monica is an art history graduate student at hunter collge obtaining her master's. her research interests are ancient art until the early modern period.
Tales From the Table The Politics of Dessert in Franz Anton Bustelli’s Harlequin
In his sixth
year at Neudeck and at a very young age , Italian-Swiss sculptor Franz Anton Bustelli developed a set of sixteen commedia
dell’arte figurines using modern French visual strategies that would establish
him as one of the pre-eminent porcelain modelers from the 18th
century . His figurines, in particular Harlequin [Figure 1], were decorative, sculptural interior pieces that captured the modern,
or rococo, aesthetic of artful bodies, theatricality, and participation.
As stylistic components elected by the Bavarian  court, he reproduced modern, French aesthetics through the medium of porcelain for
the Wittelsbach dynasty’s royal porcelain factory, in Neudeck, Munich, which
later moved to Nymphenburg . Created with authentic hard-paste ingredients and true to Chinese  quality, Bustelli modeled
the figurines in 1760 using porcelain technology adopted by other regional
factories such as Meissen, near Dresden, and Du Paquier  in
Meissen’s output during 1733-1756 served as a manufacturing
paradigm for royal porcelain factories emerging in Europe. Courts from Dresden
to Munich exchanged their pieces and
closely scrutinized them in a competitive manner . Under the artistry of Johann Joachim Kändler, Meissen
became the first true European porcelain factory in 1735 to create figurines for the
aristocracy as entertainment using commedia dell’arte themes [Figure 2]. Kändler
sculpted an assortment of porcelain during his occupancy, ranging from large
scale animals to separate porcelain figurines that depicted contemporary court
life . Building upon Kändler’s porcelain experiments at
Meissen, Bustelli developed a set of commedia dell’arte stock characters with
familiar scenes, but imbued them with hyperbolic gestures and cultural
references that blended the dynamic corporeality of aristocrat and performer. His
ability to craft porcelain figurines with elegant curvature, interaction, and spectacle
distinguished his work from Kändler, whose figurines were considered rigid  in
work used French aesthetic trends to communicate elite subjectivities . The Wittelsbach dynasty, being politically aligned with France, modeled their court after French
etiquette and decorated it with French art in the modern style . As decorative tableware, this paper will add contextual and discursive analysis
about the processes that led to Harlequin’s organization. While Bustelli made his figurines within a factory, the purposes behind his productions were not mutually exclusive; they were artistic
sculptures and commercial models  for nobility and the porcelain market. These figurines, I believe, transmit a
specific visual rhetoric meant to strengthen aristocratic identity in Bavaria amidst
years of debt and conflict brought on by the Habsburgs  and instability within the Holy Roman Empire. Bustelli’s actors were political aids
for the Wittelsbach family, who were keen on proving their imperial sovereignty  in the
region following Austria’s occupation in the early 18th century. Through
spectatorship at formal banquets, his figurines were agents used to preserve
class order and royal character by mirroring facets of aristocratic identity  influenced
by colonialism, trade with China, and high French culture (e.g., performance,
Harlequin was a source of entertainment
for guests to visually read and engage with during formal dinner
banquets. By the 18th
century, middle- to upper-class interior spaces in Europe became noticeably more
intimate. The home generated modes of sociability , seduction, and messages about identity (e.g., femininity, social status,
political beliefs, taste) . In “The
Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,” Habermas states that
the 18th century was an era known for “subjectivity” in which architecture
saw the “solitarization” of elite families to meet their needs . Family rooms and courtyards shrunk in
size and moved to the back of the home, and private rooms with specific
purposes and furnishings accumulated . Dining as well became less communal and more personalized; neither elite nor lower
classes  passed around platters of food or drank from a shared cup any longer . Individualized dining and tea service, with beverages and spices from colonial
territories, produced consumer demand for custom tableware . This shift reinforced an impulse to showcase status in elite households; food
no longer served as the main feature during formal gatherings, but rather tableware. In response to high society’s need for status-driven tableware,
European trade companies (e.g., Dutch East India Company and the English East
Indian Company) , capitalized on their consumer demand by importing porcelain from China .
