The old adage says that the kitchen is the heart of the home, and I guess that’s true.
But what if it’s also an extraordinary work of ceramic art and a valuable source of information on fashion, diet, and the lifestyles of wealthy families of Spain in the late-1700s. Now that’s a heart and a kitchen!
This tile-work masterpiece is one of the crown jewels of the collection at the National Museum of Decorative Arts in Madrid. It was originally part of an 18th Century palace in Valencia which was torn down after Spain’s Civil War. Luckily, the 1,604 tiles were acquired by the State and transported, piece by piece, to the Decorative Arts Museum where they’re installed in a room specifically designed like the original kitchen.
We’ve never seen anything to equal this charming kitchen, and the Museum’s fabulous virtual tour will transport you back in time.
“The decoration of the 18th century Spanish kitchen revealed as much about daily life as the vessels and utensils within it. During this era Felipe V, the first Spanish Bourbon king, and his court embraced the fashion and social customs of the French court at Versailles. One characteristic of this period was an emphasis on decoration and filling rooms and walls with light and air. In many areas of Spain, tilework replaced earlier, heavy leather hangings (guadamaciles). Once again tile began to invade all parts of a building—as it had in Islamic Spain—only now the decoration was not geometric and floral, but figurative. Entire walls of palaces and grand homes were covered in pictorial tilework, illustrating scenes of domestic and courtly life and the most popular were those of the kitchen.” —Cerámica y Cultura
Artists love the work for its aesthetic value, and historians appreciate it as a snapshot of what might have been happening on a typical day in a well-to-do kitchen in 18th-Century Valencia.
Obviously, the main character in the scene is the dueña, or lady of the house, who’s having a serious look at the trays of food prepared by the household staff.
The all-Spanish information placard had details of the menu, and thanks to my iPad, an OCR app, as well as Google Translate, I determined that the snacks are snow sorbets presented in cups as well as sweets and chocolate in saucers. In those days, the rich and famous didn’t have to worry about diversity in their diets. They feasted on rabbit, chicken, fish, lamb, sausage, and all varieties of veggies. Now we’re cookin’.
If you look closely, it’s clear that the creative artist was a practical type with a sense of humor. One of the servants has spilled a cup of chocolate, and just look at the number of cats. Rodents had to be a major problem for every household, so rat-catcher cats were a necessary evil. But in this kitchen, cats are making a real nuisance of themselves; nipping and scratching at any and all food they can reach. One of the cooks is taking matters in hand and is about to clobber one of the marauding kitties with the kitchen cat-cudgel.
Today, some might consider this as folk art, but if it is, it’s folk art of the highest order. In addition to being visually appealing, it’s an interesting look at a day-in-the-life 225 years ago.
The Madrid Museum of Decorative Arts has four additional floors of exceptional artifacts, but this Valencian kitchen alone makes it worth a visit, so don’t miss it.
James & Terri