In early modern Europe, the art of food presentation went well beyond plating. For court or civic banquets and street festivals alike, chefs and their staff prepared elaborate arrangements of food that amounted to sculptural and even architectural works — designs that make the edible arrangements we commission today seem like child’s play.
While these impressive displays were short-lived, eventually broken to bits for consumption, they survive as detailed depictions in prints, scrolls, and illustrated books. The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals, an exhibition currently on view at the Getty Research Institute (GRI), explores the history of lavish artworks made of food from the 16th to 18th centuries. Featuring over 120 works drawn from GRI’s own collection and from private collectors, it offers rich insight into the significant role of food made for celebrations, not only for the wealthy but for those much less fortunate as well.
“For the rich people, this was a form of conspicuous consumption, and they had these very, very grand banquets,” curator Marcia Reed said. “For people who were not the 1%, they were hungry and poor, so they were very excited by these edible monuments at processions or parades that they could storm and grab and go. It was sort of like a paradise for them, for a short time.”
The celebrations ranged from rulers’ birthdays to military triumphs to royal coronations. Some of these were exclusive occasions with assigned seating; others were free-for-alls comprised of outdoor processions followed by partying in the streets. The images that capture these feasts, however, rarely show the messy aftermath; artists largely preferred to preserve the beautiful edible centerpieces and not the rabble.
One print shows a grand banquet for a wedding in 1583 that featured a table laden with impressive sugar sculptures, including a diverse number of land and sea creatures, potted orange trees, and even a castle. Guests, as Reed explained, were invited to break off pieces of the figurines as mementos of the feast — and reminders of their hosts’ wealth. To illustrate the sheer artistry behind such a display, GRI also has on view, for the exhibition’s entire duration, a life-size sugar centerpiece depicting a palace of Circe, executed by culinary historian Ivan Day and based on a mid-18th-century print.
The food structures that often towered over crowds at public festivals were equally extravagant. A woodcut by one Francesco Orilia depicts a Cuccagna arch, a type of freestanding monument that became prevalent especially in Naples over the course of the 18th century. Although some were varnished and painted and not intended for consumption, most had foundations of wooden scaffolding, papier-mâché, and stucco that were carefully embedded with a variety of foods.
“There were whole settings of large arches with cheese, sausages, and breads,” Reed said. “Those were made for people to take away. A lot of times, at the top there were fireworks and things like that, so it was kind of a theatrical way of showing food.” At the signal of the powerful host, citizens would rush to these arches to scarf down or carry away as much as they could. The Cuccagna festivals date back to legends of the Land of Cockaigne, a mythical paradise on Earth, where idleness leads to plenty — a theme “that sought to distract poor and hungry people from the hardships of their daily lives, if only for a moment,” Reed writes in the accompanying catalogue. On view is one early-17th-century hand-colored etching showing such a whimsical land, where meatballs bob in lakes, chickens rain down from clouds, hills are made of sugar cakes, and Spanish wine flows as a river.
The transformation of meals into sculptural displays extended beyond the actual foodstuffs as well: The Edible Monument also includes handbooks that depicted place settings and decorative table arrangements. One illustration shows napkins intricately folded into shapes, from fish to crisply pleated fans to ships. Even silverware was formed into grand, beautiful presentations: an engraving by Giuseppe Mazza reveals a precarious display of dishes that showed them off from different perspectives.
Artists also turned their attention to the kitchen staff as they began gaining greater prominence in society, and the most important professionals had their names included in certain publications alongside praise for their works. One series of illustrations by Nicolas I de Larmessin is a comical twist on the edible monument: similar to portraits by Arcimboldo, they depict sculpture-like people, composed of the very tools of their trade. Such representations are important reminders that the grand feasts of this era were not just occasions for leisure but were also the products of immense labor.
The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals continues at the Getty Research Institute (1200 Getty Center Dr #1100, Los Angeles, California) through March 13, 2016.