Oct 302017
 

Today is supposedly the anniversary of the Banquet of Chestnuts (or Ballet of Chestnuts) which refers to a supper purportedly held in the Papal Palace by former Cardinal Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI on 30th October 1501. An account of the banquet is preserved in a Latin diary by Protonotary Apostolic and Master of Ceremonies Johann Burchard (it is titled Liber Notarum), but its accuracy is disputed. Burchard is cited as a primary source but no one believes that he was actually in attendance. Also, his account is written in language that is uncharacteristic of the rest of the diary entries, so it may be a later interpolation. Nonetheless, it’s an amusing story, even if fictional. Worth a tip of the hat and a recipe or two.

According to Burchard’s account, the banquet was given in Cesare’s apartments in the Palazzo Apostolico. Fifty prostitutes or courtesans were in attendance for the entertainment of the banquet guests. Burchard describes the scene in his Diary:

. . . Cesare Borgia arranged a banquet in his chambers in the Vatican with “fifty honest prostitutes”, called courtesans, who danced after dinner with the attendants and others who were present, at first in their garments, then naked. After dinner the candelabra with the burning candles were taken from the tables and placed on the floor, and chestnuts were strewn around, which the naked courtesans picked up, creeping on hands and knees between the chandeliers, while the Pope, Cesare, and his sister Lucretia looked on. Finally, prizes were announced for those who could perform the act [orgasm] most often with the courtesans, such as tunics of silk, shoes, barrettes, and other things.

To begin with, this account was dismissed as highly improbable by many contemporaries. The Borgias were certainly not especially pleasant and upright people, but a lot of their bad press was based on propaganda circulated by enemies. That is, they were not above killing anyone who got in their way, but that was not especially unusual at the time. Machiavelli modeled The Prince in part on Cesare and was an admirer. I suppose that might be faint praise in some people’s eyes. You’ll find my thoughts on Cesare and Lucrezia here:

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/cesare-borgia/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/lucrezia-borgia/

Although it may sound a little odd to modern ears, I think there is a great difference between bumping someone off because he is in the way, and having a lewd sex party. I will also (in limited fashion) defend pope Alexander against the worst accusations. Sure, he was openly sexually active as pope (and as cardinal before that), but those were the norms of the times. Celibacy for the clergy had been around for some time, but it was not taken as seriously then as it is now. Besides, Alexander was the first pope to openly acknowledge that he fathered his children, set them up well in life, and clearly was very devoted to them. Certainly, he favored his family in appointments and wealth as pope, but there was more than nepotism at stake. The Borgias were from Spain and their power in Italy was resented by noble Italian families, such as the Sforzas, who saw them as opportunistic interlopers and, as such, were always seeking ways to undercut them. Alexander’s favoritism towards his family was, therefore, as much protection against his enemies as it was paternal affection.  By the standards of most modern historians, Alexander is considered a shrewd and just diplomat and politician. From the outset he did a great deal to rid the clergy of the most evidently corrupt and self-serving appointees, for example.

So, is Burchard’s account of the banquet accurate? I seriously doubt it. Alexander was not Caligula.

Vatican researcher Right Reverend Monsignor Peter de Roo (1839–1926), rejected the story of the “fifty courtesans” as described in Louis Thuasne’s edition of Burchard’s diary (vol. 3). While granting that Cesare Borgia may have indeed given a feast at the Vatican, de Roo attempts, through exhaustive research, to refute the notion that the Borgias—certainly not the pope—could have possibly participated in “a scene truly bestial” such as Burchard describes, on grounds that it would be inconsistent with Alexander’s essentially decent, though much maligned, character, and that the majority of writers at the time either questioned the story or rejected it as outright falsehood. He also notes that the writing style is not consistent with Burchard’s other writing. De Roo concludes that a more credible explanation for the alleged “orgy” is that it is a later interpolation of events into Burchard’s diary by those hostile to Alexander:

To support the interpolated story, the enemies of pope Alexander VI bring forth of late other writers of the time. So does Thuasne produce Matarazzo, or the Chronicle ascribed to him. But Matarazzo essentially alters the tale, taking away its greatest odium, when he replaces Burchard’s courtesans and valets with ladies and gentlemen of the court. Thuasne also quotes Francis Pepi, who writes that it was Cesar de Borgia, not the Pontiff, who invited low harlots, and who cuts away the most abominable details, by saying that they passed the night in dancing and laughing, and by leaving out the presence of Lucretia de Borgia. The anonymous letter to Silvio Savelli is also mentioned to prop the report of Burchard’s diary. This letter, however, states only that the courtesans were invited to eat at the palace and offered a most shocking sight. It notices no further particulars nor the presence of any of the Borgias.

