Monday, June 1, 2015

A Benvenuto Cellini dinner

A favorite photograph of Frances Glessner hangs in her former conservatory, now the Beidler Room at the museum.  The image, the only known photograph of Frances in her conservatory, shows her surrounded by her plants and dressed in an elaborate gown – a costume worn to a Benvenuto Cellini themed dinner party given by her and her husband on March 1, 1892. 

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) is generally regarded as one of the most important Mannerist artists.  Born in Florence, he became a well known sculptor and goldsmith, and is largely remembered today for his autobiography which accurately captures the spirit of the Renaissance and makes Cellini the best known figure of his time.

Cellini had numerous run-ins with the law, and frequently found himself fleeing to neighboring cities after brawls and even murder.  His considerable skill as an artisan won him favor with many including Pope Clement VII, Francis I, and members of the Medici family, who granted him pardons and helped him avoid prison on several occasions. 

The exact inspiration for the Glessners’ Cellini dinner is unknown.  Hector Berlioz composed an opera entitled Benvenuto Cellini, but it had not been performed in Chicago by this time.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed the overture from the opera in a concert at the Central Music Hall on May 7, 1891; the Glessners did attend this performance.   It appears from Frances Glessner’s journal entry, however, that she may have recently read Cellini’s autobiography as the dinner was based on an “artistic dinner” that Cellini had given, no doubt recounted in his autobiography. 

The Glessner dinner was quite elaborate, as described in the journal:

“Tuesday we gave a dinner after an artistic dinner given many years ago by Benvenuto Cellini.  We had a table nineteen feet long and three feet wide.  The gentlemen sat on one side and ladies on the other.  Candelabra were at each end with red candles and red shades.  No one sat at the ends.  John sat on end of the gentlemen side and I at the opposite end of the ladies side.  We had a background behind the ladies of red velvet which was put up by Fields upholstery man.

“The flowers were all red and white roses – all low, so that the talk was across the table and in groups of four.

“Mrs. Caton, Mr. and Mrs. Watson Blair, Mr. & Mrs. Henrotin, Mr. & Mrs. Albert Sprague, Col. & Mrs. Stevenson, Mr. & Miss Fearn, Miss Keep, Mr. Fay, Judge & Mrs. Gresham, Mr. Coolidge were the guests.  Mrs. Gresham failed me at the last minute and Fanny had to take her place.  I had four men to serve the dinner, and Fanny Biggs to cook it.”

The journal entry reveals several interesting pieces of information.  For one, it is clear that the regular dining room table, an oval table six feet wide, was not used for the dinner, so a special table was made.  There were a total of 18 at the table, including the Glessners – the exact number of chairs that Charles Coolidge, one of the guests, had designed as part of the dining room furniture for the Prairie Avenue house.  The Glessners’ daughter Fanny sat in for Mrs. Gresham.  Fanny was not yet 14, and her inclusion indicates the maturity she had attained by this time.

Four men served the dinner.  The Glessners typically employed a butler and two footmen, indicating that an “extra” man was hired for the evening.  The meal was prepared by the Glessners’ cook, Fanny Biggs, who prepared the following menu:
  • Oysters
  • Anchovy crutes Parisienne
  • Clear soup Royale, puree of cauliflower and croutons
  • Cutlets of salmon, hollandaise sauce, cucumbers, and potatoes
  • Boudine of chicken and macaroni; saddle of mutton with cherry sauce, potato croquettes and spinach
  • Mushrooms au gratin
  • Fromage a la Cowper with crackers
  • Pine apple ice cream, cake, and coffee

The journal entry and menu certainly convey that this was a special dinner party, one that the Glessners and their guests no doubt remembered for years to come.  Fortunately for us, their son George captured the image of his mother dressed for the party, so that today visitors can continue to learn about the artistic manner in which the Glessners entertained their guests.

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