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Dining with the Tsars

Fragile beauty.

The Russian Imperial court was a place of enormous opulence during the 18th and 19th centuries, especially at formal banquets. Tables groaned with crystal, silver, and gold, and as many as 300 different dishes. A taste of this is available at the Hermitage Amsterdam during its Dining with the Tsars: Fragile Beauty from the Hermitage exhibit, which brings together over 1,000 exquisite pieces of magnificent porcelain tableware from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

As much a trip back through time as an exhibit, the display sets the stage so that visitors feel like guests as they ascend the stairs of the Winter Palace and enter the Great Hall where sumptuously set tables await. Imagine how it was originally: subtropical trees and fresh flowers abounded, while perfume burners caressed the senses. Crystal chandeliers made the gold and silver cutlery gleam, creating splendiferous settings intended to knock the socks off Western guests. Dinners lasted for hours. Towards the end of the 18th century, “Russian service”, with course after course as we know it today, replaced “French service” where everything was placed on the table at the same time.

Manners were far more elaborate back then. During and after the time of Alexander I, etiquette rules decreed that the Tsar’s family dined on a special dais with protocol dictating who shared their table. Seating arrangements were sometimes determined by drawing lots. As per the rules of Catherine the Great, guests were advised to “eat well but drink with moderation so that you are able to find your legs on leaving.” It was okay to argue with your dining companion, but “without anger or passion.” And, if you did find yourself stuck for something to talk about, there was always the porcelain.

Bought by or given to the Russian Imperial family between 1745 and 1914, the pieces on show at Hermitage Amsterdam were set before guests at balls, banquets, and masquerades. Frederick the Great of Prussia raised the gift-giving bar considerably when he presented Catherine the Great with the Berlin Dessert Service. Not only are its terrines melon-shaped and its gilded baskets covered in porcelain grape leaves, but its centrepiece bears an image of the empress herself. Other porcelain sets are equally lavish. Created by Wedgwood in London, the Green Frog Service is adorned with over 1,200 images of English landscapes and Gothic monuments. The themes of the turquoise-and-gilt Cameo Service made in Sèvres, Paris are Greek and Roman history and mythology, a chance for cultured guests to flaunt their knowledge.

Flowers and pastel colours add up to romance in a wedding gift of porcelain that was made for the last of the Romanovs. Certain elements in its design hint at the emerging art nouveau movement. Exhibited outside Russia for the first time, the “newest” dinnerware is a floral-patterned service from the Hungarian People’s Republic, given to Joseph Stalin for his 70th birthday in 1949. It was never used.