I have been doing research on food lately for the two novels set in the mid-16th century, partially to make sure that I won't make any grievous errors putting in a dish that wasn't around until a century later -- or and even more important -- miss the chance to put in a dish that by its very design and substance is more fantastic and magical than anything I could have dreamed up! Maybe that is part of the allure of research -- discovering that the facts are so much more satisfying to write about than the imagined ones.
So to this lovely little book: Tastes and Temptations, Food and Art in Renaissance Italy by John Varriano -- an excellent examination of the relationship between the artists of the Renaissance and the great chefs of the same period. Varriano demonstrates the ways in which cooks and artists relied more on imagination in the production of their work (and often drawing inspiration from each other), and shared an affinity for ritual and the symbolic value of forms to represent the sacred, nature, and the senses. They were exercises in artifice to make aesthetic statements -- a salmon mousse molded to resemble a goat (so as to confuse and heighten the experience of eating one thing while imagining another) or an exquisite Ovidian scene of diners painted at the bottom of one's soup bowl. And in other ways, the relationship was organically close -- the artists creating still lifes using paints whose binding agents were mainly egg and lard.
I started reading this study in part because I needed to know if the roasted peacock I placed in a scene was acceptable -- and then discovered after reading that I had in fact grossly under sold it in the scene. One of the great chefs of the mid 1500s, Bartolomeo Scappi, known for dramatic and delectable skill (a kind of culinary sprezzetura -- a word that needs a post of its own to explain) enjoyed cooking that "vainglorious creature," using an extravagant assortment of spices and a method of preparation that reassembled the bird with metal rods and reattached its feathers in order to serve it up come se fosse vivo-- "as if it were still alive." So yes -- my peacock is in. With bells and feathers and beak.
But this would have been one of many, many dishes. Consider this "simple meal" prepared by Scappi and his army of cooks -- a modest three course feast on a day of abstinence (meatless Friday) with forty guests, and "the first two courses consisted of fifty dishes served on four hundred pieces of gold, silver, and maiolica tableware," which were then followed by twenty-seven desserts served in two hundred and sixteen bowls and dishes. And..there were "six edible statues" of nymphs, exotic creatures and mythological inventions, "the first made of sugar; the second of butter; and the third, pasta." The meal then ended with scented toothpicks and posies of silk flowers with gold stems for each guest.
The hardest part now of writing that scene is going to be to reign in the desire to over indulge -- as artists and cooks are able to do -- so the reader won't somewhere midway through the scene, throw the book down and go in search of something good to eat. Like a pan of brownies or an entire brie with slices of pear, or a half a pound of prosciutto and green olives. Sigh...now I am hungry.
Art: Paolo Veronese, Wedding at Cana; Bartolomeo Passarotti, The Baker Prearing Pies; Bartolomea di Giovanni, The Wedding of Thetis and Peleus; Vincenzo Campi, Market Day.