The Cake of Kings by Philippe Canot

At the table with an 18th century aristocratic family

By Biblioteca Gastronomica Academia Barilla

The dessert of kings (1760 ca.) by Disegno: Philippe Canot (1715-1783) - Incisione: Jacques Philippe Le Bas (1707–1783) - Edizione: Buldet, ParisBiblioteca Gastronomica Academia Barilla

What were the dining customs of an 18th century aristocratic French family? And what was their dining room like? We have the opportunity to find out, looking at the print "Le gateaux des roys" (The Cake of Kings), taken from a drawing by Philippe Canot and dating to around 1760, kept in the collection of engravings of the Food Library of Academia Barilla.

Le_maitre_de_danse (1745) by Disegno: Philippe Canot - Incisione: Jacques-Philippe Le BasBiblioteca Gastronomica Academia Barilla

The author
Philippe Canot or Caneau (1715 ca.-1783) was a draftsman and painter French who worked in the Rococo style which marks the overcoming of the imposing Baroque plasticism in the arts and architecture of the eighteenth century through the decorative aspect, characterized by compositional lightness and chromatic brightness. Little is known about him. He was the younger brother of the well-known engraver Pierre-Charles and he had painted several genre scenes, in the style of Jean Siméon Chardin since 1740.

La Terre (1740 ca.) by Disegno: Philippe Canot - Incisione: Jean Joseph BàlechouBiblioteca Gastronomica Academia Barilla

He was a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc and worked full-time as a decorator in the Menus-Plaisirs du Roi which was the department responsible for the "minor pleasures" of the king in the organization of the royal house French under the Ancien Régime, that is all preparations for ceremonies, events and festivities. Many of Philippe Canot's works, scenes of family life and in a gallant style, that is, portrayed with a sweet, delicate, affectionate and intimate style, were engraved, like this one, by Jacques-Philippe Le Bas, or by Charles Iron and Jean-Joseph Balechou.

Portrait of Jacques-Philippe Le Bas (1782) by Disegno: Charles-Nicolas Cochin il vecchio (1688-1754) - Incisione: Louis-Jacques Cathelin (1738-1804)Biblioteca Gastronomica Academia Barilla

The engraver
The engraving "Le gateaux des roys" (The Cake of Kings) is the work of the famous Jacques-Philippe Le Bas or Lebas (1707-1783), at the head of a workshop that trained most of the engravers making up the golden age of this art in France during the eighteenth century.

The Parisian engraver and draftsman, able to perfectly restore the style and trait of the masters from whose works he executed the prints, acquired the title of "engraver of the king" in 1782, and successfully produced over five hundred engravings, including many large portraits by Vernet and several works by van de Velde, Parrocel, Berchem, Ruysdaël, Watteau, Oudry and Lancret. Le Bas's favorite engraving technique was the burin - the oldest known chalcographic process - which takes its name from the instrument used to engrave the metal.

This engraving process dates back to the first half of the fifteenth century and derives from the technique used on metals, since the Middle Ages, by goldsmiths, who used the burin to obtain recesses in the sheets, generally of silver, which then filled with a black mixture called nigellum (niello) to make the design evident.

Le Bas is also the first, after Rembrandt, to use, in addition to the burin, the drypoint technique, which will then be further perfected by some students of his laboratory.
In the drypoint, the matrix is engraved directly with a hard-pointed needle of sharp metal or diamond point which incises the metal, thus creating a groove with metal filaments - called beards - which hold the ink, giving a characteristic velvety touch to the print in the first circulation.

The dessert of kings (1760 ca.) by Disegno: Philippe Canot (1715-1783) - Incisione: Jacques Philippe Le Bas (1707–1783) - Edizione: Buldet, ParisBiblioteca Gastronomica Academia Barilla

The work
"Le gateau des roys" (The Cake of Kings) shows a scene of family life, inside a noble house of the eighteenth century.

An aristocratic family has lunch around the table while the maid is carrying a steaming soup bowl.

The little girl presents a slice of cake to her father,

on the right the open sideboard shows crockery and accessories which are very elegant.

It is a genre work, reminiscent of the spirit of Chardin's paintings, whose protagonists are often servants or crown princes of the French bourgeoisie or aristocracy, portrayed in the middle of simple daily activities.

A minor painting, in short, compared to the great historical subjects, considered the highest and noblest artistic genre in the eighteenth century, but which shows a touch of Rococo hedonism in lingering on the elegant drapery of the hostess’ dress

and above all in choosing postures and gestures of innate elegance for the protagonists of the scene. As if sharing a meal was more a dance than a need.

The cake of kings that gives the title to the engraving is, in France, the cake of the Three Kings, typical of the Epiphany. It is a fragrant frangipani cake, usually accompanied by a glass of cider, in which hides - hidden among the soft layers of the cake - a tiny statuette that was made up of a fava bean in ancient times. Whoever finds the so-called fève is elected king or queen of the day and receives a shimmering crown of paper.

In the eighteenth century, the tradition of the cake of kings had already boasted four centuries of life, because it had spread in France since the fourteenth century. But, in reality, it dates back to the Roman Saturnalia, the celebrations in honor of the god Saturn that coincided with the end of the year and the beginning of the new one, where the king of the feast was chosen, with a fava bean hidden in a focaccia bread of walnuts, dates and figs.

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