The so-called “Object Essay” is the first important essay that students on our History of Design MA course are assigned to write. This is meant to introduce students to the field of material culture by asking them to examine an object of their own choosing that has received little to no research attention. The goal is not to find out what the object’s function, meaning, agency, etc., was exactly, but to develop a research methodology that focuses on the object as the main primary source and then expand to written, visual, and other material sources from there.
The object I chose for this essay is this small, gilt-bronze bull. It was made in Germany around 1580, and on the V&A Search the Collections website is labelled as a toothpick holder. The fact that it was a toothpick holder intrigued me and I thought – and still think now – that the object is simply beautiful.
I started by examining the object in detail. The piece is about 5 cm wide and 8.5 cm long, consists of two detachable parts – one is the bull, the other the base it sits on – and is made of gilded bronze. The bull is rendered in a very detailed and life-like fashion. Ten holes pierce the bull’s back, an eleventh can be found on its forehead. One fascinating aspect of this hole is that one can see a mark on its left side – this might be a mark for the artisan showing him where the hole was supposed to be placed.
Surely, these are the holes into which the toothpicks would have been inserted. My next step was to look closer into the nature of toothpicks used at the time. Did toothpicks exist in the sixteenth century? What did they look like? How, when, where, and by whom were they used?
Mention of toothpicks and the practice of “toothpicking” was often made in treatises on manners. One popular Italian example is Giovanni de la Casa’s Galateo, written between 1551 and 1555. De la Casa’s aim was to instruct young men and women on how to behave in public, and he has this to say about picking one’s teeth:
When the table is cleared, to carry about your tooth-pick in your mouth, like a bird his nest, or to stick it behind your ear, as a barber does his comb, is no very genteel custom. They are also undoubtedly mistaken in their notions of politeness, who carry their tooth-pick cases hanging down from their necks[.]
This quote suggests, first of all, that picking your teeth using a toothpick after a meal was common practice at the time. Furthermore, it indicates that a toothpick was, instead of being disposable, a personal possession (the author writes „your toothpick“), which a person would have kept in a case hanging from their neck.
Examples of visual evidence that support the idea that contemporary toothpicks were personal, reusable, precious possessions include this portrait by Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto and a sixteenth century toothpick from the V&A collection.
The portrait, painted at some point between 1518 and 1523, shows the noblewoman Lucina Brembati wearing a golden toothpick on a golden chain around her neck. Her hands are depicted in close proximity to the object, framing it, and thus drawing the viewer’s attention to it. Wearing a red headdress with golden bows, a black garment decorated with golden fabric and shells of the same colour, as well as pearls and golden rings, the toothpick only complements this display of wealth and presumably points out that Lucina is indeed a very mannered woman – although, according to the quote above, de la Casa would disagree with that assessment.
The painting, quote, and this golden toothpick from the V&A collection – made in Germany around 1580 – show that the appearance, value, and usage of sixteenth century toothpicks was significantly different from today.
Now looking back to our toothpick holder it seems unlikely that the kinds of toothpicks shown in the examples above would have been inserted in it, and at this point I asked myself: Is this really a toothpick holder? First of all, if toothpicks were personal possessions – worn like Lucina does hers – why would you need an object to hold them? Having the toothpick on a chain in close proximity to hands and mouth appears much more practical. Secondly, if toothpick designs were often so wide and curved as the two examples above, the toothpicks would not have fit into the holes on the bull’s back.
Playing devil’s advocate, one might say that people in the sixteenth century surely used disposable toothpicks made from wood and those could be made to fit inside the holes of the bull’s back. However, I would argue that if a family had the means to own this object, they had the means to own individual toothpicks, making this object unnecessary.
If this is not a toothpick holder, what else could it be? In conducting my research I was not able to find one conclusive, definite answer for this question. Yet, there were a few different possibilities.
Amongst these was the idea that the object might be a vessel to hold and dispense spices. However, this can be ruled out, because the placement of holes on the bull’s sides would have lead to the spices falling out of the object and going everywhere. In addition, spice stands, salt cellars, and spice dishes were objects commonly used to hold spices. Thus this object – placed in this category – would have been a curiosity.
Following this idea, I still thought about the possibilities of this object as part of the dinner table, or a banquet scene. In the sixteenth century table-fountains and so-called “Rauchberg[e]” gained popularity in Germany. The smoke-mountains were devices that emanated pleasantly smelling smoke, which was supposed to fuel conversation at the table and more importantly clean any corrupted air, thus keeping the air and environment healthy. The holes in the back of the bull, its head and its open mouth could attest to this being such a smoking object. Due to its small size a variety of these – possibly different animals – could have been placed on the dinner table. Not completely plausible, however, is where the source of fire would have been located. In order to burn incense or aromatics a heating source must have been placed under the object; therefore it must have come with other parts.
Another possibility I explored was the connection of the object with the Evangelist Luke, since the bull is the Evangelist’s attribute and they are commonly represented together in sculpture and painting. This idea, however, raises a host of different questions, the first one being: Where is the Evangelist? One could assume that holes in this context mean that something is missing. In looking at this example of Luke from the Mainsondheim pulpit relief, it would by all means be possible that this object would have had the Evangelist sitting on the bull’s back.
All of these possibilities offer intriguing paths into further research, but for now will all remain possibilities. The only conclusion I was willing to make in my essay and still believe to be accurate is that this object is not a toothpick holder.
 G. de la Casa, Galateo; or, A Treatise on Politeness and Delicacy of Manners, trans. by Philip Moor, (Baltimore: B. Edes, 1811).
 G. de la Casa, Galateo; or, A Treatise on Politeness and Delicacy of Manners, 1811, p.172.
 from German: smoke mountains.
 G. P. Harsdörffer, Vollständig Vermehrtes Trincir Buch. Von Tafeldecken, Trinciren, Zeitigung der Mündfoste, Schauessen und Schaugerichten, benebens XXV Gast oder Tischfragen., (Nuremberg: Paulus Fürsten Kunsthändlern, 1657), p.201.
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Luisa Coscarelli –
Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is now interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how immaterial olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.
© Luisa Coscarelli 2014. All Rights Reserved.