The most wonderful show on art of banqueting and festivals during the Renaissance is taking place at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Originally shown at the Getty Research Institute, ‘The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals’ was curated by Marcia Reed and explores the ephemeral art in which invention expressed through the senses as food. This kind of art was possibly more important than painting at the time and has been out of the radar of art historians during the last centuries because of its ephemeral character.
Of course, this is the closest to performance art that we could get during the Renaissance and Baroque times and because of that, we must rely on documentation, reconstruction and the display of all kinds of utensils and textual sources. Structure through themes such as ‘the court festival’ and ‘the heraldic table monument made out of sugar, flowers and fruit’, this show puts light into the alchemic aspects of invention in a world that was understood as composed by elements and ‘the signature of things’.Among many legendary accounts of great meals, few gastronomical extravaganzas have been so well documented as Senator Franceso Ratta’s 1693 feast at the Palazzo Vizzani in Bologna, which has been meticulously depicted in two booklets and, at least, nine prints. A giant circular table allowed all the guests to be seated as equals and offered all of them a great view of a silver mountain on which four river gods and their monstrous pets relaxed under a palm tree. On closer inspection, the centerpiece contained a universe of mythological decoration and culinary sensations. A 1693 etching by Giacomo Mario Giovannini after Marc’Antonio Chiarini is the perfect introduction to this world of flamboyant displays. It depicts a stage-like centerpiece which functions as the banquet table which has been laid inside the palazzo’s curiosity cabinet, opposite slanted mirrors that would reflect and magnify the visuals offered by the food.
Although this was an exclusive banquet, there were others that were intended for the street people. It must be remembered that at the time the difference between public and private wealth collapsed into a analogous confusion between democracy and oligarchy. The Getty exhibition addresses the more popular banquets with a display of the Cockaigne, a mythical land of plenty where medieval pesants were liberated from their harsh lives and where all physical pleasures, especially those related to food and drink were immediately at hand. Il paese della Cuccagna (in Italian) was a mythical paradise on earth represented through temporary arcades, obelisks and fountains made of food for the villagers to firstly destroy and the eat under the amused eyes of the aristocrat who commissioned it. In the show there is an arch depicted in a 1630 woodcut that honors Duke Antonio Alvarez de Toledo, viceroy of Naples, a place that had a particular taste for this ‘democratic’ feasts. This extremely expensive monuments (called ‘trionfi’) lasted only the duration of the feasts and sometimes costed many times more than expensive paintings and sculptures.
It is possible that the banquets that we see in this show were comparably modest compared to the onest that took place in the royal courts of Europe. The show allows us to have a glimpse into their complexity through the documents referred to napkin folding, for example. In 1639, in his Li tre trattati (The Three Treatises), a certain Mattia Giegher from Bavaria illustrates with etchings the many folding techiques which is presented as a systematic science to the point that he was appointed professor of the art of napking folding at the University of Pauda. And then there is the art of sugar sculptures. A 1587 etching attributed Frans Hogenberg depicts the banquet staged for the wedding of the Duke of Julich Cleves Berg and Jakobea of Baden, containing a universe of allegories and exotic creatures sculpted out of sugar.
Ours is not a world devoid of these kind of riches but the top 1% does seem to acquire more of the same instead of one of that which could hardly be repeated. The difference between our times and those times is one of invention. J A T