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Clockwork peacocks, eggs, and artichokes

Gillian Riley’s food in art

Did you know that the flesh of peacocks was once prized because it symbolized incorruptibility? Or that Michelangelo was picky about his comestibles? Gillian Riley, editor of the Oxford Companion to Italian Food, found that all roads led to a trattoria during typographic visits to Italy, and, transformed from a typographical historian to a food historian by her experiences, she introduced us to the representation and significance of Renaissance cuisine.

Food, she explained, appears in complex and intriguing ways in the art of the period. Growing lemons was big agribusiness in Renaissance Italy, so Saint Anne was depicted holding a perfect fruit that is both symbolic and decorative.

Meanwhile, in Florence, humanist Poggio Bracciolini linked food and emotional stability: after a roving life he settled down and, finally domestically happy, wrote that ‘his wife was like a perfect meal’.

Pomponio Leto was a kind of early Paul Stiff, dragging students round the sights and pointing out inscriptions. But his main claim to fame is describing how to cook eggs – being a humanist with simple tastes who lived in Trastevere he frugally fried them in oil.

Platina’s cookery book was one of the earliest printed in the western world, and he praises the quality of one of the dishes at Poggio’s – chicken cooked in verjuice.

The book grew out of harsh business decisions – when new Pope Paul II arrived and downsized the scribal typing pool, Platina called for the pontiff’s excommunication. Bad move, he and Leto were now out of a job. With fellow bob viveur Martino, the redundant Platina retreated to write his cookery book, a presentation copy of which was written out by Bartolomeo Sanvito. Postscript: Paul II deservedly died of a surfeit of chilled melons and Platina was duly restored to favour.

Gillian showed how the new lifestyle might have been wrapped up with new letterforms, but a continuing love of great food. Oh, those clockwork peacocks – Platina objected to the conspicuous consumption that roasting them and then reconstructing them as automatons represented; why should the rich pig out while studious humanists had to be frugal?

A warning from history. Roman artichokes are best in early spring – Caravaggio, counter-reformation visual propagandist with a hair-trigger temper, ordered artichokes on a hot night in June and ended up in a fight – and in prison. If only he’d been able to work out his angst at the wheel of an Alfa, with three espressos inside him

Chicken with verjuice

Fry chicken joints in butter or oil with garlic and cinnamon to taste. When cooked, tip in some verjuice and simmer gently until almost evaporated. Serve with a sprinkling of sugar, salt, and cinnamon, all whizzed up in a coffee grinder, and chopped herbs to taste.

Buon appetito!

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