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Eat Feast Fast: The art of food in Europe (1500-1800)

Upcoming Fitzwilliam Museum Exhibition

Food is familiar and vital to all of us — as growers, preparers, and consumers — but its ubiquity and omnipresence in our lives belies the complexity of our relationship, and that of past generations, to food and eating. Food defines us as individuals, communities, and nations — we are what we eat and, equally, what we don't eat. When, where, why, how and with whom we eat are crucial social and cultural identifiers. The upcoming EAT FEAST FAST exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum draws out some of these relationships within a deliberately broad thematic framework, focussing on Britain and Europe from 1500 to 1800, in an age when local food cultures were transformed by global networks.

Dr Victoria Avery, Keeper of Applied Arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, and Dr Melissa Calaresu, Neil McKendrick Lecturer in History at Gonville and Caius College, are building on the success of the 2015 Treasured Possessions and the 2017 Madonnas & Miracles exhibitions — both highly successful collaborations between museum curators and historians in Cambridge and the result of ongoing object-handling sessions at the Museum for History undergraduates and post-graduates. Other historians in the Faculty will also be contributing to the exhibition and the catalogue, including the current Professor of Modern History, Alex Walsham, and the Ottoman historian, Dr Helen Pfeifer. While the 2015 exhibition focused on the history of food within the larger story of consumption and material culture, this exhibition will present novel approaches to understanding the history and culture of food and eating based on cutting-edge museum practice and research and place historically-accurate recreated food at the heart of the displays.

This ambitious interdisciplinary exhibition aims to showcase hidden treasures from collections in and around Cambridge. Many exhibits from the Fitzwilliam Museum's holdings have never been on public view, for example, the precious album of silver tableware designs by Giulio Romano, the Italian Mannerist painter, architect, and student of Raphael, which he made for the Gonzaga family in Mantua in the 1520s. 

Figure 1: Giulio Romano (1499-1546), Design for covered salt-cellar, pen and brown ink, yellow and grey wash on paper. PD.6-1948.f.5. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

 

Figure 1: Giulio Romano (1499-1546), Design for covered salt-cellar, pen and brown ink, yellow and grey wash on paper. PD.6-1948.f.5. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Other exhibits from the Museum are being specially conserved for the show, for example, the Museum's painting of a fowl market, which is a copy of a painting of 1618-21 by Frans Snyders, one of the foremost Flemish still life painters. The original painting was commissioned with three others by Antoine Triest, Bishop of Ghent, and later entered the collection of Great Britain's first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, and is now in the Hermitage. The Snyders painting, which measures more than three metres across, has only recently arrived at the Hamilton Kerr Institute (HKI) from the dining hall of Hughes Hall where it was on long-term loan. Meticulous conservation by HKI conservators will permit the colossal canvas to be included in the exhibition next autumn. 

Figure 2: Removal of the The Fowl Market canvas from its frame, by staff at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge, in December 2018, prior to conservation. The painting is a mid-17th-century copy by an unknown artist after an original by Frans Snyders (1579-1657), dated 1618-21, now in the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo © The Hamilton Kerr/ Chris Titmus

Figure 2: Removal of the The Fowl Market canvas from its frame, by staff at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge, in December 2018, prior to conservation. The painting is a mid-17th-century copy by an unknown artist after an original by Frans Snyders (1579-1657), dated 1618-21, now in the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo © The Hamilton Kerr/ Chris Titmus

Loans for EAST FEAST FAST are also drawn from other Cambridge University collections – rare books and manuscripts from the Library, historic plant specimens from the Herbarium, and silver centrepieces from the Colleges – as well as from several local museums and country houses, including Wisbech & Fenland Museum, Norwich Castle Museum and Holkham Hall. A small number of exhibits will come from farther afield. Southampton City Art Gallery has just approved the loan of a 'portrait' of Summer composed of seasonal fruits and vegetables by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a key work as it is the only known painting in a British collection by this enigmatic Italian Mannerist painter. The curators are currently waiting to hear back from the Victoria and Albert Museum about the loan of an engraved pewter Seder plate made in Berlin in 1764 which would complement the Museum's collection of serving dishes and basins, such as the Limoges enamel basin depicting the Wedding of Psyche. 

Figure 3: Pierre I Courteys, Wedding of Psyche, Limoges enamel dish, 1560. M.116-1961. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Figure 3: Pierre I Courteys, Wedding of Psyche, Limoges enamel dish, 1560. M.116-1961. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Rather than simply illustrating a traditional chronology of food history, the objects and images — carefully selected over the last two years by Avery and Calaresu — will have more of a revelatory and emotive function, by linking them to modern-day preoccupations with food and eating. Two interdisciplinary workshops (supported by the History Faculty's Trevelyan Fund) explored some of these themes with contributions by prehistoric archaeologists, early modern art historians, and contemporary anthropologists and will result in a special issue on the material cultures of food in the Journal of Early Modern History in early 2020. Early modern commentators were as concerned with conspicuous overconsumption as we are today, and yet food was vital to the expression of political and religious identities. The renowned food historian, Ivan Day, will bring to life elaborate table settings with historically accurate reconstructions of a Tudor sugar banquet and a heavily-laden Baroque feasting table with several bird pies amongst the culinary luxuries.

Food and the senses go hand in hand, and the curators are keen to draw out the non-visual aspects of eating, feasting and fasting as far as possible in the exhibition, especially to assist with the experience offered to blind and partially-sighted visitors. The soundscapes associated with elite dining will be captured through recordings of music for feasting contexts, created in collaboration with the Gonville and Caius College Choir, and sensory-based workshops led by Ivan Day in which recreated historical recipes will permit the smells and tastes of early modern food to be experienced at first hand by participants.

Public engagement is at the heart of the exhibition and our mission as historians and curators. Avery and Calaresu have just been awarded a Cambridge Arts and Humanities Impact Fund of almost £10,000 to co-produce with diverse local communities in Cambridge two films related to the themes of feasting and fasting and everyday eating. These films will enable target audiences to tell their own stories about food meanings and memories from personal perspectives, thus widening conversations about contemporary relationships to food. Both films will be embedded within the exhibition and, in this way, will enrich the visitor experience by introducing a wider range of voices beyond the early modern European focus of the exhibition.

EAT FEAST FAST, its accompanying catalogue, ambitious public programmes and dedicated website will tease out many themes familiar to us as buyers, makers, and eaters of food, linking the past with our present. Contemporary, relevant, and sometimes controversial issues — such as the origins of food and food security, overconsumption in times of austerity, and our relationship with animals and nature — will be explored through a historical lens. The visually-stunning objects and thought-provoking didactic material in this exhibition, an ongoing collaboration between the Faculty of History and the Fitzwilliam Museum, are designed to engage meaningfully with diverse audiences and to make every visitor question and rethink their relationship with food.

EAT FEAST FAST: THE ART OF FOOD IN EUROPE (1500-1800) will be running from 26 November 2019 to 19 April 2020. Further information in the run-up to the exhibition will be available on the Fitzwilliam Museum website later this year.

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