Eat Feast Fast: Material culture and food memories in contemporary Cambridge communities

Research project
Early Modern History
sugar banquet

The recent exhibition, Feast & Fast: The art of food in Europe, 1500-1800, had more than 60,500 visitors over its truncated run from 26 November 2019 until the Fitzwilliam Museum’s closure because of the Coronavirus crisis on 17 March 2020.

Although it was due to run for another six weeks (until 26 April 2020), we still managed to squeeze in dozens of curator-led tours for students, alumni, scholars, and community groups, seven lunchtime lectures ranging on subjects from early modern vegetarianism to Ottoman dining, two late-night events including a student panel on fasting in different religions, a full public engagement programme which included art classes from toddlers to teenagers and dancing sessions, interviews, conversations, and podcasts, magazine and newspaper articles, a special issue of an academic journal on the material culture of food in early modern Europe, and an interdisciplinary conference dedicated to the pineapple.



‘Faith and Fasting’ panelists

‘Faith and Fasting’ panelists as part of ‘Food, Faith, and Wellbeing’ Late Event at the Fitzwilliam Museum, 30 January 2020, chaired by Dr Christopher Kissane, Editorial Fellow at History Workshop and Associate Research Fellow at Birkbeck (centre), with (left to right) Dr Vicky Avery (John’s, Art History); Akshar Abhyankar (Pembroke, History); Zoe Abrahams (Newnham, History); Masum Ali (Caius, Natural Sciences); Reyna Nayee (Caius, Land Economy); Dr Melissa Calaresu (Caius, History). (C) Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.


This flurry of activity was the culmination of three years’ collaboration between the Faculty of History and the Fitzwilliam Museum, or more precisely between me and Dr Victoria Avery, Keeper of Applied Arts and her incredible Museum colleagues. Alongside my busy schedule at college and in the Faculty, the Department of Applied Arts provided another academic ‘home’ for me, where Vicky and I met weekly to choose objects, discuss themes and devise the visual narrative of the exhibition. Later in the process, we met with Fitz colleagues to work out the ambitious public programmes, press campaign, and digital content for the dedicated website. Last summer, we met almost daily to create the didactic panels and labels, as well as write and edit the beautifully illustrated Feast & Fast exhibition catalogue, which contains the contributions of many members of the Faculty including our current Chair, Professor Alex Walsham, and graduate students. When I was not in my office at Caius, I was in the Museum!

The exhibition brought together more than 200 objects, many of them from the reserves of the Museum and not seen for years, as well as from several Cambridge colleges and local museum collections. Newly conserved paintings, textiles, and ceramics were displayed alongside precious illustrated manuscripts, prints, books, and archival material to tell a story of food from production to consumption in early modern Europe. The exhibition explored themes such as vegetarianism, anxieties about overconsumption, the confessionalisation of dietary restrictions, and the creation of national food stereotypes, linking the past with urgent contemporary concerns around what we eat and where we get our food.

The intricate historical recreations by Ivan Day – an English Renaissance wedding sugar banquet, an 18th-century confectioner’s shop, and a Baroque Feasting table – rightly attracted a lot of attention from the press. They provided a way for Vicky and me to bring Museum objects to life by recontextualising them with historically-accurate replica food that encouraged visitors to engage with the sensual elements of early modern food while reminding them of the labour involved in its production, preparation, and presentation. The exhibition and the catalogue drew on new research from the field of food history and highlighted pressing themes in current historiographical debates, such as the anonymity of the enslaved peopled who produced sugar for the European market and the social divide between those who could barely afford enough food to survive and those with year-round access to exotic fruit like the pineapple.


Recreation of a Baroque feasting table, c.1650, conceived and made by Ivan Day with taxidermy by David Astley and seafood and fruit models by Tony Barton, with, in the background, the Studio copy after Frans Snyders (1579–1657), The Fowl Market,  Antwerp or Brussels, Belgium, after 1621, oil on canvas. 213.8 x 337.8 cm. Given by C. Maud, 1856 (315).

So, what did we miss because of the early closure? An imaginative and historically-inspired performance, Food and Feuds: Two Cooks of Hexham, ‘featuring’ cookery writers Hannah Glasse and Isabella Beeton, a lecture on the multi-sensory aspects of the Passover Feast by independent art historian Julia Biggs, and another lecture on how we fell in love with Italian food by Diego Zancani, Emeritus Professor of Italian at the University of Oxford. Luckily, as recompense, you can watch the video, read the blog, and buy the book. However, by the time the pandemic ends and we’re back visiting museums again, the exhibition will not be re-opening. The deinstallation will return objects to their reserves, loans back to their home collections, and tear down the temporary bulkheads and triumphal Cuccagna archway to make way for the next exhibition. The early closure brings some regrets, for instance, the cancellation of a Stuart vegetarian banquet, devised by Alex Rushmer and his team at a local restaurant, Vanderlyle, whose commitment to plant-based seasonal cooking, sustainability, and minimal waste chimed with a number of themes in the exhibition. I am hoping that there will be other opportunities to collaborate with them in the future and enjoy their wonderful cooking again.



Enlarged reproduction of a Neapolitan cuccagna, ‘Porta dedicata alla Vigilanza’, from Francesco Orilia, Il zodiaco, over, idea di perfettione di prencipi (Naples, 1630), fol. 456, with, in the background, a recreation of an English confectioner’s shop window, c.1790, conceived and made by Ivan Day.

However, the exhibition is not without its legacy. There is the catalogue, of course, which we hope will be enjoyed and used by students of early modern history. The website showcases images of all the objects and labels, provides resources for further study, and hosts the first of two films about food memories in contemporary Cambridge co-created with community groups and Egg & Spoon Films, and funded by the University’s Art and Humanities Impact Fund (the second is on the way!). The ‘Creative Response’ room, painted a bright ‘pineapple’ yellow at the end of the exhibition, was a great innovation in our museum practice. It provided a wealth of public feedback through questionnaires and visual responses, which will enable us to study the public impact of the exhibition. We hope to add a new section on creative responses to the website in coming weeks. We also hope that our community group partners and tour groups will return to the Fitzwilliam Museum with their friends and families.

Melissa Calaresu is the Neil McKendrick Lecturer in History at Gonville and Caius College and an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of History.



Page credits & information

All images © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.