There is a blog page to which I am devoted– Atlas Obscura and its offshoot, Gastro Obscura.
Over the last few years, I have taken hours out of my travelling itinerary: finding an ‘obscure’ private museum in Naples, discovering a ‘ghost town’ in the Tuscan countryside or eating authentic cassata in a little known cafe in Sicily.
Recently, apropos of making lists, Cath Kerry, www.cathkerry.net/blog reminded me of a list that Atlas Obscura had unearthed and which I had seen in Florence – in Casa Buonarroti Museum. The museum has one of Michelangelo’s shopping lists, written on the back of a letter, some 500 years ago.
I am taking a small group to Florence in October (still two spots if you want to come with me), and my research has revived memories of an extraordinary morning, wandering the rooms of Casa Buonarroti Museum in Florence.
Photo Credit: entrance to Casa Buonarotti Museum
Via Ghibellina, 70. Florence
The building is a property owned (but never occupied) by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni , which he left to his nephew, Lionardo Buonarroti. The house was later converted into a museum dedicated to the artist by his great nephew, Michelangelo Buonarroti, the Younger. Its collections include two of Michelangelo's earliest sculptures, the Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Centaurs. A ten-thousand strong library has accumulated there over the centuries, which includes the family's archive and some of Michaelangelo's letters and drawings, some of which are quite sketchy and rough. And, of course, this special shopping list which has inspired my blog.
Photo Credit: Gastro Obscura. Museo Casa Buonarotti, Florence.
At first, I imagined that the tiny, exquisite drawings were the master’s version of doodling – a bit like my tree branches ‘growing’ out of jotted words and notes. But, very probably Michelangelo’s servant was unschooled and so needed these visual clues for his provisioning.
So, what does genius need to eat to keep creative? On first glance: fish – tiny herrings, anchovies - lots of bread, salad, fennel and wine. According to his whim, on this day at least, he also liked stuffed pasta – maybe tortellini.
I was mightily impressed with Michelangelo’s parsimony until Gastro Obscura flipped the letter over to reveal the date – March 18th, 1518 – the beginning of Lent and therefore, perhaps uncharacteristically frugal. But by all accounts – letters to his brothers, and notes to friends – Michelangelo was indifferent to food though he produced wines from his vineyards, and olive oil from his own groves. He was (according to author, Fred Plotkin, The Splendid Table) inordinately fond of pears. A standard gift to friends was 33 perfect pears, one for each of Christ’s life.
By 1518, the date of the shopping list (or more precisely the date of the letter), Michelangelo had already finished many of his most celebrated works, including the Pietà, the David, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But among all his work, this shopping list is perhaps the most intimate insight into the man himself. He wrote to his brother during the time he painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling: “I have not even time to eat as much as I should.” And yet such abstinence did him no real harm. He died at age 89.
It set me thinking: I wonder what the shopping lists were like for some of the Renaissance painters of the day. What, for example, did Leonardo da Vinci have to buy to set the scene for The Last Supper – Il Cenacolo or L’Ultima Cena? Everyone who goes to Milan should book an allotted time of fifteen minutes in a group of no more than 30 people, to see the rapidly fading mural housed in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The Last Supper measures 460 cm × 880 cm and covers an entire end wall of the dining hall. To my mind, it is one of the world's most moving paintings.
The work is presumed to have been started around 1495–96 and was commissioned as part of a plan of renovations to the church and its convent buildings by Leonardo's patron, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. When you go, make sure you turn around to appreciate the painting at the opposite end of the room. I was so overwhelmed by the pale beauty of the Michelangelo that I did not give due attention to this other painting. This wall of the refectory is covered by the Crucifixion fresco by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, to which Leonardo added figures of the Sforza family in tempera.
Leonardo’s painting, as we all know, represents the scene of the Last Supper of Jesus with his apostles, as it is told in the Gospel of John, 13:21. Leonardo has depicted the consternation that occurred among the twelve disciples when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him.
