Feb 072018

On this date in 1497 supporters of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola conducted a monumental bonfire of the vanities, and, although not the first of its kind, has since been taken as the iconic event of its type (as well as being the last for some time thereafter).  A bonfire of the vanities (falò delle vanità) was the burning of objects such as cosmetics, art, and books condemned by authorities as exemplifications of, or provocations towards, sin. At Carnival in Florence in 1497, Savonarola’s followers collected and publicly burned thousands of such objects. Bonfires of the vanities were not invented by Savonarola, but had been a common accompaniment to the outdoor sermons of San Bernardino di Siena in the first half of the 15th century. The focus of this destruction was nominally on objects that might tempt one to sin, including overt items of vanity such as mirrors, cosmetics, and fine dresses, but also included playing cards, musical instruments, books that were deemed to be immoral, such as works by Boccaccio, and manuscripts of secular songs, as well as artworks, including paintings and sculpture.

Fra Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican friar who was assigned to work in Florence in 1490, largely thanks to the request of Lorenzo de’ Medici – an irony, considering that within a few years Savonarola became one of the foremost enemies of the house of Medici and helped to bring about their downfall in 1494. Savonarola campaigned against what he considered to be the artistic and social excesses of Renaissance Italy, preaching with vigor against any sort of luxury. His power and influence expanded mightily, so that in time he became the effective ruler of Florence, and even had soldiers for his protection following him around everywhere.

Beginning in February 1495, during Carnival, Savonarola began to host his regular “bonfire of the vanities.” He collected various objects that he considered to be objectionable: irreplaceable manuscripts, ancient sculptures, antique and contemporary paintings, priceless tapestries, and many other valuable works of art, as well as mirrors, musical instruments, books of divination, astrology, and magic. He destroyed the works of Ovid, Propertius, Dante, and Boccaccio. So great was his influence that he even managed to obtain the cooperation of major contemporary artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Lorenzo di Credi, who reluctantly consigned some of their own works to his bonfires. Anyone who tried to object found their hands being forced by teams of ardent Savonarola supporters. These supporters called themselves Piagnoni (Weepers) after a public nickname that was originally intended as an insult.

Savonarola’s influence did not go unnoticed by the higher church officials, however, and his excesses earned him the disdain of Pope Alexander VI. He was eventually excommunicated on May 13th, 1497, and executed on May 23, 1498 by being hung on a cross and burned to death. Ironically, the papal authorities would take a leaf out of Savonarola’s book on censorship, because the day after his execution they gave word that anyone in possession of the Friar’s writings had four days to turn them over to a papal agent to be destroyed. Anyone who failed to do so faced excommunication.

Although it is widely reported that the Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli burned several of his paintings based on classical mythology in the great Florentine bonfire of 1497, the historical record on this is not clear. According to the art historian Giorgio Vasari, Botticelli was a partisan of Savonarola: “He was so ardent a partisan that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress.” Writing several centuries later, Orestes Brownson, an apologist for Savonarola, mentions artwork only by Fra Bartolomeo, Lorenzo di Credi, and “many other painters,” along with “several antique statues.”

Art historian Rab Hatfield argues that one of Botticelli’s paintings, The Mystical Nativity, is based on the sermon Savonarola delivered on Christmas Eve, 1493.

The event has been represented or mentioned in varying degrees of detail in a number of works of historical fiction, including George Eliot’s Romola (1863), E. R. Eddison’s A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941), Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961), Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s The Palace (1978), Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient – part two 1992, Roger Zelazny and Robert Sheckley’s If at Faust You Don’t Succeed (1993), Timothy Findley’s Pilgrim (1999), Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s Rule of Four (2004), the novel I, Mona Lisa by Jeanne Kalogridis (2006), the Showtime series The Borgias, The Sky (Italy) and Netflix (North America) series Borgia, and The Botticelli Affair by Traci L. Slatton (2013). As a metaphor, Tom Wolfe used the event and ritual as the title for his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities with a film adaptation of the same name. Margaret Atwood’s works allude to the Bonfire, as in her dystopian novels The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and Oryx and Crake (2003). It is also depicted in the video game Assassin’s Creed II, in which Savonarola is one of the antagonists. Jordan Tannahill’s 2016 play Botticelli in the Fire is a fictional retelling of the events leading up to the Bonfire of the Vanities.

I will turn to Maestro Martino author of Libro de Arte Coquinaria (Book on the Art of Cooking) (c. 1465), for today’s recipe. Martino de Rossi was a culinary expert who was considered unequalled at the time and is considered by some (anachronistically) the Western world’s first celebrity chef. He was probably born in northern Italy (in or near Milan) and made his career across Italy. He was the chef at the Roman palazzo of the papal chamberlain (camerlengo), the Patriarch of Aquileia. Martino was applauded by his peers, earning him the epitaph of the prince of cooks. His book is considered a milestone in Italian gastronomic literature, and he a transitional figure from Medieval to Renaissance cuisine. The whole book is available in English translation, of average quality, and you could choose recipes that graced the palates of the vainest of Renaissance Italians. Here is his recipe for an herb frittata, called “frictata” in the 15th century, that I would call modest. The recipe has no measurements, but is fairly straightforward. You can make a plain frittata, one using the poaching water of some herbs, or another using the herbs themselves. My translation is fairly literal.


