food in the arts


(From the ‘At Home in Renaissance Italy’ exhibition a the the V&A Museum, London) literature and food
 Campi - kitchen
music and food 
photography and food

Kitchen Scene
Vincenzo Campi
Possibly 1580-90, Cremona, Lombardy
Oil on canvas
Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera, Mila

Renaissance House

Gabinetto dei Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence

The kitchen (cucina) belonged to the network of service spaces – from pantries to wine cellars – that kept the house supplied with food and drink.

Kitchens were rarely located on the same floor as the sala, because of the smells, noise and constant circulation of people. Instead, they were usually in the attics, to minimise the risk of chimney fires, or on the ground floor. Many servants rarely left the kitchens, and the woman of the house paid frequent visits to supervise their work.

Even in large kitchens, the equipment was quite basic. The most important item was the mortar (ancestor of the modern blender), used for grinding and mixing all sorts of ingredients. But there were also pastry cutters to make pies, terracotta pots for slow braising and spits for roasting meat. Few of these survive, and most come from archaeological excavations.

"You should not behave as I have seen some women do, who make such a din, and banging and moving about of tables and chairs, and so much noise of plates and knives, that the guest expects a sumptuous meal, and at the end realises that the mountain has brought forth a mouse."

From a conduct book for new brides (Pietro Belmonte,Istitutione della sposa, 1587)

Moving House(Detail)
Vincenzo Campi, 1580-90 Cremona. Oil on canvas

Renaissance House

In the years between 1400 and 1600 Italians became the most extravagant builders in Europe. Wealthy citizens commissioned magnificent palaces, and displayed their gentility and education through splendid possessions. Many of these objects were novelties. Some, such as glass mirrors and printed books, are familiar to us today. Others, like birth trays, relate to beliefs and practices that have vanished. The modern distinction between ‘fine’ and ‘decorative’ art was not yet firmly established. Prestigious artists would produce domestic objects as well as paintings and sculpture. Social, cultural and moral messages could be found in a portrait or an inkstand.

The Renaissance was a period of profound change. Its revival of classical antiquity took place in a world of economic growth, scientific and geographical discovery, political and religious conflict. While reflecting these upheavals, domestic life also played an active role in the creation of art and culture.


House and household  were both called casa. The ‘family’ that comprised the casa included not just the nuclear unit of parents and children, but also many blood relatives and servants.

The casa was a hub of activity – domestic, economic and social – and during the Renaissance it accommodated increasingly specialised spaces and objects. Visitors would generally be shown the first floor or piano nobile. This included a suite of rooms leading from the sala (reception room), to the camera(bedroom), and then the scrittoio (study). The basic distinction between sala and camera was visible at almost all social levels right across Italy.

In grand houses there were also rooms for specific activities such as music, dining and small parties, as well as areas that most visitors would not see: the kitchen, cellars, attics and servants’ quarters.

"Guide your guests around the house and in particular show them some of your possessions, either new or beautiful, but in such a way that it will be received as a sign of your politeness and domesticity, and not arrogance: something that you will do as if showing them your heart."

From a conduct book for new brides (Pietro Belmonte,Istitutione della sposa, 1587)


People, Spaces and Objects

Wealthy families remained in the same place for generations, and their houses were an expression of dynasty and permanence. Poorer people moved frequently, though usually within the same neighbourhood. Lacking a permanent house, they maintained the idea of casa through family and possessions.

By the end of the 16th century, however, families from a wider social spectrum could afford an unprecedented range and quantity of domestic goods – linens, printed images and painted wooden chests, as well as glass, earthenware and kitchen utensils.

Cookery Books

While cookery books had been available for centuries in manuscript form,
printed books of recipes, often containing woodcut illustrations, were a
new development in this period. They made advice on cookery available to
a wider audience than ever before. During the Renaissance it was common
for meals to have four courses, which could consist of one entree, two
meat courses and one course of fruit or cheese. Meat was expensive and
eaten regularly only by the wealthy. Short pasta, which would be boiled,
became increasingly popular during the sixteenth century and soon
dominated the Italian diet. Here we have translated recipes from two
popular Renaissance cookery books, the humanist’s Bartolomeo Platina’s
‘On right pleasure and good health’ (1475) and the food advisor of the
Ferrarese court Cristoforo Messisbugo’s ‘Banquets’ (1549).


Barolomeo Platina’s ‘On right pleasure and good health’.

Cristoforo Messisbugo’s ‘Banquets’.

Sixtine Chapel Panorama