Photo Credit: Italian Renaissance.org.
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1498, tempera and oil on plaster (Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan); (photo: public domain)
But what are they eating at this important last dinner together as a group of friends? Well, what’s left on the table gives us a bit of a clue – plates of fish, bread, salt and wine. Perhaps, because it was a Passover meal, they had eaten bowls of slow cooked beans – cholent – and had olives with a minty herb known as hyssop. Doubtless, they ate a salad of bitter herbs with pistacchio and date choroset, a chunky fruit and nut paste.
The disciples, in groups of three, are physically linked by their gestures, but seem not at all interested in the table and its remains. Judas, deep in shadow, is looking rather withdrawn and taken aback by the sudden revelation of his plan. He is clutching a small bag, perhaps signifying the silver given to him as payment to betray Jesus, or perhaps a reference to his role as treasurer. He is also tipping over the salt cellar. This may be related to the expression to "betray the salt" meaning to betray one's Master. He is the only person to have his elbow on the table and his head is also horizontally the lowest of anyone in the painting. Peter looks angry and is holding a knife pointed away from Christ, perhaps foreshadowing his violent reaction in Gethsemane during Jesus' arrest. The youngest apostle, John, appears to swoon, it’s all very dramatic.
They need wine – and certainly there was some at the meal – possibly an aromatised red wine with a type of retsina or tree resin and sweetened with pomegranate juice.
The Dutch and Flemish painters of the Renaissance period give us bold, lifelike paintings of food, imbued with religious and sexual innuendo....blood still coursing through the veins of the newly slaughtered lamb, salt water clinging to the fish. But with this carnal excess there was also the decay and chaos that results when appetites go unchecked. Everything has its price.
It is not often we turn to Italians for restraint, but Sandro Botticelli’s paintings in the Uffizi in Florence are sublime. Fruit – oranges, quinces and pomegranate – are symbolic acknowledgement of the patronage of the Medici family but also have a religious overlay. The pomegranate, with its many seeds, is a symbol of desire and fertility, the apple of sin and the quince of immortality.
There are so many reasons to visit the Uffizi Gallery. For me, what joy it is to stand in front of Botticelli’s Primavera and The Birth of Venus. Allegory is in the mind of the beholder and for me Primavera represents the beauty, grace and liberation of women when they come together without men, despite the sexual politics at play in the composition.
Of course, we have the young man, Mercury, with his winged sandals, representing...what? Knowledge and power, certainly, but for this evening, at least, he is off to the side. Venus, at the centre, is voluptuous, she is no longer the young girl featured in the Birth of Venus. The myrtle plant surrounding her is the plant that represents sexual desire, marriage and child bearing. The Three Graces also represent this. They portray the female virtues of chastity, beauty and love. The elegance of the scene belies the sexual violence that is at the heart of it.
Photo credit: La Primavera. Sandro Botticelli. c.1482. Tempera on wood. Uffizi Gallery. Italian Renaissance.org (photo:public domain)
On the right, covered in flowers is Flora, the goddess of flowers and blossoms. The story about how Flora came into existence begins with her former self, Chloris. Chloris was in the woods when Zephyr, on the far right of the painting, found and raped her. To prove to Chloris that he was sorry for his violence, he married her and declared her ‘Flora’, the goddess of flowers. The ‘celebration’ of marriage is also demonstrated by the garden bursting with oranges and flowers which symbolise the fertility expected in marriage.
Have I ruined this painting for you? Ignore me and concentrate on the diaphanous movement of fabric, the serene faces and the hopeful fertility. Just this once, leave the gender conspiracies to another day, another time.
By the early Baroque period, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) had shifted the gaze and sensibility to hyper-realistic representations of biblical scenes but his paintings of food reveal much about him and his world view. I love Supper at Emmaus (housed at the National Gallery, London). Here, Caravaggio depicts a meal shared between Jesus and two disciples after his resurrection, at a tiny table in an inn. It is the precise moment when the two disciples recognise their dinner guest. The shock is palpable.