Porcelain’s discursive potential manifested in
the 18th century; it communicated messages about wealth, taste, beliefs, interests,
and etiquette. Objects went from being seen on the table to display cabinets and, finally, filling entire rooms and palaces . In
Berlin, the Oranienburg Palace had lavish rooms brimming with 17th
century blue and white Chinese porcelain. Visiting nobility, such as Augustus
the Strong of Saxony, toured these opulent rooms and emerged with a desire to surpass
them . Yet
Augustus viewed porcelain as more than just a symbol of wealth; he realized its
ability to communicate royal power on an international basis . In
1710, he established the Royal Saxon Porcelain Factory in Meissen, Germany. By
amassing vast amounts of this material as a Catholic and starting his own
manufactory, like Delftware in the Netherlands, he separated the centuries-long
Dutch-Protestant association with porcelain . Collecting
and manufacturing porcelain under his patronage effectively shifted diplomacy,
improved his kingdom’s economy, and enriched his court’s reputation; at the same
time, Augustus’s patronage led to innovative porcelain experiments that
tinkered with style and function. Appointed painters and sculptors, including Johann Gregorius Horoldt and Kändler, initiated artistic changes such as adding European drawing
techniques that distinguished their porcelain from Chinese imports. Throughout
his tenure at Meissen, which lasted over twenty years, Kändler experimented with
porcelain, adding relief designs  on dinnerware, conceptualizing figurines with contemporary narratives (e.g.,
hunting, studying), and creating precise, life-like sculptures of animals
(e.g., turkeys, rhinoceroses, elephants) for Augustus’s menagerie. His animal
sculptures were rigorously developed, with references to drawings imported from
China and ornithology books . The
sculptures, in part, contributed to understanding porcelain as an artistic
medium. In “Porcelain Figures Reflecting XVIII Century Amusement,” Avery states
“[for] sculptors, trained to working in wood or stone,
found porcelain provocative and exciting. Its plasticity before firing, its
hardness afterward, its gleaming surfaces, and its colorings made [the
material] different from other media and susceptible of use in new and varied
no longer represented décor or rarity, but an art form with discursive capacities.
As small, three-dimensional hollow sculptures, porcelain
figurines replaced sugar sculpture table decorations . Decorators chose figurines based on their symbolic messages, much like sugar
sculptures, and matched them to court festivities . Subjects ranged from animal ensembles, fête galante scenes, commedia dell’arte characters,
and sitting chinoiseriepagods . Porcelain figurines of humans such as
aristocrats, actors, and pagods, communicated a language of corporeal ideals
and cultural perceptions . Figurines possess an aura of individuality and authority that stirs the
viewer’s attention in the midst of personal or social rituals. McPherson argues
in “Marketing Celebrity: Porcelain and
Theatrical Display” that the figurine, whether as décor or gift, uncovers “cultural discourses” about bodies and
politics. Porcelain pagods, for example, crafted from factories in Europe, reveal
perceptual differences about Asian bodies. Unlike the artful, noble fête galante figurines of Meissen or Neudeck, sculptors rendered pagodsas obese Asian men that are aimlessly grinning and sedentary; the corporeal disparities
visually distinguished the European body from the Asian body.
discourses about the body, politics, and etiquette appear in Harlequin. The pair is composed of visual signs that
communicate beliefs espoused by elite Europeans. Its modern theme, commedia
dell’arte, and precious
materiality were most likely used to increase profit and consumer worth . During the 1700s, commedia dell’arte’s popularity
in decorative arts grew due to its familiarity between social classes and
association with the modern style, made popular by Antoine Watteau. As
recognizable subject matter, it had consumer value across European cities,
where different social classes were using their disposable income for
entertainment and goods . The
theme appeared in prints, porcelain services, and tapestries. To
the elite, commedia dell’arte represented an aspect of leisure that could be privately enjoyed during weddings,
court performances, impromptu parades , and
masquerades . In Italy, where the theater originated, it was a part of everyday life and
not considered high art; however, for the French, Flemish, and Germans—commedia dell’arte represented novelty, youth, and a world away from their harsh realities . This style of theater started performing
in royal Bavarian courts in the late 16th century. As early as
1579, Duke Wilhelm V of the Wittelsbach family
added large-scale frescos of commedia dell’arte stock
characters in his Bavarian castle, Trausnitz. Known as the Fool’s
Staircase, they featured stock characters parading on donkeys, that were
simultaneously getting injected by an enema. The Duke’s staircase was a
political allegory meant to satirize imperial power; its salacious nature,
arguably, set a precedent and made it permissible for artists in later
generations, like Bustelli, to freely exercise their creative vision throughcommedia dell’arte.
Prince Max III Joseph, founder and patron of Neudeck, showing Harlequin’s narrative, where two
lovers give birth to a baby monkey, did not shock his guests but delighted them
as humorous entertainment and, perhaps, even signaled upcoming events at court
(i.e. a comedy will be shown after dessert) . Bustelli imbued his actors with modern iconography such as contorted menuet
poses, pagods on Harlequina’s dress, and singerie, the art of monkeys
behaving like humans . The use of such references, like the menuet and owning exotic animals,
reflected common cultural and bodily trends occurring in 18th
century Europe. Monkeys were a popular
motif in the modern style of art and thus in accord with Neudeck’s elected
style. Yet, behind their humorous intention and aesthetic ties to the modern
style, exporting monkeys for domestication symbolized European imperialism of
the Global South and scientific racism. During the 18th century, scientists
compared monkey skulls to lower class and non-European non-Caucasian people , elites bestowed or owned them as markers of status, and, to a greater extent, they symbolized the
elite practice of owning African children as accessories at court . Prior to Darwin’s findings in the 19th century, animals were
considered inferior to humans, but this assumption began to deteriorate as
zoologists in the 18th century were finding early evolutionary
evidence for the similarities between humans and monkeys . Though on the surface the monkey stood for comic
relief to Max Joseph’s guests, its inclusion as a modern motif and source of entertainment
in 1760 indicates a condescending way of seeing the “Other”— as people compared
to animals and used for entertainment, science, or nurture. Imported African
children, like the “exotic” monkeys, became pets and stood as yet another marker of
status for the aristocracy (see “Young Black Man Holding a Basket a Fruit
and Young Woman Stroking a Dog” by Charles-Antoine Coypel) [Figure 3]. The aristocracy’s use of African children as
fostered pets signifies political beliefs about colonialism’s goal to civilize indigenous
people from North Africa and North America. The French established this goal as
early as the 17th century, when they based their colonial policy on educating
and assimilating indigenous North Americans to Christianity and French culture . The sculptural and graphic distinctions in Harlequin between the
human figures and coddled monkey creates a body-based binary: refined Europeans
and infantile non-European, non-Caucasians.
