Around the middle of the 14th century, when the word ‘kovsh’ was coined to label these drinking instruments, Novgorod craftsmen began to fashion kovshi from metal, mainly silver and gold. Kovshi came in various sizes and various levels of distinction. Piti, the smaller kovshi, were given to guests as individual glasses, whereas vynosnye kovshi were shared between dining companions given their larger size. Smaller kovshi were often hooked onto the side of larger ones for presentational purposes. White mead was traditionally drunk from silver kovshi, and red mead from gold ones.
By the 17th century, kovshi started to become less functional and more ornamental; the bowls were now highly elaborate and stylized, and used increasingly by the Tsar as gifts to devoted supporters of the empire. Presentation gifts have existed since early history. In Russia, service was rewarded in a variety of ways, from golden coins and pieces of valuable fabrics to the proverbial fur coat bestowed from the Tsar’s shoulder. However, the 17th century sees the kovsh take first place as the presentation gift of choice. In the early decades of the century, presentation kovshi were gifted to merchants and tradesfolk for their contributions to the Treasury. The size and weight of the kovsh would directly correlate with the funds collected and delivered to the Tsar. Later in the century, the criteria broaden, and kovshi become awarded predominantly ‘for service’, as a mark of esteem for one’s loyalty and achievements.
At this time, the Moscow workshops develop their own style of kovsh: shallow, wide, with a flat base. Gifted kovshi would often feature an inscription of the recipient’s name among their decoration, along with the royal crest, a double-headed eagle and a date. A presentation kovsh would be proudly displayed in the owner’s home and would be passed down generations to honour and remember the accomplishments of one’s forefathers.
While the kovsh continued to be a court favourite for presentation gifts until the end of the Russian Empire, these rare early designs are at the root of the century-old tradition. The old traditional shapes and the eternal appeal of the silver and gold surfaces evoke images of the grandeur and fairytale-like glamour of the last days of old boyar Russia. Consisting almost exclusively of early presentation kovshi, the Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya collection of kovshi presents a unique opportunity to see such a distinguished group together, offering a small window into the world that helped build the romantic image of Russia for centuries to come.
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