Battirai l’ova molto bene, et inseme un poca de acqua, et un poco di lacte per farla un poco più morbida, item un poco di bon caso grattato, et cocirala in bon botiro perché sia più grassa. Et nota che per farla bona non vole esser voltata né molto cotta. Et volendola fare verde, prendirai slmilmente le cose sopra ditte giognendoli del suco de queste herbe, cioè vieta, petrosillo in bona quantità, borragine, menta, maiorana, salvia in minore quantità, passando il ditto suco; poi cavarai piste le herbe molto bene per la stamegna. Et per fare in un altro modo frittata con herbe, prendirai le sopra ditte herbe et tagliate menute le frigerai un poco in un bon botiro o oglio, mescolandole con l’ova et l’altre cose sopra ditte farai la frittata et cocirala diligentemente che sia bene staionata et non troppo cotta.

Beat eggs very well with a little water and a little milk to make it [the frittata] softer; also a little good cheese, grated, and cook it in good butter because it will be fattier. Note that, for it to be good, it should not be stirred nor cooked too much. If you wish to make it green, do the same as above and add the cooking water from the following herbs: chard, a generous amount of parsley, borage, mint, marjoram, and a lesser amount of sage, passing them through a sieve to obtain their water; then remove the herbs that will have been crushed in the sieve. And to make a frittata another way with herbs is to take the above herbs, finely chop them and fry them in a little good butter or oil, mixing with eggs and the other ingredients mentioned above you make the frittata and cook it carefully, well seasoned, and not cooked too much.

May 142017

Interesting day for Louis XIII of France. He came to the throne on this date in 1610, at the age of 8, when Henry IV of France, his father, was assassinated. He also died on this date in 1643. I’ve occasionally talked about people who died on their birthdays, but never celebrated a ruler who died on the anniversary of coming to power. I’ll spend a little time talking about the importance of his reign, but, since this is (in theory) a foodie blog, I’ll concentrate on changes in the culinary scene in France during his reign.

Louis was king at a time when Europe was in turmoil politically and religiously. His father was raised a Huguenot who had to struggle with conflicts between Protestants and Catholics both within his own realm and with his neighbors. Henry IV was the first king in the Bourbon line, and both his reign and that of his son saw the ascendancy of the Bourbons over the Habsburgs in Spain and Austria. Henry survived several assassination attempts before he finally succumbed to a Catholic fanatic, François Ravaillac, who stabbed him in the Rue de la Ferronnerie when his coach was stopped by traffic congestion related to his queen’s coronation ceremony. Henry’s problem was that he had been raised Protestant by his mother, but had to (nominally) convert to Catholicism twice: first to be king of Navarre, and then to be king of France. So, he was hated by some Protestants as a traitor and by some Catholics as a Protestant sympathizer. There’s a fundamental rule here – try to please everyone and you end up pleasing no one.

Because Louis was a minor when he became king, his mother, Marie de’ Medici, became regent for him.  Marie got embroiled in numerous court intrigues, not least because her husband had kept a number of mistresses – quite publicly – and they all insisted on a piece of the action especially after Henry’s death. She also kept a large following of Italian favorites at court which led the young king Louis to take power in 1617 by exiling his mother and executing her followers, including Concino Concini, the most influential Italian at the French court.

Louis XIII was described as taciturn and suspicious, some of which may have come from the fact that he had a serious congenital speech impediment. The ambassador of King James I of England to the court of France, Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, who presented his credentials to Louis XIII in 1619, remarked:

I presented to the King [Louis] a letter of credence from the King [James] my master: the King [Louis] assured me of a reciprocal affection to the King [James] my master, and of my particular welcome to his Court: his words were never many, as being so extream a stutterer that he would sometimes hold his tongue out of his mouth a good while before he could speak so much as one word; he had besides a double row of teeth . . .

Perhaps as a consequence of these speech problems, Louis relied heavily on his chief ministers, first Charles d’Albert, duc de Luynes then Cardinal Richelieu, to govern the kingdom of France. King and cardinal are remembered for establishing the Académie française, and ending the revolt of the French nobility. The reign of Louis “the Just” was also marked by the struggles against Huguenots and Habsburg Spain.

France’s greatest victory in the conflicts against the Habsburg Empire during the period 1635–59 came at the Battle of Rocroi (1643), five days after Louis’s death caused by apparent complications of intestinal tuberculosis. This battle marked the end of Spain’s military ascendancy in Europe and foreshadowed French dominance in Europe under Louis XIV, his son and successor.

