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New Classical Galleries Offer Insight Into Ancient Dining & Culture

By Amy Cavanaugh in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 15, 2012 9:00PM

Credit: Amy Cavanaugh
We were excited when we found out that the Art Institute was refurbishing its classical galleries and reopening them with a new show, Of Gods and Glamour, as well as a display of works from the late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire on loan from the British Museum. But we didn't imagine just how good these shows would be—plus, as food lovers, we were especially excited to see so much emphasis on dining in the ancient world.

The galleries move chronologically, opening with statues from 3000 B.C. and ending with Byzantine artwork that explores the growing role of Christianity. There's a lot to see here, and museum holdings and loans include jewelry, mosaics, busts, cups, and many other items that tell a story about how the ancients lived and grew as a culture during this period. A large part of that culture involved food. Here are some noteworthy culinary objects:

• At the end of the fifth century B.C., Athenian potters were making miniature pitchers and decorating them with pictures of children behaving like adults. The theory is that the pitchers were given to kids during a three-day spring wine festival. The children didn't drink wine, though, so it sounds like these pitchers were a proto-children's tea set.

• More fun with drinking vessels: in the first century A.D. the Romans got into glassblowing and starting making molds so they could mass produce popular designs. Popular designs included shapes like this date flask. While molds were typically made from clay or plaster, this mold was probably made with an actual dried date. Dates were important during this period, since not only were they used to sweeten food and wine, but they were given as gifts at the New Year.

• The Field Museum loaned five cochlearia, which are small spoons with a rounded bowl on one end and a pick at the other end. The spoons were used to eat snails, eggs, and other types of shellfish, and were used during the first course of a meal, when seafood was typically served.

• The Romans celebrated their love of cake in mosaic form. The cute mosaics above were from second century A.D. Rome, and depicted a brazier (a container for fire), a rooster, and an almond cake. They were on display in someone's dining area.

• Someone should start making reproductions of the early Byzantine Lampsacus spoons, which were found in modern-day Turkey. The spoons feature sayings like "Eat, you who are lovesick" in Latin and "Those who detest pleasure" in Greek. Other spoons have boars, horses, lions, and tigers, which may or may not refer to the game that was served on the table.

Of Gods and Glamour is ongoing and the objects from the British Museum will be on display until next August, so you have some time to check this out. But the festive nature of the items on view make this the perfect show to go see during the holidays, as you seek inspiration for your New Year's Eve plans.