Think centerpiece… How about a construction of willow, fern, and flowers or perhaps an ensemble of candles artfully arranged around a blown glass figurine, or maybe a small flock of swans carved in ice? All are prosaic when compared with the creations – sometimes revealed as a parade of fanciful dishes – that in fact and fiction graced ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque banquet tables.(1) Consider, for example, this tidbit of culinary performance in Petronius’s mid-1st century Satyricon (36).
“ ‘This is sauce for the dinner.’ As [Trimalchio, the host] spoke, four dancers ran up in time with the music and took off the top part of the dish. Then we saw… fat fowls and sow bellies, and in the middle there was a hare with wings like Pegasus. Four figures of [the satyr] Marsyas positioned at each corner of the plate also caught the eye; they let a spiced sauce run from their wine-skin [flasks] over the fish swimming about in a kind of sauce tide.”
If Petronius’s imagination is too much for one’s credulity to swallow, then consider the elaborate sugar sculptures recorded in etchings by the Dutch artist Arnold van Westerhout (1651-1725) after confectionary creations by Giovanni Battista Lenardi (1656-1704).(2) (see my earlier post, “Sugar… and ingegno“)
To these impressive images-of-record we can add Bartolomeo Scappi’s brief notations concerning some statue di butiro, or butter sculptures, in his Art and Craft of a Master Cook, 1570:
“An elephant with a castle on its back,” “Hercules wrenching the jaw of a lion,” and “a Moorish king astride a camel.” (3)
But these wonderful molded concoctions and constructions were not the only things placed amid an abundance of dishes, bowls, and platters featuring the diversity and fecundity of nature as well as the creativity of those manipulating it. Again, I turn to Petronius’s Satyricon (34) and the banquet of excess known as the Cena Trimalchionis.
“As we were poring over the labels [proclaiming that the wine had spent ‘100 years in the bottle’], Trimalchio clapped his hands and cried, ‘Ah me, wine lives longer than miserable man. So let us be merry.”
Trimalchio’s declaration was accompanied by an object; a small “silver skeleton made so that its joints and sockets could be moved and bent in every direction.”
These skeletons are noted with a fair amount of frequency in the literature on the ancient Roman table and its customs but I never focused on them until I saw one in the exhibition “Nutrire l’impero. Storie di alimentazione da Roma e Pompei” at the Museum of the Ara Pacis in Rome in the fall of 2015. (4) The small, bronze figure – a larva convivialis – is one of only ten or so that have survived from antiquity into the modern era. As Petronius’s text suggests, the skeleton is meant as a reminder of our mortality, hence carpe diem, seize the day, eat, drink, and be merry! Yet these little skeletons do something else. They are a material example of the close ties that bind food and drink to death in both the ritualized practices surrounding grief and loss and in the carefree frivolity of popular festivals associated with, for example, the Day of the Dead and Lent. (5)
In fact, the Victorian practice of picnicking at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia (where I live) remains alive and well! http://www.thebolditalic.com/articles/5891-how-to-picnic-right-at-hollywood-forever-cemetery
The union of joyful feasting and the less than palatable prospect of a death had some interesting iterations over the centuries. In Renaissance Italy young men of patrician rank and some of the most renowned artistic talents of the day organized themselves into compagnie to express youthful exuberance and exhibit impressive talents. Sporting names such as The Company of Hose (as in hosiery), The Company of the [Mason’s] Trowel, and the Company of the Cauldron, these compagnie had a typical “membership” of one or two-dozen men. Imbibing copiously, company members enjoyed banquets worthy of Petronius’s Cena Trimalchionis with its acrobatic performances, mock combats, and poetical recitations. During the 16th century, courses were punctuated with theatrical interludes (intermezzi), short farces, costume contests, and, especially in Venice, masked dances and pageantry (momarie). Humor generally attended such revelry but sometimes the death cast its shadow over an evening’s lightheartedness.
