Monday, February 21, 2011


When I was young, my mom used to fold my napkins into little dolls or other fun objects to keep me entertained at restaurants while the grown-ups ate.

Little did I know that there was an actual art of napkin folding that my mom was tapping into. Napkin folding was a huge part of the Renaissance, when the personal wealth of families was starting to grow. With increased wealth, banquets became more and more prominent, and grew into events wherein the hosts could show off their social status.

This got to the point where decorations grew more important than the food itself. There are reports of mid-14th Century banquets with fountain centrepieces spurting five different types of wine, and decorative salt and sugar sculptures at the table. Folded napkin sculptures also became part of this ornament, and eventually lost most of its function.

This was all documented by the Bavarian author Matia Geigher, who was so enamoured with the Italian way of life that he published three treatises in Italian around the 1630s. While two focus on the art of carving, one is devoted entirely to napkin folding (the picture above is one of its illustrations, depicting the various things that napkins would be folded into), and includes descriptions of advanced folds that, to this day, are used in modern origami.

Not impressed? Check out these folded napkins from a recent exhibition at NYC's Met and compare it to the last time napkin you used:

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