ideology about the “Other” is again made clear in another version of Harlequin [Figure 4], listed on the official Nymphenburg factory website. Harlequina’s
dress design features small painted images of nodding pagods, as opposed to
flowers (as seen in the Met version). Pagods were popular amusements made from
various materials such as copper or ceramics; they were either Chinese or
Indian figures with large bodies and distorted facial features such as raised
eye-brows and wide smiles. Their abnormal figure and repetitive gestures (i.e.,
nodding), were popular consumer objects that made the Europeans laugh during
the 18th century. Artisans often decorated them with flowers or gold
mounting which, in effect, eliminated their autonomy as a cultural symbols and
instead modified their foreign and exoticized qualities with familiar French
designs that would fit into modern aristocratic interiors . Bustelli may have added pagods to enhance Harlequin’s playful aura and
association with French taste . Yet despite these practical concerns, Harlequina’s dress design produces
another body-based binary between Europeans and non-European
The way each
figurine moves toward one another in choreographed poses, glancing at their alleged
child, delivers a sense of personality and interaction. The couple is
satirizing parental roles (i.e., mother and father) with lewd undertones about
cuckoldry— yet, their aristocratic dance-like gestures in commedia dell’arte costumes
distort who they are. Are they actors, actors mocking the aristocracy, or
aristocrats masquerading? Like Watteau, Bustelli synthesizes different social
realities; he arranges aristocratic dance movements within commedia dell’arteacting, creating a blurred identity  where actors are parading as members of court, or vice versa. Bustelli may have
referenced prints by Watteau and Lancret for Harlequin’s corporeality . In both prints, actors pose with one hand on
their hip, and in Lancret’s imagery, actors have exaggerated dance-like
movements . For the 18th century noble, artful
and refined physical movements seen at masquerade balls were gestures that
communicated status and elite identity . Harlequin looks like he is about to romantically kiss his baby monkey, while Harlequina
plays the role of domesticated mother by raising her hand to feed it from a painted
porcelain plate— a material symbol favored by high society, which further hints
at her elite identity. The space between both figurines establishes a curved line,
which enhances their bodily interplay. The pair’s twisting alignment is
reminiscent of the menuet, in which aristocratic couples use elegant and patterned
dance movements to articulate courtship and play the part of aristocrat as opposed
to actually linking oneself to the king . Harlequin’s performative corporeality mirrors the way high society
communicated their status at court (i.e, through bodily movements). Its
imitation of elite realities enabled the Wittelsbachs to construct a message about
the legitimacy of their court; like the French, they also adhered to
aristocratic modes of self-presentation and condoned this behavior from their
To say Neudeck fashioned these figurines solely for
aristocratic spectatorship is not entirely plausible since they were also commercial
models— much like Meissen’s output. Their social,
political, and corporeal references point to upper-class ideals and aided the
Wittelsbach family’s political need to assert their legitimacy toward the
Hapsburgs. By analyzing Harlequin’s visual rhetoric, it helps us
understand the system of beliefs embedded in the modern style, and how certain gestures
and graphics reflect cultural realizations. Bustelli’s relatively unknown
status as a young sculptor, plucked to work in a royal porcelain factory and
complete commissions on behalf of nobility is enough information to prove how limited
his role was in developing their rhetoric; instead, one must look at the
relationship between the Wittlesbach dynasty’s political ambitions and aesthetic
sensibilities. Porcelain fashioned in the modern style for interiors served as
a salient tool for communicating one’s identity and stature. Neudeck’s goal to
make these models for sale have socioeconomic implications as consumer products,
and suggests that one does not need aristocratic lineage to read, appreciate,
or own Harlequin.
 Neudeck is the
name of the porcelain factory that Franz Anton Bustelli worked at while he
developed his renowned commedia d’elle
arte figurines. The factory was located on palace grounds in Munich,
Germany. By 1761, the factory would move to a different royal palace in
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