Renaissance Pasta or, What Did Mona Lisa Eat?
Before she got her current job in advertising (I collect her work — ads, postcards, greeting cards — all the jobs she poses for these days), Mona Lisa was a small town Tuscan girl. The year was 1503. She got her break from Leonardo da Vinci. Since I've put a lot of effort into seeing what people have been doing with her image more recently, I began to wonder — what did she eat?
She obviously had no tomatoes, no potato gnocci, no polenta made from maize, no roast peppers, no strawberries, no vanilla, and no chocolate — these all came from the New World, and although they traveled fast, probably took a little longer than 10 years to get to Italy.
Lots of dishes that seem classic and Italian were either not introduced or not invented yet. Mozzarella cheese and tomatoes, for example, came later in the 1500's; coffee reached Italy from places like Turkey in 1615; zabaglione was invented in the seventeenth century. Polenta from New-World corn meal replaced similarly-prepared buckwheat dishes, and new-world species of beans appeared in the diet of poor Italians in the early eighteenth century.
Tomato sauce for pasta — which Mona Lisa once advertised in a pair of pictures labeled "Original" and "Chunky" — did not become common until the nineteenth century. Tomato paste was invented in 1875. Other current Italian fads arose even more recently: raddichio was developed some time since World War II, and Tiramisu, the chocolate dessert, in the 1960's.
The "Mona Lisa Pizzeria" and the many other restaurants and Italian delis in Paris, Oslo, Berlin, Detroit, New Orleans, and San Diego, that use Mona Lisa's name or picture serve food that she would scarcely recognize.
However, their menus might seem to her a little more familiar than the South-American strawberry or quince preserves or Greek chocolate bars sold under her name. They would definitely be more familiar than the high-tech computers, printers, and other equipment in whose ads or catalogs she so often now appears. And maybe she would know what to do with beer mats from Mona Lisa beer!
During the fifteenth century, under the Medici rulers of Florence, a Renaissance in food, cooking, and table manners was underway along with the better-known Renaissance in art and culture. Northern Italian food was the finest in Europe, and a model for other European cuisine. The food people ate and the ways it was presented and served were all very different than they had been even 100 years earlier, and were substantially different from our ways of cooking, serving, and eating. Noble banquets offered three or more courses, with numerous dishes in each course, and elaborate display and presentation of the dishes. A particularly memorable one at the Este court in 1529 offered 10 courses, 120 dishes, music, and a play written for the occasion. In fact, Leonardo called the Este court in Ferrera "the most brilliant and enlightened court in Europe."
The order of serving a meal that we consider normal — appetizers or soup followed by main courses, with sweets last — was not introduced until some time later, in Italy, although one author states that this method was introduced earlier into the Spanish court. Each course included several types of dishes, soups, and fruits, and many meat dishes were flavored with fruits and sweet spice combinations. Above all, sugar, which had only recently arrived in Italy, appeared in a vast number of dishes. There were also sweet and sour sauces, introduced by Jews fleeing from Spain. These contained sugar and agresto, the juice of sour grapes, which was the precursor of Italian tomato sauce preparations developed later.
In rich and or noble houses, it had become customary to have individual plates for each diner, made of faience or glass or a richer material. Mona Lisa ate her meals with two-tined forks rather than dipping into a common bowl with her fingers, as her grandmother might have done.
At the banquets and weddings of the day, food was elaborately decorated and displayed, as well as ceremoniously presented, and not only the dishes, but even the tablecloths were changed after each course. While I have a couple of designs of decorative paper napkins with Mona Lisa images on them, this is definitely not a Renaissance item! My Mona Lisa beer glass and coffee mugs would also look out of place at a Renaissance banquet.
Gold was considered healthful, so the rich ate gold leaf, which allowed for additional ways to decorate the food. And like the four-and-twenty blackbirds in the King's "dainty dish" of the nursery rhyme, live birds or rabbits were sealed in fancy pies, so that when the pie was opened, they flew or ran out across the table. I'm not the first modern person to wonder, though, who would want to eat anything from the inside of a bird cage — I'd rather eat bread and honey with the Queen or even hang out the clothes.
More common people might also have enjoyed good food, served luxuriously. A rich Tuscan townsman in 1497 was said to dine twice a day on ordinary days. He would eat a round loaf, a pigeon, a few vegetables, sweets, perhaps goat cheese, and fruit, with butcher's meat instead of small game for Sunday or special occasions, and he would share his plate and cup with his wife. Bread could be made plain or special, for example, with golden raisins. To obtain the healthful benefits of gold, people who couldn't afford gold leaf had to settle for "golden" dishes, such as breaded veal cutlets, or dishes made with egg yolk. Middle class display at feasts had become ostentatious enough to inspire regulation: no more than two or three courses and 25 places at the table were permitted at middle-class wedding celebrations. I don't know if Mona Lisa's wedding to Mr. Gioconda would have been limited this way, or if they were noble enough to celebrate in the more flamboyant way. The rule, in any case, was often ignored.
Although the Renaissance Italians ate meat less frequently than we do, meat dishes seem to have been at least as varied as what we now know, as most meats we now eat were introduced into the New World from the Old (the dog, guinea pig, and insects consumed at Aztec and Inca feasts never caught on with the Europeans — only turkey). Beef was a specialty of the North Italian region, and there were also domestic duck, chicken, sheep, and pigs. Preparations included fois gras, minced fish or meat dishes like quenelles; duck stuffed with herbs and garlic and spit-roasted; veal sautéed with lemon and pistachios; whole calf's head with spices and garlic; chicken livers with giblets, embryo eggs, egg yolks, and lemon juice; and a roast with a sauce of hazelnuts, sugar, and spice. Mona Lisa may also have enjoyed honey used in preparing meats and poultry or game dishes including wild boar, rabbits, and birds. River fish — fresh-water crabs, trout, eels, frogs, and pike — appeared in Tuscan meals, as well as Mediterranean fish and shell-fish. Cheeses included parmesan and fontina, although many cheeses we now know were later inventions.
