It was around 4 in the afternoon on April 30, 1518 when Pope Leo X in the company of fourteen cardinals and a smattering of foreign ambassadors arrived at the home of Agostino Chigi, the Villa Farnesina, which sits on the west bank of Rome’s Tiber River. The papal entourage had come to celebrate the Feast of St. Catherine. Chigi’s dinner parties were known for their sumptuous fare and opulent table settings. Equally if not more impressive were the remarkable backdrops for these convivial gatherings: frescoes painted by Baldassare Peruzzi, Raphael and the coterie of master artists in his employ. But on this particular occasion the banquet was not staged among the decorative schemes within the villa itself. Pope Leo and company were instead directed to a newly constructed building on the grounds. Instead of Peruzzi’s painted vistas – a wonderful display of perspective illusionism – or Raphael’s visualization of the story of Psyche and Cupid in the entrance loggia vault – rendered to simulate tapestries draped over the frame of an arbor to fictively provide shelter from the sun’s rays – real tapestries covered the walls. Only later did Agostino Chigi pull aside a tapestry to reveal the nature of the structure: a stable! The jest was wholly in keeping with sixteenth century sensibilities.
Decades after the pope filled his belly on eel, sturgeon, and other delights in Chigi’s transformed stable, Gian Paolo Lomazzo would comment on imagery appropriate to feasting in his Treatise on the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture, 1584 (book 2, chapter 13). Although Lomazzo is instructing artists on the dos and don’ts of depicting a feast, his advice suggests perhaps what images in a dining area should look like. There should be no melancholy, no sadness, nothing brooding, only gestures that convey “joy and mirth.”
Eel, one of the principal dishes enjoyed by Leo X on that April afternoon of 1518, has long been associated with festive occasions. Andrea Gritti, who served as the doge of Venice from 1523-1538, reportedly died after over indulging on grilled eel on Christmas Eve. Eel remains “the traditional centerpiece of the Roman cenome, as the big Christmas Eve dinner is known.” They can be grilled “well seasoned with olive oil, vinegar, garlic, and salt,” stewed in white wine and peas, roasted or pickled. (Carol Field, Celebrating Italy: The Tastes and Traditions of Italy Revealed through its Feasts, Festivals, and Sumptuous Foods. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1990, page 250-51)
Eel, it seems, was not associated only with festive meals celebrating the birth of Jesus. Eel also had a place at Christ’s Last Supper, or so recent research indicates. Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of The Last Supper, 1498, in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan has been in a ruinous state since at least the mid-sixteenth century. Its condition was so poor as to render its imagery virtually indecipherable. Then in 1997 during a herculean effort to restore what was left of this great masterpiece a remarkable detail was revealed. In addition to the requisite bread and wine “at least one of the platters on the table, long thought to hold a loaf of bread… appears to contain grilled eel. The eel is garnished with orange slices, and other pieces of fruit – pomegranates perhaps – some still with their leaves attached.” (John Varriano, Taste and Temptations. Food and Art in Renaissance Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 209, page 102-03)
Giovanni Battista Rosetti has more than 30 recipes for eel in Dello scalco (How to organize a banquet), which was published in Ferrara in 1584. In his cookbook of 1570, Bartolomeo Scappi offers far fewer recipes for the water creature he describes as “a round, slimy fish.” Here is Recipe #157 from book 3 of The Art and Craft of a Master Cook, translated by Terence Scully (University of Toronto Press, 2011, page 333-34).
To Braise and Grill Eels
Get an eel and, having first skinned it, cut it up into big pieces – that is, round slabs; small eels are wound around like ciambelle [like a wreath in shape]. Put the slabs into a tourte pan (see below) containing oil, salt and fennel seed; braise them with fire below and above for half a quarter of an hour. Pour off excess oil, adding in a little white wine, must syrup, verjuice, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and prunes and dried visciola cheeries that have soaked in cool water; finish off cooking the pieces of eel. When they are done, served them dressed with the same sauce.