Photo Credit: Supper at Emmaus. 1601. Oil on canvas. 141 cm x 196.2 cm. National Gallery, London. Wikipedia (photo: public domain)
'Lack of decorum' was a criticism often aimed at Caravaggio. His tendency to show the apostles, in this and other paintings, as dirty, ragged and unkempt was always likely to cause offence. And I have read criticism that the basket of fruit teetering on the edge of the table, has 'out of season' produce. The Resurrection is, after all, celebrated at Easter, in the spring, and Caravaggio has chosen autumn fruits. The choice of fruit is, however, surely deliberate; for combined with the other items on the table, it has a symbolic meaning. The rotten apple is, of course, a symbol of the Biblical rendition of the Temptation. The realistic bread roll is easily recognisable as symbolic of the body of Christ. Finally, the sacrifice of Christ is symbolised by the out of season grapes. Grapes are the source of the wine, which becomes, at the Roman Catholic Eucharist, the Blood of Christ. Accordingly, Caravaggio has used the basket of fruit to emphasise and to underpin the meaning of the story that he paints.
Fruit and vegetables are important subjects for Caravaggio. But what is interesting for me is that the fruit is not always perfect, some of it is well past its prime, a modern notion of thrift and the 'war on waste'.
Take his Basket of Fruit, for instance. (When you go to Milan to see the Last Supper, you can also go to the Ambrosiana Library to see this painting in its home.) Some of the leaves are dry and withered, some of the grapes are about to come loose from their stem (apparently evidence of poor pollination), the apple is pockmarked, bearing the evidence of being worm ridden. Yes, this basket of fruit has seen better days.
Photo credit: Basket of Fruit, Caravaggio. c 1599. Oil on canvas.
46 cm x 64.5 cm. Ambrosiana Library Milan. Wikipedia.
But, I have decided to set myself a challenge and shop for Caravaggio’s Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge, since Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper was far too easy. This is a much harder proposition and I have had to call on a friend with vastly superior botanical knowledge, Trevor Nottle. (trevornottle.wordpress.com)
Photo credit: Still life of fruit on a Stone Ledge. Caravaggio. c 1605-1610. Oil on canvas. 87.2 cm x 135.4 cm Borghese Gallery, Rome. Wikipedia.
First, to find the stone ledge with its evidence of wear and damage. Chunks of the stone have broken away – perhaps a metal pitcher of water was dropped on one edge, furniture being moved carelessly might account for the damage on the corner. You can’t get good help anymore. The basket is easy, I have one just like it, can that be possible? Basket weaving is timeless.
Some of the fruit can come from my garden if we are allowed to straddle the seasons by dint of artistic licence. For the rest, since the painting is held in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, I suggest we ‘go’ with our shopping baskets to the markets in Testaccio. Or we could battle the tourist crush and go to Campo dei Fiori, which was a horse and livestock market in Caravaggio's day...but it has a sad history, as many markets do. Here, Julius Caesar was assassinated and here Hebrew books were stolen from Jewish houses and burned. The huge statue of the ‘heretic’ Giordano Bruno, burned alive, dominates the square - philosophers acknowledge him as a martyr to free speech.
No, we’ll walk to Testaccio although it is a bit of a schlepp from the Borghese Gallery which houses our painting. Here in Rome’s original market and slaughterhouse district we will find everything we need and buy a panino lunch at Mordi e Vai as well.
Australian author, Peter Robb, in his book 'M: the man who became Caravaggio' is much taken with this painting, seeing all sorts of sexual allusions – the peaches reminiscent of “pale human buttocks”, the pomegranate, figs and melon are all too fecund for him, ‘split open in [their] ripeness” to reveal their “voluptuous moist interior”. All the while, the erotic visual puns of the phallic gourd and the spilled seeds of the melon and pomegranate remind us that this may be a visual representation of original sin. Or, it may be just a remarkably accurate representation of Renaissance horticulture without modern pesticides and fungicides. What would I know? Enter our expert, Trevor Nottle.
