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MLN 119.1 (2004) 37-51

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Of Courtesans, Knights, Cooks and Writers:
Food in the Renaissance

Pina Palma
Southern Connecticut State University

More than thirty years ago Claude Lévi-Strauss convincingly argued that the universal transformation of nature into culture takes place through the cooking of food and that gastronomy "is a language in which each society codes messages which allow it to signify a part at least of what it is." 1 Food is an element that can differentiate among cultures and societies. By studying food one can understand social and cultural phenomena of those who consume it.

From the earliest times food has occupied a prominent place, first in the oral and later in the written literary tradition. In literature, food by its very presence fulfills a multi-layered function: first, it invariably colors with shades of authenticity the actions narrated. Second, food becomes a sign encompassing more elaborate ideological, political, and cultural concepts. As Louis Marin cogently argues, it is through this metamorphosis that the comestible is transformed into the signified and the speakable is transformed into the edible. 2 A more important observation made by Marin is that in its resulting [End Page 37] function of "transsignificance," 3 food becomes a metaphor, acquiring new meaning completely dissociated from its original physical significance. Thus food—along with the setting in which it is consumed—serves to identify the complex motifs connecting individuals to their historically, economically, and philosophically determined environments.

The discourse on food in the Renaissance is articulated along the lines of a growing medical-therapeutic science. This novel field of study engaged doctors as well as philosophers, 4 a point made clear by the abundance of commentaries and treatises written on food during the period. This new interest in the therapeutic qualities of food attracted among others Marsilio Ficino 5 and Erasmus of Rotterdam. 6 In their works both incorporated discussions on food, detailing the curative and strengthening qualities of particular alimentation in relation to specific areas of the body and spirit. The consistent inclusion of foods in Renaissance literary texts attests to the writer's expressed sense of the historical and political coordinates shaping the age.

Whether the writer's intent is to capture the dionysiac festivities celebrating desire and power or to valorize the frugality that favors intellectual and spiritual growth, eating in the Renaissance is in direct relation to the humanistic concern with moralistic prescriptions and with perfect education. Food now acquires a value implicit in Marin's notion of transignificance and must be accepted as a language, articulating complex socio-cultural phenomena that connect characters, as well as writers, to historically determined circumstances. An examination of the meals consumed in Pulci's Morgante, Boiardo's Innamorato, Ariosto's Furioso, and Aretino's Ragionamento, reveals that these authors effectively voice their criticisms of their societies and of the limitations inherent in those societies.

It is well known that Pulci's Morgante (1478-83) is replete with scenes depicting individuals consuming food. 7 In effect, Pulci uses [End Page 38] food as an integral part of his Morgante while his heroes' adventures function on a par with, and not to the exclusion of, the copious meals devoured by the giants. 8 Accordingly, the foods consumed by Orlando and Rinaldo not only reveal the essence of the chivalric society regulating the paladins' lives but also speak of the struggle between politics and morality within that same society.

Through food and body, the poet gives a non-Platonic representation of Florentine life, impregnated as it is, with the abstractions and philosophical images promulgated by Ficino in his Platonic Theology and espoused by Lorenzo De' Medici. 9 In contrast to that earlier treatise, Ficino writes De vita libri tres, a treatise on diets and astrology, as a way of controlling destiny and health. His fascination with the notion that omens, astrology, and heavenly constellations can influence intellectual men 10 and, by extension, human history, interplayed with the idea that medicine and diet could help counteract 11 the Saturnine influence at the root of their melancholy. 12...


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