As always, to be scrupulously fair, de Roo is hardly a disinterested party in all of this. The Catholic church has spent a lot of time and energy cleaning up the history of the papacy. From the historical perspective I find this effort completely unnecessary. The times were what they were, and popes were what they were. But if your perspective is that the church embodies timeless and universal truths and moral values, it’s not possible to adopt that kind of relativistic view. I have no horse in this race, so I don’t care whether the banquet happened as described or not. I am disposed to think that it did not, because it seems out of place even for the times. I also accept the principle of oral transmission in which stories easily get embellished when passed by word of mouth. De Roo points out the possible confusion between the words for “courtier” and “courtesan,” and also that in the original telling of the story it was reported that some guests took off some of their clothes (because the room was hot) before they commenced dancing, and that this act, in itself, would have been notable. From there it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine enemies reporting the story going from removing an outer garment to dancing stark naked.

When I gave recipes for Lucrezia Borgia I used Libro de arte coquinaria (c. 1465) by Martino de Rossi, who is known to have been the head chef at the Vatican at the end of his career, so it is possible he was chef to Pope Alexander. Whether the banquet happened or not, and whether de Rossi was the chef or not, the recipes are quite suitable for the period and many can be recreated.  Here’s several for you to mull in the original and in my translation (with some notes).

Polpette di carne de vitello (veal roulade)

Per fare polpette di carne de vitello o de altra bona carne.

In prima togli de la carne magra de la cossa et tagliala in fette longhe et sottili et battile bene sopra un tagliero o tavola con la costa del coltello, et togli sale et finocchio pesto et ponilo sopra la ditta fetta di carne. Dapoi togli de petrosimolo, maiorana et de bon lardo et batti queste cose inseme con un poche de bone spetie, et distendile bene queste cose in la dicta fetta. Dapoi involtela inseme et polla nel speto accocere. Ma non la lassare troppo seccar al focho.

To make a roll of veal or other good meat

First, take some lean meat from the haunch and cut it into long slices and beat it on a cutting board or table using the knife handle. Take some salt and ground fennel seeds and spread over the cutlets. Then take some parsley, marjoram, and good lardo* and chop together with some good spices and spread this mixture over the cutlets. Roll them and cook them on a spit, but do not let them get too dry over the flame.  

* It is important to note that lardo is not lard, as it is normally translated. Lardo is specially prepared pork fat that some Italians eat raw in slices or with bread.

Roast chicken/pullet with orange juice

Per fare pollastro arrosto

Per fare pollastro arrosto si vuole cocere arrosto; et quando è cotto togli sucho di pomaranci, overo di bono agresto con acqua rosata, zuccharo et cannella, et mitti il pollastro in un piattello; et dapoi gettavi questa tal mescolanza di sopra et mandalo ad tavola.

How to prepare roast pullet

To prepare roast pullet you need good coals. When it is finished roasting, take some orange juice, or good verjuice mixed with rose water, sugar, and cinnamon. Put the pullet on a dish, dress it with the above mixture and send to the table.

[This recipe is rather simple, but if you wanted you could use the plain sauce as a marinade for chicken pieces before grilling them, or use it as a basting sauce when roasting the chicken.]

Chicken/Pullet sofftritto

Suffritto de Pollastri

In prima nectali molto bene e tagliali in quarto, o vero in pezzi piccholi, et poneli in una pignatta a frigere con buono lardo voltando spesse volte col cochiaro. Et quando la carne è quasi cotta getta fore la maiore parte del grasso de la pignatta. Et dapoi togli de bono agresto, doi rosci d’ova, un pocho pocho de bono brodo et de bone spetie, et meschole queste cose inseme con tanto zafrano che siano gialle et ponile in la dicta pignatta inseme co la carne et lascial bollire anchora un pocho tanto che tutte queste cose ti parano cotte. Dapoi togli un pocho pocho de petrosillo battuto menuto et ponilo insieme col ditto soffritto in un piattello et mandalo ad tavola. Et questo tale soffritto vole essere dolce o agro secundo il gusto comuno o del patrone.