Certainly, while the apples in the Supper at Emmaus are worm infested, and the pomegranate has spots, here, in our painting, the fruits of late summer’s abundance are in perfect condition. Whether or not we take to them with an allegorical sledge hammer, one thing is certain – these fruits of Renaissance Rome look luscious and healthy – the study is so vital that I can almost smell the heady, over ripe fruit.
I am so easily distracted. I was supposed to make a list and here it is. From the garden, I will harvest:
3 ripe plums, one with small leaf attached
1 green plum, perhaps a greengage
2 perfect, if underripe pre-season pomegranates, one to be cut
2 bunches gordo grapes – one Muscat of Alexandria and one for the back of the basket which are a greener variety, perhaps muscat ottonal.
We have plenty of vine leaves, some a bit damaged like those in the painting, suffering from potassium deficiency. Plus:
8 figs from my tree, 2 split, to be painted by the maestro but surely those shiny, smooth green leaves are not fig leaves – what can they be?
My friend’s garden will supply three pears, but since pears should be underripe when picked from the tree we will need to leave them to ripen in a warm kitchen. One of the pears should be red, a bit like a modern corella pear and one should have some blemishes.
For the 2 gourds and 4 yellow melons we will need to go to the market, where we will also buy a watermelon. I don’t know much about gourds – I will take advice from the vegetable vendor and hope to find penis-like giant gourds in Testaccio. The long white one, Trevor Nottle tells me, is called cucuzza in Italian or lagenaria siceraria - bottle gourd.
The flesh is cooked like a zucchini but the dried hard shells are used for carrying water by field labourers.
I’m better with sweet yellow melons (canteloupes) and watermelons. According to Trevor, the small, round, stripey melon is most likely an early kind of sweet melon - cucurbita maxima - a kind of sweet pumpkin or zucca that was cooked in pies and to stuff tortellini and ravioli. It looks like a New Guinea Bean but it comes from Africa, not New Guinea, and has been known since Roman times so it seems most likely to have travelled north with slaves and wild animals who came to fight in the Colosseum.
I like the story, perhaps fanciful, that Caravaggio achieved the stunning chiaroscuro effects by cutting a hole in his landlady’s ceiling. Certainly, court records (now held in the state archives in Sant' Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome - it makes for interesting reading, see next month's post), show he was indeed sued by a landlady for just such a crime. I'll buy a hack saw at the homeware stalls.
Photo Credit: State archives in Sant' Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome.
Here , we read evidence of two food related misadventures:
Firstly, we find the landlady's papers to sue Caravaggio for wanton damage to her ceiling in the boarding house. Then on April 1604, a waiter complains of assault after serving artichokes at an inn on the Via Maddalena.
(Pietro Antonio de Fosaccia, the waiter attacked in Caravaggio’s artichoke-induced rage, filed a police report about it. It reads: "About 17 o’clock [lunchtime] the accused, together with two other people, was eating in the Moor’s restaurant at La Maddalena, where I work as a waiter. I brought them eight cooked artichokes, four cooked in butter and four fried in oil. The accused asked me which were cooked in butter and which fried in oil, and I told him to smell them, which would easily enable him to tell the difference".
Caravaggio was perhaps always on the edge of violent madness. But, let's be honest, who hasn't suffered surly service in a restaurant? Until recently, it was believed his short, chaotic life came to an end as a result of murder, but scientists in Ravenna who have studied his bones, believe he died of lead poisoning.
What remains for me to achieve my Caravaggio is to hack artistically at the stone bench in my kitchen, arrange my cache of fruit and vegetables exactly as the maestro's and cut a hole in the ceiling. Oh, and learn to paint.
My next post will be from Rome, camera in one hand, porchetta panino in the other. I will go to see Caravaggio’s paintings in situ – and since so many are housed in churches there will be no entrance fee and no queue.
I wish you’d decided to come with me.