorraine et vice-roi de Toscane. The son of the Marquis de Beauvau, the prince was a well-connected and powerful nobleman, and he was expected to represent both his king and France by entertaining lavishly.
To me this elaborate tureen seems to epitomize the life of the Ancien Regime at its most extravagant: exquisite craftsmanship and taste, elegant hospitality, and a reverence for fine food are all combined in a single piece. Imagine this as part of a magnificent dinner service, carried in from the kitchens by a liveried footman to guests eager to taste the delicious dish that deserved so grand a presentation.
Yet as alluring as this image may be, I have to add a few less pleasant facts about that gleaming ormolu. Also called gilt bronze in English, ormolu is everywhere in 18th c. decorative arts, from jewelry to cradling porcelain vases to the clawed feet of marble-topped bombe chests. But just like hatters and dyers, the gilders who created these masterpieces paid a deadly price for their art. Mercury was used in the process of bonding pure powdered gold to the brass or bronze base, with the result that few gilders survived their fortieth birthdays. The fatalities were so widely acknowledged that France banned the manufacture of ormolu in the 1830s, among the first legislature to protect workers from industrial hazards.
In that light, the tureen becomes an even more poignant (and more ominous) symbol of pre-Revolutionary France: artisans giving their lives for the gilded glory of aristocrats.
Above: Ormolu-brass tureen, c. 1720-1750. Gift of John T. Dorrance, Jr., Winthertur Museum. Below: Prince Marc de Beauvau-Craon by Hyacinthe Rigaud, Nancy, Musee Lorrain
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.