When my mother spilled salt, she would pick up a pinch of the spilled grains with the fingers of her right hand and throw them over her left shoulder. I believe the purpose was to avert the bad luck which would inevitably flow from carelessly wasting such a rare, valuable and significant commodity as salt. I imagine she inherited this superstitious practice from her mother and her mother’s mother, and so on back into the distant past – to Amsterdam where her ancestors lived, to Frankfurt where her ancestors’ ancestors lived, to who-knows-where before that.
Both my wife Frances and I tend to observe the same superstition, but there isn’t much spillage these days as we apply our Himalayan pink rock salt directly onto our food from a grinder. As far as we are aware we haven’t passed the ritual on to our children.
But what’s with a superstition about salt? Why does it matter? Table salt is currently available from Sainsbury’s at 47 pence per kilo. Weight for weight, groceries don’t come much cheaper. So why the fuss?
Because of course sodium chloride, common salt, cheap as it is, is immensely important for human survival and has been so for many thousands of years. It’s embedded in human culture. So much so that I can use my salary (etymology: salt) to buy salad (etymology: salt) in Prestonpans (a few miles away from my home, a town named after its salt pans). I can weigh my food on Salter’s scales, and eat it from a salt-glazed pottery plate, wearing clothes from the high-street store Seasalt, while listening to a concerto by Mozart’s rival Antonio Salieri. I can read about the production and transportation of salt for huge distances on camelback, about its use as currency, about the wars which have been fought over it, about artworks being sent to salt mines for preservation, about dissidents being sent to salt mines as punishment, and about the importance of salt in ritual, religion and superstition. I can preserve food with salt and I can use it as an ingredient in cookery, to the extent that there aren’t all that many recipes which don’t include at least a pinch of it.
Yes, those cheap humble white grains come freighted with history, significance and symbolism. And yet I sprinkle them onto my chips unthinkingly, normally using for the purpose a small upright glass or ceramic vessel with a domed top or screw-threaded lid with one or more little holes in it.
Hardly more than a century ago, dispensing salt from a salt shaker would have been out of the question. It was only in 1911 that the addition of magnesium carbonate as an anti-caking agent enabled table salt to become free-flowing for the first time. That important moment marked a tipping point: the decline of the salt dish and the rise of the salt shaker.
You’re used to seeing salt shakers. They are ubiquitous. Although I don’t collect them, a few seem to have accumulated in my house. That’s what happens. Stuff accretes. Here’s a photo of some of them. Left to right: Sidney Tustin for Winchcombe Pottery, William Fishley-Holland for Fremington Pottery, Doulton Lambeth sprigged ware, Clarice Cliff Berries pattern, a lamb from an unknown Staffordshire factory, Carl-Harry Stalhane for Rorstrand of Sweden, and Wedgwood porcelain in the Kutani Crane pattern. Nothing remarkable, just some 20th century salt shakers.
Before chemical additives made salt free-flowing, it would characteristically be slightly damp and/or slightly lumpy in consistency. At the table, in order to transfer salt on to your food, you would need to lift it with a spoon from a dish container. The containers devised for presenting salt at the dining table are the subject of this blog piece. We’re finally getting to the point.
During the millennia when, for all the reasons given above – and for many more reasons which you can read about at your leisure – possession of salt was a big deal, it followed that those fortunate and rich enough to own a supply of salt would want to show off that fact as a symbol of wealth and power.
One of the most popular methods which the rich and powerful could employ to impress friends and humiliate foes, was to provide lavish hospitality in the form of banquets and feasts. At these events, it was essential to load your table with the most impressive and ostentatious vessels which money could buy or which violence could loot.
And amongst the magnificence of your vessels, pride of place might be given to your salt cellar. What better way could there be to be impressive and showy-offy than to serve your rare and precious salt in a rare and precious salt cellar (etymology saliera (Italian); salière (French))?
By this means, the rich and powerful could please their friends (i.e. those who were worth their salt) by seating them in a favoured position above the salt, and offend their enemies by according them lowly status below the salt.
So is it therefore reasonable to assume that the museums and great houses and great collections of the world contain many examples of big, shiny, expensive salts bought by big, shiny, expensive autocrats and aristocrats? Oh my goodness, yes it is.
Top billing has to go to a gold, ivory and enamel saliera made by the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini in the 1540s. It’s about 10 inches high and 13 inches long, and stands on an ebony base beneath which are ivory bearings so that you can roll it around on your dining table. Its main features are mannerist figures depicting the gods of the land and the sea. When this extraordinary object was stolen from the Vienna Museum in 2003, and then recovered in 2006, it was valued at £35 million.
Then there is the nef, a table decoration in the shape of a sailing ship, usually made of silver or silver-gilt. This was often made for serving salt to the principal guests, or sometimes for carrying essential table items such as napkins and cutlery, or as an elaborate wine carafe. In 1474, the Duke of Burgundy had a nef which was so enormous that if it was placed in front of “any prince or ambassador who came to speak with him at table”, the visitor would not be able to see the Duke from behind it . See what I mean about exercising power at the dining table? Some of the most elaborate nefs were moved around the table on wheels or had complex clockwork mechanisms.
Over time salt declined as a symbol of wealth. It became progressively cheaper and more abundant until it was a simple everyday grocery item, an essential purchase on the shopping list of every household in the land. Interestingly, you can plot the decline by examining salt cellars made during the centuries and decades up to 1911, when salt started being dispensed from a shaker instead of from a dish. By the turn of the twentieth century you could get small, mass-produced pressed glass or pottery salts for a few pennies. A far cry from earlier times, when a gold or silver salt cellar was one of the most expensive, prized and showy items on a rich man’s table.
