Serviette Sculptures: Mattia Giegher’s Treatise on Napkin Folding (1629)

“There should always be a pretty centerpiece”, instructs Sarah Field Splint in The Art of Cooking and Serving, a Depression-era etiquette guide that greased the rails for Crisco shortening's steady slide into the American home. During Margaret Atwood's 2006 short story named after Splint's book, her preteen protagonist weighs decoration against utility. “The charm of my centrepiece would not however cancel out the shabbiness of our paper napkins”. Mattia Giegher's 1629 Trattato delle piegature (Treatise on folding) offers an elegant solution to the young girl's quandary: nix the centerpiece and fold your napkins into finery worthy of display.

Giegher's Trattato appeared as part of Li tre tratatti (1629), joining his earlier works on meat carving (Il trinciante) and stewardship (Lo scalco). While we crease modern napkins as an entrée to the main task — a lap dam for gravy, say, or neck-tucked against crustacean spray — Giegher's creations were never meant for dabbing. These were starched objets d'art.

During the fifteenth century in northern Italy and southern Germany, technical knowledge of the mechanical arts (think: crafts, machinery, and culinary recipes) began to appear in vernacular writing. “Why around 1400 did artisans take up pen and paper with such gusto?” asks Pamela H. Smith about these early modern how-to guides. Her answer involves war technologies, state power, and urban, cultural exchange. Come the seventeenth century, with literacy on the rise in pockets of Europe, the proliferation of manuals on carving, table service, and, in Giegher's case, napkin folding suggests a widening interest in knowledge once exclusive to the princely domain.

Born sometime around 1589 in Moosburg, the Duchy of Bavaria, Giegher (né Matthias Jäger) moved to the Republic of Venice to study the arts of the dining table. Soon he Italianized his name and used a professional epithet: “carver to the German nation in Padua.” An expert at dismembering animals, the Trattato proved that Giegher could also resurrect them in broadcloth bestiaries. After a brief introduction to the art and its stakes, Giegher turns to illustrations of his technique and the resultant finery. In the first images, we see a pair of disembodied hands at work on the herringbone shape, a pleat that lends its name to his napkin animals (“animali di spinapesce”). From the initial fold quickly follows the finished creations: pheasants, the winged Lion of Saint Mark, and a “mer-dog” (un cane “ma con la coda di pesce”). Like the creatures themselves, some of Giegher's folded fauna seem (almost) impossible.

The first treatise on napkin folding, Giegher's Trattato is an important example of the wider tradition of trionfi da tavola (triumphs of the table), arcane creatures and architectural abstractions crafted out of napkins, glass, wood, wax, and tragacanth. Published as oblong quarto, a format usually reserved for musical scores and sewing patterns, his Trattato reflects the influence of tailoring and anticipates the later art of Troublewit, paper animated by accordion folds, as well as ornamental orange peeling.

It would be easy to dismiss this napkin craft as trifling. The diarist Samuel Pepys fantasized about paying a practitioner to teach his wife the art because he liked it so much. But modern “virtuoso of the fold” Joan Sallas, who has recreated several of Giegher's trionfi, reminds us that these objects had Sinnbilder: symbolic meaning in German baroque. Folding professionals “were trained not only in technique and artistry, but also in culture and the humanities, including recurrent themes like heraldry and mythology.” Nuremberg once housed an entire school devoted to the art. All the same it was often servants, those “silent familiars of early modern households”, who practised the craft on a daily basis. In Giegher's manual, as Deborah L. Crohn writes, “their hands were allowed to speak with an eloquence that belied their status”.

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