A feast of flatware at Italy's House of Savoy
The banquet table was set for a king. There, under three chandeliers whose crystals shimmered in the fading light of day, were seats for 22 guests, plus a chair for the queen and an oversize one for the king at the head of the table. On each end of the table, candles blazed on three neo-baroque silver candelabra, while toward the floral centerpiece were two larger, seven-branched candelabra. At each place setting stood six goblets and glasses of varying sizes - five of clear lead crystal, the sixth tinted in pink. The white porcelain dinner plates had a wide-bordered design of delicate pink roses entwined in sage-green foliage, the floral border encased by narrow bands of gold gilt. The silver flatware was embossed with a pattern of simple elegance, while the silver cruet stands and their crystal decanters were of classic simplicity. Twenty-four individual saltcellars of embossed silver completed the table setting.
But the king was not going to be there for the dinner, for the last monarch of the House of Savoy was deposed from this palace in 1946, and all the regal magnificance that dazzled my eyes was but the focal point of an exhibit entitled ``Porcelain and Silver of the Royal Palace in Turin.''
When I say ``House of Savoy,'' I am never certain whether I mean the dynasty or the edifice. The dynasty dates from the middle of the 11th century, when Humbert the Whitehanded first reigned over Savoy and Piedmont; Sardinia came under family rule in 1720; and all of Italy from 1861 to 1946. The edifice, located in Turin in the heart of Piedmont, dates from the early 17th century; the exterior of the palace has a neo-classic simplicity, while the royal apartments inside boast a baroque ornateness and opulence.
Most of the items on display - some 2,000 out of a collection of 9,398 - were given to the royal family by visiting ambassadors and dignitaries, or presented as gifts for weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries. It took much time and patience to prepare the objects - none of which has ever been seen by the general public before - for the exhibit: All had to be cleaned and polished as well as cataloged, and many of the more delicate items needed restorative work.
The show was made possible by the munificence of Fiat. (In Italy there is no ``tax write-off'' for gifts to cultural or educational projects.)
Contemporary artist Luigi Firpo designed the showcases. He created glass enclosures in the shape of obelisks, since, as he put it, ``the form is of the century and style from which most of the pieces originated.''
In the Hall of the Swiss Guard, there were eight such display cases devoted to porcelain plates and bowls - a representative sampling especially rich in objects from its oriental section. There were plates of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), characterized by traditional figures and patterns in cobalt blue on porcelain of a grayish-white cast. Some of these were of geometric design, others showed idyllic country scenes or stylized flowers, trees, and birds.
Especially attractive were examples from the famiglia verde (Green Family) in which brilliant greens predominate. The finest set was from the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1911), a set of octagonal plates with a border design of rust-red flowers against a background of green leaves, while a graceful willow tree formed the center of the plate. Colorful birds with plumage of rich reds, blues, purples, and black were perched on the tree.
The European collection of porcelain contains examples from the finest factories of Europe: Meissen, Berlin, Vienna, Sevr`es, and rare pieces from Venice.
Children seemed fascinated by a display of six identical white roosters, all with their heads thrown back as if they were crowing. These were examples of blanc de Chine (China White), a white, highly vitrified porcelain sometimes described as ``like milk jelly.'' A rival for the children's interest was a jovial Buddha who stood on one leg while busily combing his bald pate.
Perhaps the most unusual part of the exhibit is to be found in the Grand Gallery, a huge vaulted room lit by four enormous crystal chandeliers. On the gallery's mirrored walls hang almost one hundred oil portraits of saints and cardinals, monarchs, and nobility associated with the House of Savoy. Each portrait is of a man. Ironically, the room is currently devoted to an 1834 collection from the Atelier di Boyer in Paris titled ``The Most Celebrated Women of Europe of All Times.'' On display are 199 plates, each with a different portrait centered within the common border design. There are 103 matching cups and saucers, five sugar bowls, and four ice containers of similar pattern. Included among the more than 300 portraits are those of monarchs (such as Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great), poets and painters, literary figures (Lady Macbeth, among others), and even women of the Bible (such as Rachel and Rebecca).
Through Dec. 21.