The napkin has not always been a ‘must have’ item on the table. The historian Carlos Fisas explains in his book Bon appetite! that it was Leonardo da Vinci who invented the napkin in 1491. The genius wrote in his diaries that for as long as he worked for the Duke of Milan as Master of Ceremonies, he thought of offering an alternative way for guests to wipe their hands during banquets.
The great Da Vinci wrote that at the time, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, tied up live rabbits soaked in greace and decorated with ribbons to the guest’s chairs so they could wipe their hands on the animal’s back. Da Vinci found this quite inappropiate, and tried to change table habits, presenting a cloth for each guest instead.
We find it strange to belive now, but then, the napkin was not understood at all!
Carlos Fisas shows the testimony of Pietro Alemanni, Ambassador of Florence, was invited to many ceremonies in Milan and described the following:
‹‹No one knew how to use it or what to do with it. Some of them sat on it. Others used it to blow their nose. Some threw it around as a game. Others wrapped the food with it and put it their pockets. When the meal was finished, and the tablecloth was as dirty as on previous occasions and master Leonardo freely expressed his dispair that his invention would never take on.››
We don’t know exactly when the napkin started to be used for the origional purpose that Da Vinci had intended, but fortunately some centuries later it has become an indispensable item in good table manners in the West. We must metion that it’s unusual to put a napkin on the table in Asian countries, except in high society or western style restaurants. In Japanese etiquette, the napkin is not mentioned at all; the diner may use any piece of paper or his own handkerchief. In China it is common to put a package of disposable napkins on the table for use. In India, Malaysa and Indonesia you may find comunal sinks in the dining room to wash your hands before and after the meal.
In Western cultures, napkins are a part of the atrezzo of a banquet. They express design, decoration, the mood of the hosts and the efforts they make to create an experience for guests. Such a simple item and so creative at the same time.
What do the napkins in your business say about you?
Photo cover sheet :
MARTIN VAN MEYTENS. Coronation Banquet as King of the Romans of the Austria Archduke and future emperor Joseph II, in Frankfurt, 1764 – detail – (Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna).