The artist François Boucher knew how to use food as a ruse. The Rococo master’s 1746 painting “Pensent-ils au raisin? (Are They Thinking about the Grapes?)” presents a tempting scene of consumption. Lounging amid goats and sheep under feathery trees, a young lady in a blush-colored gown extends a single grape towards her shepherd-lover’s mouth. The grape is the exact hue of her own flesh, and the shepherd’s fingers gently cradle the bunch that she dangles over her lap. The work’s now-famous title — later immortalized in a widely circulated print by Jacques Philippe Le Bas — reflects Boucher’s winking, playful sensuality. After all, who would be worried about grapes, or any other food, at a seductive moment like this?

As it turns out, Leonard Barkan would. His book The Hungry Eye: Eating, Drinking and European Culture from Rome to the Renaissance (Princeton University Press) is a food-obsessed frolic through the artwork, writing, and philosophy of hundreds of years of Western history. A Renaissance scholar, art historian, and food and wine writer, Barkan organized his book according to his self-proclaimed ‘hungry eye,’ which roves from Pompeiian mosaics to Bible passages to Shakespearean plays in search of food and drink. This approach, which Barkan calls “reading for food,” interrogates occurrences of hunger, thirst, flavor, and pleasure in ancient to early modern culture as catalysts for new interpretations of life and meaning in the Western world. 

Joos van Cleve, “The Holy Family” (c. 1512-13) (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The author’s wide definition of his topic encompasses “the substances consumed, the practices of dining, the material surroundings within which the meal takes place, and all the powers of retrospection and memorialization applied to an experience that, after all, is (apart from breathing) the most continuous activity in the life of the human organism.” Although eating and drinking have often historically been derided as base urges that only end in excrement, The Hungry Eye’s careful attention to these activities’ ubiquity in a broad range of cultural products argues for their importance. 

The book’s nonlinear, transhistorical method is inspired by the cultural theorist Aby Warburg, whose Mnemosyne series (1925-29) gathered and displayed a variety of images on wooden boards. Barkan refers to his technique in The Hungry Eye as “fooding” his subjects, connecting his work to the critical practice of “queering,” which reexamines literature and history from a perspective grounded in less stable notions of gender. Accordingly, Barkan directs our attention in unexpected directions. In Titian’s 1534-38 painting “Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple,” for example, we suddenly notice the old woman with her basket of eggs sitting on the side of the temple’s steps. Visually removed from Mary and the scene’s other protagonists, this woman “is our world, the world where we contemporary mortals, viewers of the picture, hunger and consume food,” Barkan writes. 

The Hungry Eye insists that food and drink are essential, and never just incidental ornaments in a work of art. From the fruits that adorn Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and Child to the platter that carries St. John the Baptist’s head, Barkan parses the past with gusto. In the process, his book gives us plenty of food for thought.

Willem Claesz Heda, “Banquet Piece with Mince Pie” (1635) (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
Benozzo Gozzoli, “The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” (1461-62) (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
Carlo Crivelli, “Madonna and Child” (1490) (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
Giovanni Pietro da Birago, attrib., “The Last Supper, with a Spaniel (after Leonardo)” (c. 1500) (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
Giovanni Baronzino, “The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of the Baptist” (c. 1330-35) (detail) (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
Adriaen Coorte, “Still Life with Asparagus and Red Currants” (1696) (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

The Hungry Eye: Eating, Drinking and European Culture from Rome to the Renaissance by Leonard Barkan is published by Princeton University Press and is available on Bookshop.

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Artsy, Atlas Obscura, Flash Art, Frieze, Glasstire, Mousse Magazine, and other publications.