Early Modern Banquets: A Noisy but Tasty Business

What better than a banquet could display power and sociability in early modern courts? As part of my research on SOUND, food culture represents one fundamental aspect in a research focusing on sound, noise and court ceremonial. Early modern banquets were elaborate choreographies intended to display the amphytrion’s power and ability to feed his guests. The participants but also the food itself were staged and required intense, noisy, and elaborate preparations. The various parts of the banquet –from the arrival of the guests, the seating hierarchy, the accompanying entertainments, the dining– were orchestrated like an opera or a theater play, with elaborate sceneries and decorations, unexpected theatrical machines, rains of perfumes and scents. Traditionally, banquets were associated with weddings and celebrated dynastic unions between important families.

Giovanni Battista Lenardi and Arnold van Westerhout, Sugar sculptures of Cybel and Juno, banquet given in Rome by the British Ambassador Roger Palmer, Earl of Castlemaine, 1687

Indoor or outdoor, the preparation required an important number of craftsmen to set up the scenery, decorations, sometimes to build flying tables that appeared magically, cooks, pastry chef, food sculptors realizing edible triumphs in sugar or ice, perfumers, gardeners and florists, food carvers, light designers, plate turners, gilders, and a cohort of servants under the supervision of the master steward and the sommelier, along with musicians, singers, and dancers.

Such events can be read as performance, they include categories such as ritual, ceremony, spectacle, but also political and everyday life. Erika Fischer-Lichte defines performance as ephemeral, unrepeatable and dependent on the co-presence of artists and public. Ephemerality, in the case of a banquet, does not only concern the event itself, but also the food: edible monuments designed as sophisticated triumphs are literally ingested by the guests. The performative act is both artistic and aesthetic, but always includes underlying social and political motivations. The extravagance and the prohibitive costs of such a “food spectacle” were meant to represent the prominent position, the power, and the political ambitions of the host.

Aristocratic banquets since the Renaissance were sophisticated orchestrations of food and luxury objects, with fragile and ephemeral architectures. Born in Italy, sugar sculptures soon conquered all the European courts; they represented the masterpieces of a banquet, soliciting all the senses, combining culinary arts with performing arts, they progressively became an elaborate theatre staging mythological themes. The sculptures were made of solidified sugar, moulded and then chiselled. Saffron and herbs allowed to color them. Banquets were usually organized around a mythological or historical theme, celebrating the guest of honor and the sculptures staged a symbolical and political iconography, often made of animals, garlands, and flowers. The banquet ceremonial was a dramaturgical choreography, built on a precise hierarchy. Every participant was an actor, just as the meal was a theater and the banquet was a discourse on power. Everything in the ritual of the banquet was performance, from cooking to the complex choreography of service, even the act of eating itself.

Pierre Paul Sevin, Banquet table with triumphs and coat of arms of Pope Clement IX Rospigliosi

Early modern banquets were indissociable from a mythological reference to Homer’s banquet of the gods (Illiad 24.25-30), which found place in the garden of the Hesperides and served as a prelude to the Trojan war. Opulence and abundance led to war and destruction: the banquet of the gods staged passions and destructive appetites. Ovid’s Festivals narrated the banquet of the bacchanals (I.391-400 and 6.319-341) and Apuleius’ Metamorphosis the wedding of Cupid and Psyche (IV,24). Banquets during the Renaissance traditionally ended by a merciless plundering of food and decorations as a reminder to Homer’s cautionary tale. Edible monuments were intentionally meant to be devoured and destroyed.

Historical examples of such extravagant banquets include the banquet of Cardinal Riario in honor of Eleanor of Aragon in 1473 with the most prodigious triumphs of sugar of huge dimensions representing the story of Hercules, in honor of the future husband of Eleanor, Ercole d’Este; the banquet for their wedding; the banquet for the wedding of Roberto Malatesta and Isabella di Montefeltro; and the banquet offered by Federico II Gonzaga to Henri III of France in 1574 (McIver, 96-97, 141-43). Later examples include Louis XIV week-long festivities at Versailles, Les Plaisirs de L’Isle enchantée in 1664 (Apostolides 1981, Arizzoli-Clémentel 2013); Cardinal Flavio Chigi’s elaborate outdoor banquet with spectacular staging in 1668 to honor the new papal family of the Rospigliosi (Jeanneret 2020); and the scene of the banquet of the gods (Act I, sc. 4-5) in Antonio Cesti’s opera Il pomo d’oro, given to celebrate (belatedly) the wedding of Leopold I and Margaret Theresa in Vienna in 1668 (Read 2015).

Teresa del Pò and Carlo Fontana, Staging of Cardinal Chigi’s banquet in Rome, 1668 (detail)
Teresa del Pò and Carlo Fontana, Final scene of Chigi’s banquet, 1668

But banquets were also a noisy and dirty business. Smells, pots and pans clashing, cooks yelling, hot fire burning, water, stressed servants running around, living animals screeching, all were contributing to make kitchens the loudest place at court. The kitchen was usually separated from the main building, to avoid the racket and the smells, either placed outside –also to minimize the risk of fire, as it was the case at Rosenborg castle– or in the basement. The decorum of the meal choreography stood in strong opposition with the preparations, hidden away to avoid confrontation between the dirty business of cooking and the fine sophisticated moment of the banquet, raising interesting issues around the notion of privacy. Who had to stay in the kitchen to do the dirty and noisy business, who could freely move between the kitchen and the banquet room, and who could attend the banquet itself? By bringing sound into the study of food culture and court, I bring back a focus on everyday practices and high class dining, along with a focus on materiality. Kitchen tools, cutlery, glasses, wine barrels, plates, silverware were all made in specific materials –ceramics, glass, wood, metal– creating specific and highly identifiable sounds related to eating. Reconstructing these sounds gives a new perspective on the ritual of the banquet.

Antonio Cesti, Il pomo d’oro, banquet of the gods (Act 1, sc. 4-5)

References:
Albala, Ken, The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 2007.
Apostolides, Jean-Marie, Le Roi-machine: Spectacle et politique au temps de Louis XIV. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1981.
Arizzoli-Clémentel, Pierre, ed., Versailles. Paris: Citadelles & Mazenot, 2013.
Dennis, Flora, “Cooking pots, tableware, and the changing sounds of sociability in Italy, 1300–1700,” Sound Studies (2015), 1-22.
Fabbri Dall’Oglio, Maria Attilia, Il trionfo dell’effimero: Lo sfarzo e il lusso dei banchetti visti nella cornice fastosa delle feste nella Roma barocca, lungo il percorso storico dell’evoluzione del gusto e della tavola nell’Italia fra Sei e Settecento. Rome, 2001.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika, The Routledge Introduction to Theater and Performance Studies. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. New York: Routledge, 2008
Imorde, Joseph, “Edible Prestige,” in Marcia Reed, ed., The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, 2015, 101-123.
Jeanneret, Christine, “Un triomphe gastronomique: Performance et banquet dans le jardin de Flavio Chigi”, in Anne-Madeleine Goulet, José María Domínguez, Élodie Oriol (eds), Spectacles et performances artistiques à Rome (1644–1740): Une analzse historique à partir des archives familiales. Rome: Mélanges de l’École française de Rome, 2020 (forthcoming).
McIver, Katherine, Cooking and Eating in Renaissance Italy: From Kitchen to Table. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pennell, Sara, “‘Pots and Pans History’: The Material Culture of the Kitchen in Early Modern England,” Journal of Design History 11, no 3 (1998), 201-16.
Reed, Marcia, “Court and Civic Festivals,” in Marci Reed, ed., The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2015, 27-71.