Carolina Irving, Miguel Flores-Vianna and Charlotte de Carcaci examine the history of dining – and use centuries' old artworks as inspiration as they draw on the sumptuous works from past editions of Sotheby's London's Treasures sales to show the finest works pieces to grace the table.


LONDON - The great tradition of spectacular and opulent banquets that were first recorded in ancient times, reached its pinnacle in Renaissance Europe.

The food was designed to be wondered at as much as consumed: exotic birds such as swans and peacocks were roasted, then redressed in their skins and plumage to restore them to a lifelike appearance. Sugar, a rare and expensive commodity then, was often used to excess, not only to concoct elaborate desserts and sweeten meats, but often as a form of decoration.

At the Banquet of the Pheasant held in Lille by Philip the Fair in 1454 spiced wine gushed from the right breast of a pillar-like figure of a woman that was positioned next to a tall dresser displaying platters of silver and gold together with crystal jugs decorated with gold and semi precious stones.

Great pyramidical displays of gold and silver were often placed on show to be admired by guests. At a celebration given in 1518 by the banker Agostino Chigi at the Villa Farnesina in Rome on the occasion of the christening of his eldest son, gold and silver vessels used at the banquet were tossed into the river Tiber at the end of the evening as a symbol of the abundance of his riches, although it is rumoured that nets were laid on the river bed and the treasures were hauled back to shore the following morning.

See the paintings below – and the objects from Sotheby's Treasures sales – for inspiration for a sumptuous feast of your own.

The Wedding Feast by Sandro Botticelli; private collection.

The word banquet derives from the Italian word banco, meaning bench or table. A feast such as that shown in Botticelli’s painting of the wedding feast of Giannozzo Pucci and Lucrezia Bini was called banketti in England until the beginning of the 16th century when the French banquet became more widely used.

Silver-gilt salvers such as this were often displayed at banquets. This example is finely wrought showing male and female busts as well as fantastical ornament and mythological beasts at a fountain. Such important pieces often incorporated family coats of arms and were specially made as part of a dowry. | Treasures, London, 4 July 2012. Sold for £58,850.

The Marriage Feast at Cana by Veronese, 1562; Louvre Museum, Paris, France.

Although the Marriage Feast at Cana by by Veronese shows a religious subject, it is a fairly accurate depiction of a contemporary Venetian banquet, with the diners shown at the end of their feast. In approximately the same year as this was painted the Venetian Senate passed laws limiting the extravagance of banquet fare. Notice the great display of silver and gold plate on the upper left hand side of the painting.

An enamelled and gilded rock crystal Neo–Renaissance ewer and basin inspired by the type that would have been on display during the Renaissance at an event such as the Banquet of the Pheasant held by Philip the Good in 1454. | Treasures, Princely Taste, 3 July 2013. Sold for £134,500.

In the 16th and 17th centuries a tradition developed among goldsmiths in Augsburg and Nuremburg, as well as in Italy and other countries, of producing fantastical drinking vessels. Using shells, ostrich eggs, narwal horns and coconut shells for purely decorative purposes, other pieces of a less fragile nature were made to be used at banquets and great feasts. | Treasures, London, 4 July 2012. Sold for £433,250.

The hunt was a popular theme for banquets and drinking games (trinkspiele) in the 17th century, as represented by this silver-gilt model of a tripping stag by Balthasar Lerff Augsburg from the first quarter of the 17th century. | Treasures, London, 6 July 2010. Sold for £271,250.

Still Life, Alexandre Francois Desportes. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Although the painting is not dated the dragon-handled tureen and silver -gilt salvers are in the Regence style (1715-23). In 2007, food historian Ivan Day recreated this image at Chatsworth House, complete with marzipan fruits and pies from original recipes.

A silver gilt flagon Italian or Spanish from the first half of the 16th century decorated with portrait medallions theatrical and grotesques masks. | Treasures, Princely Taste, London, 04 Jul 2012. Sold for £565,250.

Wine cisterns were usually the largest and most valuable pieces of silver owned by royalty and the nobility. Therefore – notwithstanding their practical use – they were given a conspicuous place at banquets and festivities. This silver one, ownned by Thomas Wentworth, 3rd Baron Raby, Ambassador Extraordinary to Berlin 1706-1711, was made by Philip Rollos senior, London. | Treasures, London, 6 July 2010. Sold for £2,505,250.