I covered much of this territory here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/cardinal-richelieu/ so I will not repeat myself. Let’s move on to cooking. The exile and execution of the Italians in the French court had a major impact on courtly manners, including cuisine. At the time there were two major threads to French cuisine: (1) Classic Medieval cooking involving fruits and meats mixed together with an abundance of spices, and (2) Italian cooking styles which, to that point, were the most revolutionary in Europe. French cooking broke with both traditions and embarked on a new course that evolved into the haute cuisine we are all familiar with. The results of the new experiments in French cooking styles are laid out in Le Cuisinier françois (1651) by François Pierre de la Varenne, which became an extremely influential cookbook along with others he wrote before and after (on confiture and patisserie).

Le Cuisinier françois was the first book to set down in writing the considerable culinary innovations achieved in France in the 17th century, while codifying food preparation in a systematic manner. La Varenne introduced the first bisque and Béchamel sauce (although the latter is disputed; he replaced crumbled bread with roux as the thickener for sauces, and lard with butter; and he introduced the terms bouquet garni, fonds de cuisine (stocks) and reductions, as well as the use of egg whites for clarifying stocks. In addition, he did away with a lot of heavy spices in favor of fresh garden herbs, and separated savory dishes from sweet ones. The book also contains the earliest recipe in print for mille-feuille. He deals at length with the cooking of vegetables, which was an unusual departure from standard cookbooks of previous generations. In his recipe for a fragrant sauce for asparagus there is evidence of an early form of Hollandaise sauce: “make a sauce with good fresh butter, a little vinegar, salt, and nutmeg, and an egg yolk to bind the sauce; take care that it doesn’t curdle…”

Potage à la Reyne is possibly la Varenne’s most famous recipe, certainly the most frequently posted online – usually with modern attempts to recreate it. You’ll find coxcombs readily enough in Chinese supermarkets; I’m not sure about the West. Never seen them. Partridges are not that common either, but you can get capons easily enough. I took the recipe from here http://www.coquinaria.nl/english/recipes/07.2histrecept.htm#Pierre%20La%20Varenne%201651 where you will also find a discussion about the purported history of the soup, plus a modern adaptation. The translation is mostly my own.  The part that baffles me is why you need to pass a red hot shovel over the soup before garnishing and serving. Have you ever broiled soup?

Potage à la Reyne.
Prenez des amandes, les battez & les mettez bouïllir auec bon bouïllon, vn bouquet, & vn morceau du dedans d’vn citron, vn peu de mie de pain, pu[i]s les assaisonnez; prenez bien garde qu’elles ne bruslent, remuez les fort souuent, puis les passez. Prenez ensuite vostre pain & le faites mitonner auec le meilleur bouïllon, qui se fait ainsi; Apres que vous aurez desossé quelque perdrix ou chapon rosty prenez les os & les battez bien dedans vn mortier, puis prenez du bon bouïllon, faites cuire tous ces os auec vn peu de champignons, & passez le tout. & de ce bouïllon mitonnez vostre pain, & à mesure qu’il mitonne arrosez le dit bouïllon d’amende & ius, puis y mettez vn peu de achis bien delié, soit de perdrix ou de chapon; & tousiours à mesure qu íl mitonne mettez y du bouïllon d’amende iusques à ce qu’il soit plein.
Prenez en suite la paëlle du feu, la faite rougir, & la passez par dessus. Garnissez de crestes, pistaches, grenades & ius, puis seruez.
The Queen’s soup.
Take some almonds, grind them and put them on to boil with good bouillon, with a bouquet [of herbs], a piece of citron pulp, and a few breadcrumbs; then season them. Take good care that they don’t burn, stirring them quite often, then strain them. Then take your bread and simmer it in the best bouillon, that is made like this: after you have deboned some roasted partridges or capons take the bones and pound them well in a mortar. Then take some good bouillon, cook all of the bones with a few mushrooms, and strain everything. Simmer your bread in this bouillon and, as it is simmering, sprinkle it with the said almond bouillon and meat stock, then add in a little finely chopped partridge flesh or capon, always in such a way that it keeps simmering. Add almond bouillon until it is full. Then get the fire shovel, heat it to red hot and pass it over the top. Garnish with cockscombs, pistachios, pomegranate seeds and meat stock, then serve.

For comparison here is an English version/translation from John Nott’s The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary (London:1723), showing the influence of la Varenne:

BEAT Almonds, and boil them in good Broth, a few Crums of Bread, the Inside of a Lemon, and a Bunch of sweet Herbs, stir them often, strain them, then soak Bread in the best Broth, which is to be thus made; Bone a Capon or Partridge, pownd the Bones in a Mortar, then boil them in strong Broth, with Mushrooms, then strain them through a Linnencloth ; with this Broth soak your Bread; as it soaks, sprinkle it with the Almond-broth. Then put a little minced Meat to it, either of Partridge or Capon, and still as it is soaking, put in more Almond-broth, until it be full, then hold a red-hot iron over it; garnish the Dish with Pomegranates, Pistaches, and Cocks-combs.