food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs


Feasting…. on Eel

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.

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Feasting on Fig-peckers and other delights

Feasting… on Fig-Peckers!

In Diversoria (Book of Inns), published first in August 1523 in Basel, Erasmus presented a less than complementary picture of the accommodations afforded sixteenth-century travelers who, despite socio-economic variables, have one thing in common: they are covered with mud! As for the fare fed to travelers at these fine establishments, Erasmus offers the following:
– Once the innkeepers have determined that the arrival of further guests is unlikely, they begin preparations for dinner. Waiting with little other than bad wine to ease hunger pangs, the guests sit, and sit, and sit. Finally, “amidst much ceremony, dishes start to arrive. The first plates generally has bits of bread dipped in meat broth; or, if it’s fish day, in bean juice. Next another broth; after that some warmed-over meat or salt fish. Again, porridge, followed by more solid food; next they serve to the thoroughly tamed stomach roast meat or boiled fish – not altogether despicable, but they’re stingy with it and quickly take it away. They arrange the whole meal in this fashion, alternating solid food and pulse, as actors alternate choruses and dramatic scenes. But they’re careful to make the last act the best.” This appears to have been cheese, “which is hardly acceptable to them unless full of mold and worms.” (The Colloquies of Eramus, trans. Craig R. Thompson, University of Chicago Press, 1965, p. 151)

The meal described by Erasmus stands in contrast to one served in August of 70 BCE, which was hosted by the chief priest Q. Caelius Metellus Pius in honor of Cornelius Lentulus Niger, the new Priest of Mars (flamen Martialis). The menu of this inaugural dinner (cena aditialis) was preserved by Macrobius. (Saturnalia III. XIII.12)
The first course included an array of shellfish: urchins, oysters, and mollusks, as well as thrush on a bed of asparagus, a fatted hen, and black and white chestnuts. The food that followed was varied and costly: fattened bird wrapped in pastry, roast fig-pecker (see recipe below), haunches of venison, roast loins of doe, boiled teal, boar’s jowl, “a fricassee of fish and one of sow’s udder, udders served alone, a meal pudding and Picentine* bread,” but no dessert. (Phyllis Pray Bober, Art, Culture, & Cuisine, Chicago, 1999, p. 165)
-Picentine bread references those living in Picentine in eastern Italy: see:


As this suggests and John d’Arms explains, the meal was an especially sumptuous one. It also tested the restrictions of sumptuary laws.


“By providing fattened fowls at this inaugural dinner, Metellus was flagrantly defying a provision that had been repeated in every piece of Roman sumptuary legislation from the lex Fannia onwards: the stipulation that any dinner be limited to only a single winged creature and that one not fattened (by cramming:
Pliny Historia Naturalis [HN] 10.139). To be sure, these inaugural dinners became and remained notorious for the high degree of their culinary experimentation, for their exotic refinements, and for their astronomically high costs: it was at one of these, about the same time as Metellus’ dinner, that the orator Hortensius first served a peacock. The solitary item on Metellus’ entire menu that derived from a domestically bred mammal were two dishes of sows’ udders (sumina, and a patina suminis): further evidence that at this banquet the pontifex maximus was parading the culinary privileges restricted to the members of this highly exclusive feasting group, while flagrantly defying prevailing social and cultural norms. For sows’ udders, too, were among the dishes proscribed by the sumptuary laws (as must be inferred from Pliny HN 8.209).”

Although Livy (History of Rome, book VII. 1. 5ff.) fails to inform us about what was consumed at a banquet some 300 years before Metellus hosted the inaugural dinner honoring Cornelius Lentulus Niger, he adds to the list of occasions worthy of a banquet:

All was right with the world. Neither domestic political strife nor warfare abroad disturbed the peace, “but lest there should ever be freedom from fear and danger, a great pestilence broke out.” It lasted two years, from 365 BCE – 364 BCE. Confronting the calamity and “with the objective of appeasing divine displeasure,” which surely was responsible for the pestilential, the Romans made a leclisternium, or banquet to the gods. Sadly it did not fulfill its intended purpose. The pestilence continued, prompting the populous to “give way to superstitious fears” and “institute scenic entertainments” with the hope that singing “uncouth verses” and dancing in a like manner would do the trick.

For those living in the 16th century who wished to stage a dinner similar to the one given by Metellus, Bartolomeo Scappi offered in 1570 a recipe for Roast fig-peckers (Book 2, recipe no. 136)
“Get a fig-pecker in its season, beginning in July and ending mid-October.” Take the small bird, plucked but not drawn, and roast it “on a spit, separated by slices of pork fat and sage leaves. A crust of flour, sugar, grated bread and fennel flour is made for them. When they are done they are served hot. They can also be cooked under the coals wrapped in slices of pork fat, grapevine leaves and greased paper.”