Chicken Soffritto

First clean and quarter the chickens, or cut them into small pieces. Put them in a pan to fry with some good salted pork fat turning often with a spoon. When the meat is almost cooked discard most of the fat in the pan. Then take some good verjuice, two egg yolks, a little stock and some good spice, and mix all these with enough saffron to make it yellow. Put the mix in the pan with the meat and let it boil a little until it is cooked as you like. Then take a small amount of finely chopped parsley and add it to the soffrito and turn it on to a dish and send it to the table. This soffritto can be sweet or sour according to general tastes or according to the taste of your master.

[A version of this dish used to be one of my favorites. You’ll find it these days, occasionally, throughout Italy, Spain, and France.]

 

May 212017
 

Today is the birthday (1844) of Henri Julien Félix Rousseau, French post-impressionist painter, sometimes  known as Le Douanier (the customs officer), a slightly off-hand joke concerning his day job as an import tax collector. He started painting seriously in his early forties but was ridiculed during his lifetime by critics. He was not fully recognized as a self-taught genius until after his death when his work exerted an enormous influence on several generations of artists.

Rousseau was born in Laval (in northwest France near Brittany), in 1844, son of plumber. He attended secondary school in Laval first as a day student, and then as a boarder after his father became a debtor and his parents had to leave the town upon the seizure of their house. After school, he worked for a lawyer and studied law, but after a short stint tired of the work and joined the army. He served for 4 years, starting in 1863, but on his father’s death, he moved to Paris to support his widowed mother as a government employee. In 1868, he married Clémence Boitard, his landlord’s 15-year-old daughter, with whom he had six children (only one survived). In 1871, he was appointed as a collector of the octroi of Paris, collecting taxes on goods entering Paris. His wife died in 1888 and he married Josephine Noury in 1898.

From 1886, he exhibited regularly in the Salon des Indépendants, and, although his work was not placed prominently, it drew an increasing following over the years. Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was exhibited in 1891, and Rousseau received his first serious review when the young artist Félix Vallotton wrote: “His tiger surprising its prey ought not to be missed; it’s the alpha and omega of painting.” In 1893, Rousseau moved to a studio in Montparnasse where he lived and worked until his death in 1910. In 1897, he produced one of his most famous paintings, La Bohémienne endormie (The Sleeping Gypsy).

In 1905, Rousseau’s large jungle scene The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants near works by younger leading avant-garde artists such as Henri Matisse, and by a group now generally known as Les Fauves.

After Rousseau’s retirement in 1893, he supplemented his small pension with part-time jobs and casual work such as playing a violin in the streets. He also worked briefly at Le petit journal, where he produced a number of its covers. Rousseau exhibited his final painting, The Dream, in March 1910, at the Salon des Independants.

In the same month Rousseau cut his leg and the wound became infected, which he ignored. In August he was admitted to the Necker Hospital in Paris, where his son had died, and was found to have gangrene in his leg. After an operation, he died from a blood clot on September 2, 1910.

At his funeral, seven friends stood at his grave: the painters Paul Signac and Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, the artist couple Robert Delaunay and Sonia Terk, the sculptor Brâncuși, Rousseau’s landlord Armand Queval, and poet Guillaume Apollinaire who wrote the epitaph Brâncuși put on the tombstone (translated here):

We salute you
Gentile Rousseau you can hear us
Delaunay his wife Monsieur Queval and myself
Let our luggage pass duty free through the gates
of heaven
We will bring you brushes paints and canvas
That you may spend your sacred leisure in the
light of truth
Painting as you once did my portrait
Facing the stars

Here is a small gallery of some of my favorites.  I’m not particularly taken with his usual flat representation of the human figure, but I do like his portrayal of foliage, his colors, and his general composition. De gustibus . . .  I am not (nor want to be) an art historian.

Figuring out a recipe du jour is dead simple because of a famous event towards the end of Rousseau’s life. In 1908 Pablo Picasso, at the time an up and coming star, came across a painting by Rousseau (Portrait of a Woman) being sold in a junk shop cheaply as a canvas to be painted over. He was moved by the artistry, bought the painting, sought out the artist, and held a half serious, half burlesque banquet in his studio at Le Bateau-Lavoir in Rousseau’s honor. “Le Banquet Rousseau,” as it has come to be known is now legendary. US poet and literary critic John Malcolm Brinnin, wrote that it “was neither an orgiastic occasion nor even an opulent one. Its subsequent fame grew from the fact that it was a colorful happening within a revolutionary art movement at a point of that movement’s earliest success, and from the fact that it was attended by individuals whose separate influences radiated like spokes of creative light across the art world for generations.” Guests at the banquet included, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Metzinger, Constantin Brâncuși, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Marie Laurencin, André Salmon, Maurice Raynal, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, and Leo and Gertrude Stein.

