In 16th century Italy, the nobility began decorating their tables with "triumphs" made entirely from folded napkins. The art form had pretty much died out by the time artist Joan Sallas began studying centuries-old illustrations and taught himself how to re-create them. Photo from The Beauty of the Fold: A Conversation With Joan Sallas. Courtesy of Charlotte Birnbaum/Sternberg Press hide caption
Charlotte Birnbaum, who along with folding artist Joan Sallas co-created a history of napkin art in the book The Beauty of the Fold, says the change from "folded cloth to folded art" occurred in 16th century Florence, Italy. It had become fashionable for the wealthy to wear voluminous clothing and ballooned sleeves.
"At wedding banquets, each guest received a personal napkin," says Sallas. "The model reflected whether you were the bride, the groom, a man or woman and so on." Folded napkins today simply make the table setting look nicer, Sallas laments.
Soon these detailed napkin sculptures spread throughout European courts, explains Birnbaum. They became status symbols, and the depth of their artistry became an ongoing competition among hosts. Butlers were sent to Rome and Florence to learn the latest techniques.
The first important how-to book was Li Tre Trattati, written by German-born Matthia Giegher (sources differ on the exact spelling of his name) in 1629. Birnbaum credits his "German thoroughness and methodical mind" for creating one of the few texts that has allowed scholars to trace the development of napkin-folding throughout the Renaissance and has allowed artists like Sallas to re-create such works.
Though today we see these folded sculptures as simple decoration, 16th century guests would have been well aware of the symbolism behind each choice. These examples of napkin art were on display at Hampton Court Palace outside London in 2014. Courtesy of Joan Sallas hide caption
The era of the grand folded napkin came to an end during the 18th century. "The folded napkins started as an aristocratic phenomenon and finished with the guillotining of aristocrats during the French Revolution," Sallas explains. However, a more modest variation survives in the form of individual napkins.
Of course, the first thing guests do when sitting at a table is unfold their napkins. "The life of a folded napkin is extremely short," says Sallas. This is why none of these intricate creations has survived in museums; the only way for people to see them again is if they are re-created.
These napkins have been getting a lot of circulation. They've been ranked among the most frequently cited presentations on SlideShare since I've been posting them this week. I've sent links to my Senators Pelosi and Feinstein, and have sent them through to contacts I met at the Senate while giving a workshop there last year. 2b1af7f3a8