food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

The Egg


The EGG holds a place in the history of Italian Renaissance art. Writing in the middle decades of the 16th century and heralded by more than a few as the ‘father of art history,’ Giorgio Vasari used the egg to convey something about an artist or a work of art. Consider, for example, the following incident. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) – best known today as the ingenious architect and engineer of the dome of Florence’s cathedral – chanced to see a Crucifix carved by the great Donatello (ca. 1382/86-1466). Although highly celebrated then as now, Donatello had “placed a ploughman on the Cross,” or so it appeared to an appalled Brunelleschi. He felt he could – and should – do better and so set himself to the task of demonstrating thge proper way to render the Son of God. Once he had finsihed making his own Crucifix, Brunelleschi invited Donatello to his home but did not tell him what he would see. A competition was clearly on. It would be decided by Donatello’s reaction to Brunelleschi’s work.  Vasari describes Donatello’s reaction: “… entering the house and going into the hall, Donatello saw the crucifix of Filippo [Brunelleschi]… full of amazement, like one who is distraught, he spread out his hands which were holding up his apron; whereupon the eggs and cheese… fell to the ground, and everything was broken to pieces.”  The smashed eggs were a testament to the awe-inspiring beauty of the work.

Eggs play a very different role in Vasari’s life of the painter Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521). Piero di Cosimo is presented in Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects as a genius but a highly eccentric one. He refused to have his house swept clean and forbid anyone to prune the vines and trees in his garden. He derived inspiration from gazing at the clouds and staring intently at stains on the sidewalk. He also lived off eating boiled eggs. Such oddities in personal behavior are reflected in a style that stands decidedly out of the mainstream of its day.

Eggs were no less important to artistic techniques. In the art of painting egg yolk was often used as a binder for tempera (honey might also serve this purpose). Different recipes circulated, each calling for powdered pigment to be mixed with wine, vinegar, or other soluble solution that is then bound by mixing in egg yolk. As for sculpture, consider some advice for the life-casting in bronze of nightingales, prized birds that must be well fed in order to keep them plump and lively before molding. The sculptor who intends to cast this poor little bird is instructed to ‘‘open its beak with a small pointed stick, and feed it on sheep heart or on other delicate flesh . . . that way it will not get thinner.’’ Alternatively, one can also enrich the nightingale’s diet with a mixture of beetles and hardboiled egg yolk.

The egg is, indeed, a wondrous thing but at this time of year, Lent, it was off limits to some, a situation that prompted Maestro Martino of Como, author of De arte coquinaria, or The Art of Cooking, to suggest a substitution. Writing in the 15th century, Maestro Martino proposed an egg-substitute in a recipe for Lenten Imitation Eggs. Blanched almonds are crushed with rose water, then in this “lean” season when one should deprive themselves of something rich and tasty, the almonds are made “fat” by cooking them in broth made from pike . The addition of starch helps replicate the the egg white while some saffron helps produce the yellow color of the yolk. For the complete recipe, see Maestro Martino of Como, The Art of Cooking, the first modern cookery book, edited by Luigi Ballerini and translated by Jeremy Parzen (University of California Press, 2005), page 113). …. let me know if it works and how it tastes! I’m going to try making pasta… and will report back!photo-24. The

Author: Pulcinella Pasta

Fredrika Jacobs, professor emerita of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the author of three books focused on the art and culture of Renaissance Italy ("Defining the Renaissance Virtuosa: Women Artists and the language of art history and criticism" (1997/99); "The Living Image in the Renaissance" (2005); and "Votive Panels and Popular Piety in Early Modern Italy" (2013). Additionally, she has contributed essays and articles to dozens of books and scholarly journals and spoken at symposia and conferences around the world.

2 thoughts on “The Egg

  1. Elemental eggs – a great way to start Freddie! It brings to mind that other Brunelleschian egg story about his challenge to the other potential architects for the dome that, if they could stand an egg on its head, then they should win the commission to build the dome. None of them could. And then Brunelleschi took an egg, smashed its end onto a slab of marble and hey presto, an egg shaped dome on the table. Apparently this story has been told of other famous people too. But I’ve always thought that Brunelleschi’s dome seemed as elemental as an egg.

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