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Giacomo-Maria Giovannini (after Marc’Antonio Chiarini), centerpiece for the banquet of Senator Francesco Ratta, 1693, etching, 15 3/4 × 21 3/4". Frontispiece from Disegni del convito (Designs of the Banquet) (Bologna: Per li Peri, 1693).

Giacomo-Maria Giovannini (after Marc’Antonio Chiarini), centerpiece for the banquet of Senator Francesco Ratta, 1693, etching, 15 3/4 × 21 3/4". Frontispiece from Disegni del convito (Designs of the Banquet) (Bologna: Per li Peri, 1693).

“The Edible Monument: the Art of Food for Festivals”

The Getty Research Institute

Giacomo-Maria Giovannini (after Marc’Antonio Chiarini), centerpiece for the banquet of Senator Francesco Ratta, 1693, etching, 15 3/4 × 21 3/4". Frontispiece from Disegni del convito (Designs of the Banquet) (Bologna: Per li Peri, 1693).

“THIS GRAFFITI-ARTIST-TURNED-CHEF Is Lighting Up the Paris Restaurant Scene,” reads a typical gastronomical write-up today. Whether cooking on a remote Swedish mountain or in a laboratory-like kitchen, the contemporary master chef prefers to be portrayed as an artist. And perhaps even more than an old-fashioned Michelin star, a massive tome from a major art publisher seems to be a mandatory requirement. Yet if the dialogue between food and art is livelier than ever, last year’s mammoth survey “Arts and Foods—Rituals Since 1851” at the Milan Triennale made it abundantly clear that the conversation has been going on for quite some time, indeed has been central throughout the modern era. Just as chefs have long identified themselves with the arts, there’s nothing unusual about artists expanding their practice into the realm of cooking. Remember F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist banquets and Salvador Dalí’s bizarre 1973 cookbook Les dîners de Gala, with its surreal recipes for frog pasties and avocado with lamb brains on toast? Or think of Andy Warhol’s charming 1959 Wild Raspberries, with its obvious references to French master chef Marie-Antoine Carême, not to mention all of the artist-run kitchens, from Daniel Spoerri’s restaurant in Düsseldorf in the late 1960s and Gordon Matta-Clark’s Food in New York in the ’70s to Rirkrit Tiravanija’s experimental meals today.

But these examples pale in comparison to the material presented at the Getty Research Institute’s extraordinary exhibition “The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals.” Assembled by chief curator Marcia Reed, this was a show that rendered visible the ephemeral but spectacular arts of the dining table that evolved during the Renaissance and culminated in the Baroque. Like fireworks or dance performances (two things incidentally taking place at many such feasts), the key ingredients of these gastronomical creations were short-lived. Says Reed, “Defying categories of art history and museum collections, edible art formed a conundrum: It was created for the magic moment and not meant to endure or be collected. These exquisite creations were the exact opposite of that cliché of aesthetic appreciation, timeless beauty.” The ephemeral quality of most culinary projects is of course a challenge for anyone trying to make an exhibition about them.

Since the real performances have long vanished, the curator has to rely on documentation, reconstructions, and the display of all kinds of utensils and textual sources. This may sound dull, but in “The Edible Monument” the materials were of such fundamental significance to the field that the result was far from disappointing. In fact, it’s fascinating and rewarding to see so many key historical sources collected in one space and structured according to themes such as the public celebration, the court festival, and the heraldic table monument made out of sugar, flowers, and fruit.

Among many legendary accounts of great meals, few gastronomical extravaganzas of the first order have been so well documented as Senator Francesco Ratta’s 1693 feast at the Palazzo Vizzani in Bologna, meticulously depicted in two booklets and at least nine prints. A giant circular table allowed all the guests to be seated as equals and offered all a great view of a silver mountain on which four river gods and their monstrous pets relaxed under a palm tree. On closer inspection, this enormous centerpiece contained a universe of mythological decorations and culinary sensations. A 1693 etching by Giacomo-Maria Giovannini after Marc’Antonio Chiarini is the perfect introduction to the world of flamboyant displays: It depicts an excessive banquet table inside the palazzo’s curiosity cabinet, with luxurious silver tableware installed on a wall, opposite slanted mirrors that would reflect and magnify the infinite riches.