In 1500, Florentine diners enjoyed melon at the start of a meal. For later courses, fruit dishes and fruits often accompanied meat dishes. Mona Lisa could have tasted cherries, pomegranates, apricots (introduced into Europe by Alexander the Great), oranges (from the Arabs; opinions vary about the arrival date), apples, grapes, plums, and nuts such as pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds. Almond milk, made from liquid soaked or pressed from almonds, was a base for many dishes. One contemporary recipe called for cherries with bread crumbs, ginger, and cinnamon. As for vegetables, leek and onion soup was a holdover from Roman times; chick peas and lentils perhaps even more ancient, and in addition, a Tuscan meal could include asparagus, artichokes, broccoli, cabbage, olives and olive oil, mushrooms of many sorts, truffles, eggplant, and chestnuts. Rice grew in the area near Parma, with saffron rice — another "golden" dish — being particularly prized. A dinner could include both wine and beer, which were considered healthful; but drunkenness was discouraged.
Sugar and spice, along with other sweets such as oranges and almonds, were a legacy of the Arabs, who had ruled lands as close as Sicily, where sugar cultivation had recently been introduced into Europe. Spices were a symbol of wealth, both for nobility and merchant classes, and there was a commodities market in spices from many places, particularly India, with fortunes made and lost in the spice trade. Remember, it was spices, particularly black pepper, that motivated Columbus and his backers to search for the new way to the far east. Spices from the East reached Italy first, where they were adapted and passed on to other European courts and merchants. Spices used in Mona Lisa's time included black pepper, rosemary, sage, myrtle, lavender, basil, saffron, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, parsley, anise, fennel, European bay (laurel), and garlic. Spice blends were based on formulas also imported from the East. (The major New World contribution to spice would be peppers — bell peppers, pimentos, chilies, etc.)
Perhaps Mona Lisa ate pie with a sweet crust and a filling of butter, salt pork, roast pigeons, sour-grape juice, saffron, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper, as one contemporary recipe suggests. Many sorts of pies were popular during the Renaissance. At the end of a meal described in 1450, a turnip dish layered with cheese, pepper, and sweet spices was served. Other sweet dishes included "milk" pies, similar to quiches, ices, crepes, butter-thickened sauces, and cheese dishes. And of course those surprise pies in which live birds or rabbits were hiding, in which another edible pie would be included.
Was Mona Lisa's sweet smile an anticipation of sweets to eat? Was she thinking of the spices and sugar that provided the prized flavoring of many Renaissance dishes? Or perhaps, as one writer speculated, Leonardo gave his subjects sugar cubes to suck on while posing. Mona looks too young to be smiling with her lips closed for the reason attributed to Queen Elizabeth I of England 100 years later: tooth decay from all those sweets.
Mona Lisa and her contemporaries shared one type of dish with modern diners. Pasta had been around since the Etruscans, who left a carving illustrating it. A recipe for a pasta dish was published two years prior to the voyage on which Marco Polo is popularly thought to have brought pasta back from China. A preacher at the time criticized people's gluttony by mentioning pasta fried with garlic, and ravioli fried first in one pan, and then with cheese, in another pan. One writer described how cooks wrapped the pasta around an iron dowel to dry, flavoring the dough with rosewater, saffron, sugar, or butter. In Lent pasta was cooked with milk or water; in other times, in broth, with white-flour pasta reserved for the wealthy. Stuffed pasta or filled pasta dishes, especially very sweet ones, were favorites — these included spices, cheese, sugar, and cinnamon. So today's Mona Lisa brand of pasta, which features a medallion with her picture on each box, would at least be a product she would understand.
I conclude that Mona Lisa, as a member of the wealthier class in Florence or nearby, would have eaten a diet that we would find attractive and varied, in spite of containing more sugar than our meals and in spite of missing all the foods yet to be brought from the New World. She shared the excitement of new styles of cooking and new ingredients, mainly of Eastern or Arabic origin, that became popular during the previous century.
Her pizza had no tomato sauce, her ice cream had no chocolate sauce, her breakfast had no corn flakes and no KonaLisa coffee from Hawaii (like my coffee today in the photo), and there was no strawberry jam to put on her bread, but when she went to a banquet, she probably had a lot to smile about anyway.
When I first started to read about Mona Lisa's eating habits, finding early Italian recipes was much more challenging than it is now (I started writing in 1990, and updated this in 2001). A few manuscripts had been discovered, transcribed, and published without experimentation or much commentary; as many as 100 such manuscripts from the 14th and 15th centuries are said to exist. I gather that interest in actually cooking late Medieval food is growing, and I have looked at a number of really interesting popular-style cookbooks derived from these early French and Italian recipe manuscripts — or I've learned about their existence using Amazon.com, a research tool that's also emerged in the years since I began this book. The authors make various accommodation to modern kitchens (as one says, you wouldn't have anywhere to put a whole calf and stuff it with poultry.) Their efforts compare to "the task of unearthing Baroque music years ago," says Georges Duby, the French medievalist, in his introduction to The Medieval Kitchen by Odile Redon, Francoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. ix).
I have posted this essay from my food autobiography, What I ate and Where I Ate It, at the request of my brother. Perhaps I'll post a few other excerpts eventually as well.