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:
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.]
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.
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.]