Squeaky Clean: Quick Bite

Today on Museum Quick Bites we’re getting squeaky clean the Renaissance way. This charming castle once helped clean the grit and grime off 16th-century hands. Both pretty and practical, this lavabo (i.e., water tank with spigot) adds a splash of pizzazz to the mundane task of washing hands. Just pop the top, fill with water, turn the spigot, and scrub.

Lavabo (front; c1530), Detroit Institute of Arts-400px
Lavabo (c1530), Detroit Institute of Arts

The scalloped roof, peaky towers, and lion-headed spigots resemble a medieval castle. Made of pewter with a cast-iron bar on the back, this fancy lavabo was either mounted on a wall or placed inside a niche in the common area of a well-to-do home. More modest homes used two-spouted lavers that often hung from a chain and were stored in a special nook.

During the Middle Ages and subsequently the Renaissance, handwashing was customary before and after dining. In some cases, the conscientious host added a round of handwashing between courses by way of ewer and basin, especially since fingers were used to eat a fair portion of the meal. Good hand hygiene was promoted by physicians of the time, in an effort to prevent skin diseases such as scabies. They had not yet made the connection with other diseases such as the plague.

Fun Fork Fact: The fork, initially a two-tined implement, dates back to ancient Egypt, and was used for preparing meals. During the Middle Ages, the fork was first introduced to the table by the Middle Eastern and Byzantine upper class. Venetians first laid eyes on the dinner fork when it was introduced at the wedding between the niece of Byzantine Emperor Basil II (957-1025) and the son of Venetian doge, Pietro II Orseolo (975-1009). The Byzantine bride tucked into her wedding dinner with a gilded fork. Many Venetians, especially the clergy, were scandalized by this blatant show of decadence and blamed her death from the plague several years later as punishment for her fork-infused conceit.

Silver Byzantine Fork (c300s CE), Cleveland Museum of Art

That wraps up our look at a stylish version of Renaissance hand washing. Next week I’ll be back with more Museum Quick Bites. Take care!

Cover photo by Tama66, courtesy of Pixabay.


BBC History Extra: History of Hand Washing

Britannica: Basil II

British Museum: Bronze Laver (c1400s)

Della Cassa, Giovanni (c1552-1555) Galateo: A Renaissance Treatise on Manners

Detroit Institute of Arts: Pewter Laver (c1530)

Hoving, T., et. al (1975) The Secular Spirit: Life and Art at the End of the Middle Ages

Modern Health Care: Cleveland Museum Examines Arty Side of Hand Washing


Smithsonian Magazine: History of Western-Eating Utensils

Wikimedia Commons


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