Dining Entertainment

Dining at a lavish banquet centuries ago could take hours.  But diners not only enjoyed a grand meal, they were duly entertained.  Beginning in the 14th century, and continuing through the 18th century, guests were delighted with lighthearted objects.  Table fountains (Tischbrunnen) and automata (mechanical moving figures), for example, were ornate objects with special effects that entertained guests.

Table fountains were adorned objects that surprised guests by spraying water from a hidden reservoir.  More than mere spectacle, writer Hildegard Wiewelhove explains their function: an opportunity for diners add water to the wine or wash their hands or fruit.

Ms. Wiewelhove also notes that table fountains reveal an interest in technology.  The mechanical attributes of table fountains have a long history dating back to about 200 BC.  Technology improved over time: Heron of Alexandria, the mathematician and engineer, further developed the use of air pressure that allowed water to surge into the air in 1070 AD.  Heron’s fountains, which they became subsequently became known, did not reach the West until the early 15th century.

As technology improved, so did the dining entertainment.  Automaton, such as Diana and the Stag, is one such example.  This figure featured the goddess, Diana, riding a stag with dogs at her feet.  It functioned as a Trinkspiel, or a 17th century drinking game.  This wind-up mechanical figure, filled with wine, moved across a table during dinners.  The person it stopped in front of drank the contents of the stag’s body.

Although this drinking game provided amusement, its decor is impressive, and its history is alluring.  Goldsmiths in Augsburg, Germany, produced many drinking objects; Diana and the Stag, is made of silver, partially gilded and painted with lacquers.  This piece belonged to Prince Heinrich the Younger of Reuss (1572-1635), and remained with his heirs until 1945.

Diana and the Stag was presumed lost, however, when it went missing following the bombing of the family castle.  When it re-appeared in 1985, the piece was returned to the family who consequently sold it to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, (USA) where it resides today.

Scholar speculate this automaton sat in the ground for 40 years.  But conservators the Museum were able to restore the piece’s functionality.  Although mechanism inside has been removed for protection, an iPad display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston demonstrates this object in action: rigidly moving down a table and even changing directions.

Viewers today can appreciate such objects on display in Boston and worldwide, including Table Fountain (1320-1340) at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Automaton Clock in the form of an Eagle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the 18th century Meissen ceramic table fountain at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), which debuts in late 2014 after 150 years.  Depicting Neptune and the sea goddess Amphitrite drawn on a shell-chariot, this nearly four meter long fountain was shattered when the V&A acquired it in the 1870s.  With the aid of 3D modelling and printing, however, this fountain will be reconstructed—comprised of old and new parts.  Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, the then Dresden British ambassador, described this piece in its setting and sheer beauty:

“I was once at a dinner where we sat down at one table two hundred and six people… When the dessert was set on, I thought it was the most wonderful thing I ever beheld. I fancyd myself either in a garden or at the opera. But I [could] not imagine that I was at dinner. In the middle of the table was [a] fountain …, which ran all the while with rose-water, and ’tis said that this piece alone cost six thousand thalers.”

Diners in the twenty-first century would likely relish a peaceful meal, one without smartphones or other distractions.  Those centuries ago welcomed entertainment to break up long, sometimes boring, banquets.  And museum-goers today can also be entertained: appreciating the craftsmanship of these objects, and imagining the fun times once had during such a meal.