Many of these banquets were exclusive events for highly distinguished guests, but others were democratic, free-for-all street parties. The exhibition started with a section on Cockaigne, a mythical land of plenty where medieval peasants were liberated from their harsh lives, and where all physical pleasures, especially those related to food and drink, were immediately at hand. Known in Italian as il paese della Cuccagna, this peasant’s mythical paradise on earth manifested itself in celebrations that involved temporary arcades, obelisks, and fountains made out of papier-mâché and then covered or filled with sausages, pastry, and wine, or even constructed entirely from foodstuffs, as is the case in an arch depicted in a 1630 woodcut that honors Duke Antonio Álvarez di Toledo, viceroy of Naples, the true capital of this orgiastic feast. Built out of loaves of bread, cheese, and suckling pigs carrying fireworks in their mouths, this arch is an example of edible architecture, known as macchine della Cuccagna, which formed a key ingredient in the wild outdoor parties where everyone was welcome. At a given signal, fireworks and live music commenced, and citizens would rush to the food monuments and grab as much as they could carry away, watched over by the amused duke and his entourage from the balcony of the palace.

The artistic ingenuity of the most striking food creations was seemingly limitless, as were the resources that went into their realization: swans and peacocks, gilded pies, suckling-pig arches, candied-fruit pyramids, and sugar turned into luxurious, fragile, and sometimes extremely expensive monuments, aptly called trionfi or triumphs, that lasted only for the duration of a feast. As the show demonstrated, the Baroque era no doubt marked the historical high point for this ephemeral art. Further proof of this is found in the tradition of napkin folding, which reached unbelievable heights during the seventeenth century. The charming mountain landscapes, swans, and butterflies made of linen at Senator Ratta’s banquet are positively modest compared to the monumental folded-cloth sculptures presented as centerpieces and commissioned by royal courts across Europe—a topic that was only hinted at here, but that is worthy of its own exhibition. In fact, the banquet was a kind of gastronomical Gesamtkunstwerk known in German as Schau-Essen—a theatrical production for the dinner table (or, literally, “show meal”) in which the edible elements were featured together with pleated linen, fireworks, silverware, sugar sculptures, and other ornate arrangements for already sated guests.

The grandiose, mythologizing, and hyperbolic language in the festival reports makes it difficult to discern the actual realities behind the poetry. Thankfully, the exhibition whisked us behind the scenes with the help of everyday objects such as kitchen utensils, manuals, recipes, and cookbooks. We were introduced to some of the master cooks who, in the culture of extreme luxury gastronomy, attained great honors. We also encountered the scalo, the chief steward, who supervised the whole household and orchestrated the banquets to perfection. Other important roles included the court confectioner, often granted excessive budgets to make the power and wealth of the employers visible, and the carver, an almost theatrical figure performing acrobatic acts with his knives in front of guests. An especially talented carver was a certain Mattia Giegher, born Matthias Jäger in Bavaria, who moved to Padua to perform his noble art. In 1639, his Li tre trattati (The Three Treatises), one of the most influential gastronomical books of the period, was published posthumously by Paolo Frambotto, beautifully illustrated with etchings. The menagerie of folded creatures presented in the show—an openmouthed fish, a proud griffin, a double-headed eagle—was impressive in itself, but most important, Giegher’s was the first book to classify folding techniques according to a lexicon and to present the art of folding napkins as a systematic science. It seems to have taken the thoroughness of a German mind to create order in what would otherwise threaten to appear as a mess of linen on an Italian table, and it’s fitting that Giegher was appointed professor in the art of napkin folding at the University of Padua.

And then there was the serious discipline of sugar sculptures. A 1587 etching attributed to Frans Hogenberg depicts the unbelievable banquet staged for the wedding of John William, Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, and Jakobea of Baden, containing a universe of allegories and exotic creatures sculpted out of sugar: peacocks, elephants, lions, and a fountain that is believed to have contained living frogs and fish. Another main attraction was a seven-and-a-half-foot-long sculpted-sugar-paste centerpiece, rendered in lily white and gold. Re-created by the British culinary historian Ivan Day, it was modeled on Menon’s 1749 La science du maître d’hôtel confiseur (The Science of the Steward Preserve Maker) and depicts the palace of Circe, the sorceress in Homer’s Odyssey. Gluttonous Lilliputian men have come to visit her on her island, and she turns them into pigs—an allegory of greed and its effects that would not have been lost on the guests (though perhaps a little heavy-handed for a wedding celebration). If the sociopolitical symbolism and hierarchies in “The Edible Monument” seem all too fitting for the fetes held by the 1 percent around the globe today—not least among them the ritualistic opening dinners in the realm of the art world—what about the ambition, vocation, and surreal wonder also reflected in its incredible art? We could learn a lesson or two from these earlier food masters, who surely believed that spectacle was a dish best served with invention.

“The Edible Monument” travels to the Detroit Institute of Arts, Dec. 16, 2016–Apr. 16, 2017; Bard Graduate Center in New York in spring 2018.

Charlotte Birnbaum is the editor of the book series “On The Table” (Sternberg Press), which explores the relationship between art and food.