food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

Chocolate (Theobroma cacao)

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Chocolate. Those who can pass it up are few yet the initial European encounter with it in the form of a brewed beverage was less than positive. Girolamo Benzoni, who left Milan for the Americas in 1541 and returned to Europe fifteen years later, dismissed it in his “Historia del Mondo Nuovo” (1565) as “a drink for pigs.” Indeed, it took chocolate more than a couple of decades to reach the European market. In 1519, Hernando Cortes and company landed on the coast of Veracruz. They were greeted by two gift-bearing envoys of Montezuma. The Spaniards were more than happy to accept the proffered jewels and crafted objects but hesitant to share in the diplomatic sipping of chocolate. No surprise, perhaps, that it would take 70 years before chocolate acquired a significant presence in Iberia (the first recorded commercial import was 1585) and longer still before the consumption of “liquid amber” – as it was called by Antonio de Salis, a chronicler during the reign of King Philip IV of Spain (1621-1665) – spread northward. (The first chocolate house was established in London in 1657.)

Traites nouveaux & curieux du cafe du the et du chocolate, 1685

Traites nouveaux & curieux du cafe du the et du chocolate, 1685

In recent decades historians have had much to say about chocolate and its appeal to the European palate. For me, one of the most interesting discussions is found in Marcy Norton’s “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetic,” in “American Historical Review,” vol. 111 (2006), pages 660-691. Norton’s use of the term “taste” is not limited to gastronomic sensation. It extends to the experience of sipping the concoction from vessels designed specifically for the pleasurable ritual of sharing a cup in convivial company, like the cocoa set that fills the left corner of Antonio de Pereda’s ‘Still Life’ painted in 1652. In fact, Europe became the point of nexus for foreign imports: cocoa from the west was drunk from tableware manufactured in the east.
Antonio de Pareda, Still Life with cocoa service at left

Antonio de Pareda, Still Life with cocoa service at left

19th century cocoa service

19th century cocoa service

Like other brews and extracts derived from plants, chocolate was appreciated for its medicinal value. Combined with an array of spices (vanilla, cinnamon, pepper etc.), it cured just about any ailment one could think of: “windy” stomachs, dysentery, catarrh, asthma, and the like. So great were the benefits of chocolate that Henry Stubbe, an English physician who traveled to Jamaica in 1661, wrote a book about it: “The Indian Nectar” (1662).
[see: M.M. Graziano, “Food of the Gods as Mortals’ Medicine: The Uses of Chocolate and Cocoa Products,” in “Pharmacy in History,” vol. 40 (1998), pages 132-146.]
Perhaps one of the most intriguing medicinal uses of chocolate – “liquid amber” – is as a palliative for ‘hypochondria.’ As Yasmin Haskell explains, the 17th century use of the term ‘hypochondria’ does not accord with our own. As described by two Neapolitan Jesuit priests, Niccolo Giannettasio (1648-1715) who wrote a didactic poem on fishing and Tommaso Strozzi (1631-1701) who penned one on chocolate, ‘hypochondria’ was a serious and debilitating syndrome with varied physical manifestations: “from indigestion to insomnia to cardiac and respiratory difficulties.” Whatever remedial effects it actually had, chocolate was valued for having its calming effect on both mind and body.
[see: Y. Haskell, “Poetry or Pathology? Jesuit Hypochondria in Early Modern Naples,” in “Early Science and Medicine,” vol. 12 (2007), pages 187-213.]

Our celebration of chocolate as a delectable food rests more on French culinary invention and skill than on anything served up by the Spaniards or Italians. With chocolate cultivation introduced to the French colony of Martinique in the 1670s, a steady and less costly supply of “liquid amber” fueled the creative cooks at work in the kitchens of Versailles. Surely, this pleased Louis XIV and his Spanish bride, Maria Theresa, who brought to the royal marriage a maid “whose prime task was to brew the queen’s chocolate!” (Roy Strong, “Feast: A History of Grand Eating,” New York, 2002, page 225)

…. But we should never underestimate the culinary skills that define Italy.
Whenever I am in Rome I make a ‘pilgrimage’ to Confetteria Moriondo & Gariglio to buy chocolates of every sort: milk or dark, some flavored with pepper, cinnamon, or mint, others encasing cherries, ginger, or strips of citrus, and still others providing a sweet vessel for brandy, etc. Located near the Collegio Romano in the heart of Rome (Via del Pie’ di Marmo, 21/2), it’s a MUST!


assorted chocolates from Confetteria Moriondo & Gariglio, Rome

assorted chocolates from Confetteria Moriondo & Gariglio, Rome

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.

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