How did people eat during the Renaissance? This is something I talk a lot about during my tours as I find it lends a sense of familiarity to a mostly unfamiliar historical period and allows us to connect to the characters that pepper (sorry) the stories I tell about Florence during its Golden Age.
People during the Renaissance loved a good handbook; we have massive amounts of prescriptive literature about everything from how to raise a family (Leon Battista Alberti’s Della Famiglia), to how to be a good artist (Cennino Cennini’s Il Libro dell’Arte), to how not to be generally disgusting (Galateo by Giovanni della Casa). It should not surprise us, therefore, that within many of these behavior manuals we find information about how and what to eat. (Anyone with a bit of knowledge about contemporary Italy knows that variations on these “food rules” are still firmly in place today.)
Typically speaking, there were two meals per day: the comestio, usually eaten sometime before 11am, and the prandium, which occurred just before sunset. Breakfast was virtually non-existent as it consisted of nothing more than a slice of bread and a small glass of wine. Paolo di Messer Pace da Certaldo attempted to bring order to mealtimes in his treatise Il Libro dei Buoni Costumi (a book about how the common man might cultivate good habits) when he advised that meals be “cooked once a day only, in the morning”, to keep “the cooked food for the evening” and “to eat little before going to bed”. In terms of what an everyday meal might consist of, Paolo suggests bread, wine, beans, millet porridge, and chestnuts during the appropriate season. Soups and some vegetables might make an appearance as well. Pork and fowl were reserved for special occasions.
Even the wealthy in Florence ate rather frugally on a daily basis, though they tended to step it up when guests were invited over. Apparently things had gotten a bit out of control in trying to impress, as the Florentine Republic decided to regulate what could be served at the dinner table when guests were present: only two main dishes, one boiled, one roasted. Fish was substituted on meatless days. Lest you think that sounds meager, consider that the boiled dish could offer three different kinds of meat and the roasted dish four kinds. Exceptions could be made by petitioning the city priors and demonstrating that the exemption was being made for the glory of the Republic and not for personal gain. What I wouldn’t give to see one of those requests!
Restaurants existed in the form of osterie–easy going places where businessmen, artists and literati could spend a few hours eating and socializing. We know the names of some of the more famous osterie, including the “Baldracca” in San Pier Scheraggio, the “Giardino” in via de’ Pilastri and my personal favorite, “Il Pennello” (the paintbrush), opened by painter Mariotto Albertinelli after he decided that the artist’s life was too rife with criticism and humiliation to be enjoyable.
Banquets were another story entirely. Used as a symbol of status and wealth, banquets celebrated family anniversaries, public and religious festivals, and of course, weddings. During the warm months, banquets were held in outdoor loggias which were located adjacent to the family palazzo. (Though there were more then 40 of these loggias in Renaissance Florence, one of the only surviving examples is the Rucellai Loggia on via della Vigna Nuova). Neighborhood people not invited to the party would stand a respectable distance away but close enough to glimpse the sumptuous clothing of the guests, see the rich tapestry and lace decorations, hear the music, watch the dancing, and smell the delicious courses as they were being brought out. The host would typically distribute large amounts of food to the people, indicating that the banquet was being held for the entire city.
Food was eaten with fingers, so hand washing before the meal at a stone basin called a lavabo and during the meal with acqua linfa (water perfumed with orange blossoms) was key. Guests also used napkins to keep their hands relatively clean during the long meal. Any food that remained uneaten was thrown under the table or into bowls placed there for the occasion. In between courses, the tables were cleaned off and guests enjoyed short concerts, dancing and sometimes even plays.
The senescalso was technically responsible for the carving of the meat but in reality he was more of a butler (or party planner) in charge of the entire ritual associated with banquets, from the organization to the execution of the meal itself.