The banquet was designed to be in two stages: first a formal dinner for 30 special guests, and second a general party for anyone who wanted to attend. Unfortunately, Picasso mixed up his dates and had ordered catered food (from a cheap local bistro) for the formal dinner for the wrong night. Consequently there was a scramble to provide dinner, and French artist’s model Fernande Olivier who shared the apartment with Picasso, made a big batch of riz à la valencienne — i.e. the French idea of paella — while Gertrude Stein raced around Montmatre in search of cheeses, sardines, bread and so forth as hors d’ouevres.

You can read all about the events of the banquet elsewhere. There are numerous stories and vignettes recounted by those present. Rousseau arrived at 8 pm when the guests (who had been drinking since 5 pm) were, let’s say, in jovial spirits. He was wearing his artist’s beret with a cane in one hand and his violin in the other. An odd sight: the short, white-haired, 64 year old painter greeted by 20-something artists and poets living in the heart of Bohemia, who would all go on to be world famous, but at the time were just beginning to be noticed. All of them ultimately drew inspiration, in one way or another, from Rousseau’s work.  Opinion is sharply divided as to whether the attendees (and Picasso himself) were truly honoring Rousseau or mocking him. Probably a bit of both at the time. But in death Rousseau had the last laugh: the painting that Picasso bought for 5 francs and displayed that night is now valued at $100 million.

Paella varies considerably around the world and is rarely cooked as they make it in Valencia. You’ll find one traditional recipe of mine here, http://www.bookofdaystales.com/cesare-borgia/  Throughout Spain, France, and Italy people prepare a variety of dishes of saffron rice with fish, meat, and vegetables which they think of as “Spanish rice”, and, of course, I have no idea what actually went into the dish at Rousseau’s banquet. But the typical Parisian riz à la valenciennes, calls for chicken, mussels, chorizo, and shrimp, with bell peppers and onions; a far cry from the rabbit, beans, and snails in Valencian paella. It is essential to have a wide, deep skillet to prepare this dish, preferably a paella pan.  A wood fire won’t hurt either, but a gas stove will do.

Riz à la Valenciennes

Ingredients

1 small chicken, cut in 12 pieces
olive oil
½ L/1 pint unshelled fresh mussels, fully scrubbed and debearded
160 ml/⅔ cup dry white wine
6-8 large shrimp, raw
2 onions, peeled and chopped
1 green bell pepper, deseeded and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
100 g/3½ oz. chorizo, finely sliced
250 gm/2 cups short-grain rice
800 ml/ 3½ cups chicken broth
½ tsp powdered saffron
salt and freshly ground black pepper
finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Instructions

Heat a small amount of olive oil in a skillet and sauté the chicken pieces until they are golden on all sides. Because they are small, this process will ensure that they are almost, but not entirely, cooked through. Transfer the chicken pieces to a bowl with their juices and set aside.

Heat half the white wine in a large pot. Add the mussels, cover and cook over high heat until the mussels are just open. Discard any mussels that do not open, and transfer the mussels to a bowl with their juices (strained through muslin) and set aside.

Sauté the shrimp in a little olive oil until they turn pink. Set aside.

Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons olive over medium heat in a large skillet or paella pan. Add the onions and bell pepper and sauté until soft. Add the chorizo slices and cook for 5 minutes more. Add the garlic and continue cooking for another 1 to 2 minutes.  Add the rice and sauté an additional 3 minutes, stirring regularly. Add the remaining white wine and allow it to evaporate completely. Add the broth and saffron, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bring the broth to a boil, cover, and turn the heat down as low as possible. Let the rice to cook for about 15 minutes, undisturbed. Remove the cover and check the rice. It should be barely cooked. If need be cook a little longer. When the rice is almost ready, arrange the chicken pieces, mussels and shrimp on top of the rice. Add their juices to the skillet. Cover and allow to cook over low heat for 5 minutes more.

Uncover, garnish with the fresh parsley, and serve in the skillet.

Serves 4