The marketplace provides a seductive vision of Italian Renaissance society. Colourful and noisy, the town, bustling with shoppers in search of bargains at the stalls laden with seasonal produce: the banter of traders offering trays of fruit, butter, cheeses and eggs; hard-working country women selling bunches of surplus vegetables from their cottage gardens; the ladies of the town taking advantage of the crowds to solicit for custom; poultry dealers with their cages of squawking birds; and the apothecaries tempting their customers with the odours of pungent spices and sweet cakes. It was here that men and women of all backgrounds, the honest, the greedy and the gullible, could mix freely in the pursuit of one of life’s great pleasures: food.
We regard Renaissance Italy as a landmark in art and literature but its fame should extend to the kitchen and dining table as well. The growing interest in the world of antiquity inspired a fashion for rural retreats not just with the rich who found space among the topiary and fountains of their grand all’antica villas for dovecotes, fishponds and kitchen gardens, but also for modest tradesmen and artisans who enjoyed growing their own food on smallholdings, orchards and vineyards rented on the outskirts of town. There were amazing innovations on the dining table, many of which are still relevant today. It was the Italians who pioneered the concept of individual place settings, providing each guest with their own napkin, glass, knife, spoon and, another novelty, a fork. Eating with your fingers, commonplace at the medieval banquet, was now criticized as ill-mannered. Tastes changed too: fresh fruit and vegetables, once derided as food for the poor, now appeared on the menu, as did one of the period’s most surprising inventions, the salad.
Above all food played a central role in the celebration of special events, the parties accompanied by music, dancing and entertainment that were enjoyed at all levels of society; and by laughter, an ingredient of the meal that is regrettably often ignored but a lot of it could be heard around the Renaissance dining table.
Mary Hollingsworth has a B.Sc. in business studies and a Ph.D. in art history. Her doctoral thesis dealt with the role of the architect in Italian Renaissance building projects and led to research on the role of the patron in the development of Renaissance art and architecture, a subject she taught to undergraduates and postgraduates, and published in two books (see below).
Her subsequent work on the papers of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este considerably broadened her horizons, and expertise, well beyond the confines of art history into the everyday world of Renaissance Europe. She has publ...
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