In the theatre, we still are allowed the luxury of intervals. The’ve generally vanished from cinemas but during plays, opera productions and concerts, the breathing space in the middle of the programme provides the opportunity for a partially thawed ice cream, a luke warm soft drink or a pre-ordered and generally over priced glass of wine.
They used to be called intermissions but the origins of these programmed interruptions are considerably grander than the occasions that they have become.
In Italy, during the Renaissance, the dukes and the wealthy merchants prepared lavish banquets to entertain and impress their contemporaries. These feasts were meticulously presented with many exquisitely prepared and elaborate courses. In between these courses, entertainment was provided and music played. These interludes were called the intermezzi (hence the word intermission). For the most flamboyant Intermezzi, new compositions were commissioned and celebrated musicians invited to perform. Extravagance was rife and competition to have the most excessive dinner party would leave footballers wives in the shade. Or rather, the pitch black!
The spread of knowledge throughout Europe was accelerating following developments of the printing press. Along with this knowledge came a passionate desire to discuss philosophy and politics. Poetry, architecture and the decorative arts thrived. Paintings, both frescoes and on canvas, were in constant demand. This was the unrivalled time for benefactors to offer their patronage to the worthy artist. Sculpture harked back to Roman classicism but the modern times demanded a more powerful, contemporary approach.
This was further fuelled by international trade which imported new ideas as well as goods. Mathematics and the sciences flourished and their application led to inventions of surveying and navigation equipment as well as gunnery and time pieces (firstly portable sun dials and later clocks). There was undoubtedly a buzz in the air and nowhere more so than in the homes of the nobility. Here the decorative arts flourished and the art of the table reigned supreme. Gold, enamel or porcelain centre pieces towered in the middle of the table. Vases and candelabra were featured on the credenza the sideboards from which the feast was served. For the first time, cutlery was designed specifically for the kind of food that was being eaten and different shaped pieces were used for different courses. Place settings even included forks long before they became commonplace in other countries in Europe. And the skilled designers and craftsmen ruled the roost!
Banquets were spectacles. The food itself was sumptuous (even though salads were being consumed hundreds of years before western nutritionalists recommended them for diets and well being). Rivalry was common and outdoing the Joneses or even the Medicis was fair game. The table was laid with elegance and embellished with adoration. Tables are still decorated today with the benefit that the gilded, opulent look can be easily achieved at a fraction of the original cost.
A special table is still a must for a special occasion (just look at the floral decorations at most weddings if you need any evidence). There is no better place to consider and create a better world or a better personal relationship than a round a magnificently set table.
With all todays easily accessible choice, isn’t it a shame that so many meals are consumed slouched in armchairs in front of a TV set, horizontal on a sofa, guzzled from a tin foil container or alone in front of a computer screen. This wasn’t the modern way in sixteenth century Italy and its none too progressive today.