Let me state right now and for the avoidance of all doubt, that I am not a collector of salts. Many people are, but I am not. If you want to know about salts and the collecting of them, I recommend you to join a Facebook Special Interest Group called Open Salt Collectors of the World . It’s a lively and well-documented collecting field, with lots of documentation and expertise available, and with interesting objects available to suit all tastes and all pockets.
Although I don’t collect salts, I happen to have a few. Below back row: 18th century Meissen, 19th century Pirkenhammer (Bohemia), Chippendale glass salt by Davidson, flint glass salt in shape of Grace Darling’s boat (don’t ask why!). Front row: Wedgwood lustre ware small bowl or salt dish, Poole pottery salt, modern porcelain salt by Edinburgh-based studio potter Andrea Walsh.
It is the recent acquisition of two more salts that has prompted me to write this piece.
As I’ve told my readers before, I’m a sucker for maiolica, the brightly-decorated tin-glazed earthenware produced in many centres all over Italy continually since the fifteenth century. I just love it! So whenever I see pieces which are even vaguely affordable I have to buy them. Unfortunately, old, good quality and undamaged pieces of Italian maiolica are exceptionally rare and are miles beyond my budget. The result is that the stuff I buy is invariably not old, not good quality or damaged. Very frequently my pieces combine all three of these less-than-optimal features.
A further complication is that I’m really not much good at all at judging age or quality in maiolica. As soon as I see a piece I immediately think it’s a priceless example from one of the greatest renaissance studios. I’m mesmerised by it, oblivious to all of the glaring defects in its production, decoration and condition. Even although to any informed observer it’s nothing more than a bit of 20th century tourist tat, I’ll persuade myself that it has arrived in front of me direct from the Patanazzi workshop in 16th century Urbino. It’s a blind spot. I can’t explain it.
A few weeks ago, two Italian maiolica salts appeared in my local auction room. You know what’s coming. Yes, of course I had to buy them. Although I didn’t get them for pennies, I convince myself that even in the highly unlikely event that they would turn out to be period pieces, I would still be able to sell them for a handsome profit – but only in the equally highly unlikely event that I could ever bring myself to part with them.
Here they are. They are similar but not identical, each about 190mm tall and 175mm across the stepped trefoil base which stands upon three paw feet. The salt dishes are supported on the shoulders of three crouching satyrs. They have closely fitting covers, inside which each has a painted C.Z. maker’s mark. The interiors of the dishes are glazed in white and undecorated.
Both salts have been damaged. One has had a foot repaired, and the other has had a foot plus a chunk of the base re-attached. Each has several glaze chips. One of the covers has been broken into a number of pieces and repaired, and both lids have chipped edges.
Yes, they’re a bit of a mess, and they are big and flashy and weird and the opposite of minimalist, and they won’t be to everyone’s taste. But I think they are splendid.
My salt cellars appear to be of the Urbino type. You can see a number of similar examples online which are claimed to have been made in the second half of the sixteenth century at the Patanazzi workshop in Urbino, a walled city in the Marche region of central Italy. There’s one in the V&A, believed to have come from Horace Walpole’s collection at Strawberry Hill House, in which the salt dish is supported by dolphins . And a few have been sold in recent years by prominent Italian auctioneers .
After closely examining online images of Urbino salts and carefully comparing their characteristics and details with my pair, I arrived at two rather depressing conclusions:
- that I had absolutely no way of judging objectively or subjectively whether they are period pieces or more recent reproductions.
- that assuming (as seemed a logical probability) their date of manufacture was considerably later than the sixteenth century, I didn’t even possess the basics of an aesthetic toolkit to help determine if they are honest, superior-quality nineteenth century reproductions, or cheap souvenirs made for sale to twentieth century tourists.
This uncertainty might, of course, be a tribute to the expertise of the Italian maiolica potters, who have continued to produce beautiful work in an unchanging style for almost half a millennium. Or alternatively it might be entirely obvious to anyone with an iota of expertise which pieces are period and which pieces are not – but not obvious to me. I’d have thought by now, after having examined quite a few pieces at auction viewings and in museums and online, that I would have acquired enough knowledge and experience to make at least a tentative qualitative appraisal of this type of object, but no. Nothing. Niente.
So I did what I do when (all too frequently) I am in this position: ask an expert. The one I chose was Mr Enrico Cavaglia of the Cambi auction house, which has salerooms in Genoa and Milan and which has vast experience of selling period and reproduction maiolica of the best quality and the middling sort. I emailed Signor Cavaglia away back in the pre-history of last month (February 2020), before coronavirus changed the world. Seemingly untrammelled by anxiety about the oncoming pandemic, he replied promptly to the effect that my salts “are not interesting for our auctions” and “are to be dated to the twentieth century on Renaissance inspiration”. I’m very grateful for his opinion, which of course I have to respect, but although I accept that my salts can’t possibly be from the 16th century, I still have a niggling feeling that they might date from somewhat earlier than 1900 rather than later.
Be that as it may, it’s clear that my beautiful salts are not likely to make my fortune. They would be unsaleable for a good many months to come anyway, due to the cessation of most world trade in non-essential commodities (including antiques, which, while essential to my wellbeing are not necessarily essential to my survival). But I don’t particularly want to sell them even if I could. In fact, I’m delighted to keep them.
There’s a bonus in keeping them, because my two salts are a good match with another 16th or 19th century example which is also in my collection, in which the salt dish is supported not by satyrs but by three mythical winged beasts. Leaving aside the startling fact that these creatures happen to bear an uncanny resemblance to the cartoon detective Scooby-doo, the three salts together make an imposing garniture which currently adorns the corner mantelpiece in our bathroom. There, displayed alongside a pair of delft vases and a pair of delft urns, they feature prominently in a rather over-the-top mishmash of tin-glaze. On the whole, I’d have to say I’m quite pleased with the overall effect.