The painter and art critic/historian Giorgio Vasari recounted one such occasion in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 2nd edition, 1568. It was a banquet staged by the men of the Company of the Cazzuola, or mason’s trowel, that had as its theme the myth of Pluto’s abduction of Proserpine, the daughter of the goddess of agriculture and fecundity. That evening, the assembled company had an objective. They were to descend to the “infernal regions” of Hades over which Pluto ruled. Their assigned task was to assist Proserpine’s mother in liberating the maiden from the clutches of lord of death and dark. As Vasari tells the tale,
“The invitation [to assist in the rescue] was accepted. Whereupon, all having entered through that mouth [of Hell], which was full of teeth, and which, being hung on hinges, opened to each couple of men who entered, and then shut again, and which had no light but a very little one in the center… they could hardly see one another. There, having been pushed into their seats with a great fork by a most hideous Devil who was in the middle beside tables draped in black, Pluto commanded” that his marriage to Proserpine be conducted. “Now in that room were painted all the chasms of the regions of the damned, with their pains and their torments.”
As for the food, it appeared to be all manner of “animals vile and most hideous … but within, under the loathly covering” of pastry, were the “most delicate meats of many kinds.”
But “bats,” “lizards,” “toads,” and “scorpions” were not the only thing on the table. So was a Renaissance version of Trimalchio’s skeleton. There were, says Vasari, “dead men’s bones” (ossa di morti), confections set within a reliquary fashioned of sugary fruits!(6)
All of this stands in stark contrast to the decoration and mealtime practices in medieval monasteries.
The refectory, or dining area, in Europe’s 13th century monasteries was a significant place of gathering for cloistered communities. Consequently, the arrangement of the tables in relationship to the art on the walls served a didactic role. At Cluny, Monte Cassino, and other monasteries a refectory was “a place of corporeal punishment.”
“Infractions in the refectory were corrected in front of the abbot’s table often situated before a Majesty or Judgment picture. A painting of the Last Judgment, showing Christ meting out justice, was germane in [this] penitential context.” This, together with images emphasizing abstinence, gluttony was condemned and mortification of the body imposed. (7)
Would the ever-famished Pulcinella have been able to stomach all of this? Regardless of whether it was the fantastically horrific constructs gracing the banquet table at the Company of the Trowel or the monastic meal of meager sustenance (but spiritual fullness) eaten under the critical eye of a painting of a judgmental Christ, I know I would find swallowing a difficult task!
As an addenda, here is a recipe fit for Pulcinella!
Recipe: Cooking-With-Nothing Spaghetti
- For a recent, informative survey, see The Edible Monument. The Art of Food for Festivals, edited by Marcia Reed (Los Angeles: The Getty Institute, 2015).
- The Edible Monument. The Art of Food for Festivals, edited by Marcia Reed, pages 112-113, figures 1-3. Also see my earlier post “Sugar… and ingegno”.
- The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), Terence Scully commentary and translation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), page 398. There is a new and terrific addition to the literature on Scappi. Deborah L. Krohn, Food and Knowledge in Renaissance Italy. Bartolomeo Scappi’s Paper Kitchens (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015.
- Nutrire l’impero. Storie di alimentazione da Roma e Pompei, Claudio Parisi Presicce and Orietta Rossini, eds. (‘L’Erma’ di Bretschneider, 2015), page 214, cat. no. R69. Also see the very informative site: http://www.lifeandland.org/2009/02/skeletons-on-the-table/
- For a brief and wonderful survey, see Jane Levi, “Melancholy and Mourning. Black Banquets and Funerary Feasts,” Gastronomica, vol. 12 (winter 2012), pages 96-103.
- Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Gaston Du C. de Vere, trans. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979), vol. 3, page 1715. The account is included in the biography of Giovan Francesco Rustici. The Italian is in Gaetano Milanesi, editor (Florence: Sansoni, 1906), vol. 6: page 616.
- I have relied on the dissertation of Irene Kabala, “Medieval decorated refectories in France, Italy and England until 1250 (The Johns Hopkins University, 2001).