food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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Sugar… and ingegno

The ingegno of sugary creations

Looking recently through Clifford Wright’s A Mediterranean Feast (New York: William Morrow, 1999), I was struck by a detail in a manuscript illustration from Dioscurides’ Tractatus de Herbis. The image in question depicts a sugar-master, a cup raised and tilted to his lips, standing beside a table on which are two large cones, or sugar loaves.
I was immediately carried back to a rainy, grey day last November. Having just arrived at Toubkal Kasbah, a small, rustic retreat high in the Atlas Mountains just up the path from Imlil, Morocco, we were greeted by a man holding a tray bearing all the traditional Berber accompaniments for a warming cup of tea: a small terracotta bowl of dates, a pitcher of milk, and something I had never seen before… a sugar cone.
sugar cones
Its shape intrigued me enough to request our guide (and friend) to take me into a supermarket, or to be more specific to the aisle where sugar could be had. There, lining the shelves and packaged in an array of brightly patterned wrappings were row after row of sugar cones.
market sugar
Sugar seems to have made its way into Europe in the wake of the Crusades. Writing in the 12th century, Albert of Aachen reported the European encounter with “reeds filled with a kind of honey known as Zucar.” According to Charles C. Mann [1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, NY: Knopf, 2011, p. 291), “After the First Crusade, European Catholics… seized sugar plantations from their Muslim and Byzantine creators in Cyprus, Crete, Sicily, Majorca, and southern Spain…. But no matter how much sugar they produced, Europeans wanted more.” The taste for the sweet eventually led to the bitter plantation practices implemented in the Americas.
By the 15th century, Europe’s nobility was using sugar for purposes beyond delighting the sense of taste. Artists were employed to use their talents and skills – or ingegno – to fabricate trionfi, or sugar sculptures, which were often painted or gilded. Trionfi were not modest fabrications. The wedding festivities of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro and Elisabetta Gonzaga of Urbino in 1488 included the display of castles, fountains, birds and animals all fabricated of sugar. Some fifty years later, Cosimo I de’Medici followed suit, ending marriage banquet with gifts made of sugar bestowed on all of the guests. In Feast: A History of Grand Eating (NY: Harcourt, 2002, p. 194), Roy Strong summarizes the trend. “The all-consuming passion for sugar which swept through society changed the composition of food and gave new impetus to the practice of reshaping natural ingredients into figurative forms. Nothing was to eclipse sugar in its ability to do precisely that.” Strong’s statement is substantiated not only by documents detailing marriage banquets and triumphal entries into cities, like that thrown by the city of Paris in 1571 to honor Elizabeth of Austria, but also by the diary of Luca Landucci. The entry for October 18, 1513 reads as follows. “We heard that the King of Portugal had sent his submission to the Pope, and had presented him with the following things: a Pope made of sugar, with twelve cardinals all of sugar, life-size; 300 torches of sugar, each three braccia long (roughly 9 ft); 100 chests of sugar; and many chests of delicate spices… and a white horse… he also sent a Moor, one of those from Calcutta about four braccia high, with many jewels in his ears and all over his garments.”
The link between sugar and sculpture is particularly interesting to ponder with respect to the term ingegno, a term widely used in sixteenth-century texts on art. In that context, ingegno signifies a union of superlative talent and masterful skill. It’s the ability to make an object fashioned of inanimate material – a sculpture of stone or sugar, for example – seem truly alive. It’s what makes a work by Michelangelo a masterpiece.
At the time Michelangelo (1475-1564) was inducing awe in all those who looked at his works, food producers began to break into specialized guilds. In 1546, the vermicellari (pasta makers) of Naples broke from the bakers’ guild to establish the Arte dei Vermicellari. Specialization was “solidly joined” with technical progress. Food production, the culinary arts, and mechanical arts became entwined. Interestingly, “the Brazilian sugar refineries made the word engenho (ingegno) fashionable to describe every device inspired by science.” (Oretta Zanini de Vita, Encyclopedia of Pasta, University of California Press, 2009, p. 18)