RENAISSANCE BANQUETS. The banquet, as a particular form of festivity, flourished in Renaissance Europe from the mid-fourteenth century to the early seventeenth century. It began as a specifically secular celebration; in medieval times the "feast" (French fête, Italian festa ) referred primarily to religious celebrations, special days in the church calendar—Easter, Christmas, saints' days—although it also denoted a sumptuous meal. As a lavish, ceremonial meal in honor of an individual or exceptional occasion, such as a wedding, the new banquet observed no such periodicity, and in its conspicuous consumption tended toward a blatant demonstration of wealth and power. It was distinguished not only by its extravagance and ostentatious scale but also by its theatricality and use of symbolism.
In the sixteenth century a banquet could also refer to the less ostentatious—though no less lavish, in relative terms—annual ceremonial dinners of confréries or guilds, groups of men linked through their craft or their parish. Usually held on a relevant saint's day, these were not only a ritual celebration but also a demonstration of goodwill.
Origins and Etymology
Elaborate, extravagant, ceremonial meals had been offered before the adoption of the word "banquet." Descriptions of the dinners in honor of Pope Clement VI in the mid-fourteenth century, which included a centerpiece of a fountain spurting forth five different types of wine, show that lavish entertainment was nothing new. Nevertheless, the "banquet" must have differed in some way if a new word had to be brought into the language.
Initially, it appears, the banquet was a lavish meal presented in a different style, with various dishes set out on a long table, as would be a buffet today. Both the term and the event had their origins in fourteenth-century Italy. The Italian word banchetto derives from banco, 'a long bench or table'. "Insieme disinano e cenano con banchetti molto abondevoli di varii cibi e bonissimi vini," wrote the Italian Matteo Bandello in the early sixteenth century ("Together they dine and sup, the tables displaying a great abundance of diverse dishes and excellent wines").
The French term banquet, which entered common usage around the middle of the fifteenth century, and the Spanish banquete (documented early sixteenth century) were both borrowed from the Italian; in England the word "banketti," derived directly from the Italian, predated the French term banquet, adopted early in the sixteenth century. By this time the form of the banquet had evolved considerably, according to the accounts of Christoforo di Messisbugo, and included theatrical and musical performances.
In his capacity as steward at the court of the dukes of Este, Messisbugo orchestrated many banquets and in his book, Banchetti: Compositioni di vivande et apparecchio generale (1549), he describes, in unparalleled detail, the management and staging of these lavish, formal, ceremonial feasts, from the setting of the tables with several tablecloths and ornamental figures of sugar or marzipan to the accompanying music and the dances performed during the course of the meal.
In sixteenth-century England the banquet evolved in two different directions. As well as an opulent and stage-managed feast, it became an elaboration of what had previously been the final course of a grand dinner, the dessert, an array of sweetmeats often served in purpose-built banqueting houses in the parks of great houses, or in an outside arbor or summerhouse.
One of the most striking features of banquet food was the presence of sugar, for both visual and symbolic effect, the lavish use of this expensive ingredient underlining the host's magnificence. The banquet menus appended to the printed edition of the Viandier of Taillevent (c. 1315–1395) in the last decade of the fifteenth century suggest an extravagant and incongruous application of sugar to roast quail, chicken and pigeon. (Originally compiled in the fourteenth century and attributed to the royal chef Taillevent, Le Viandier represents one of the few records of the cuisine of medieval northern France. The late-fifteenth-century printed edition contains additional material not included in the early manuscripts.) The chapter titled "Banqueting and made dishes with other conceits and secrets" in Gervase Markham's The English Hus-wife (1615) is composed of recipes for essentially sweet dishes such as fruit tarts, marmalades, preserves, marzipan, and jelly.
Sugar was used in dishes such as jellies, blancmange, and quince paste, and on dishes such as fritters and pies (Italian torte ). It was an essential ingredient in the candied nuts and spices offered at the end of the meal, in jewel-like glazed fruits often hung on miniature trees of silver, and in decorative marzipan figures and in sculpted sugar table ornaments. For a banquet given by don Ercole, son of the duke of Ferrara, to a group of nobles including his father, Messisbugo ordered a sugar model of Hercules and the lion, colored and gilded, to decorate the table; with the final course of confetti came more sugar models representing Hercules defeating the bull, together with Venus, Cupid, Eve, and other mythical figures.
Because the banquet was itself an exceptional meal, banquet food had to be out of the ordinary (out-of-season asparagus, gilded and silvered calves' heads). This typically translated as the most prestigious, most expensive ingredients—meats such as veal and capons—prepared in the most elaborate, spicy ways so as to emphasize the art and skill of the cooks (which, in turn, reflected glory back on the reputation of the family). It also meant many services, each usually composed of several dishes, although it was not expected that everyone would eat something from every service—dishes were to be admired as much as consumed. The banquet offered by Gaston IV, count of Foix, in honor of the ambassadors of Hungary in 1458 was comprised of seven services punctuated by four entremets; some of Messisbugo's menus ran to ten services, each composed of six or more dishes.
Especially when elements of performance were included, banquets could last many hours, and often led into a ball. At don Ercole's dinner, after all the courses and all the performances, the guests danced until daybreak, "fino al giorno chiaro " (until the light of day).
Designed to appeal to all the senses, banquets increasingly incorporated musical and theatrical elements. The entremets, the between-courses divertissements, were spectacles incorporating elements of surprise and trickery to amaze and impress the guests. Often elaborated to honor the occasion or the guest of honor, they were additional elements inserted in the structure of the meal. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, entremets were often the product of the kitchen, elaborated under the charge of the head cook, although they might well have involved carpenters and costume makers as well. The cooks' contributions included pastry castles, pies filled with live birds, gilded roast chickens and sucking pigs and fire-breathing roast swans and peacocks, re-dressed in their plumage. Almost invariably, music in some form accompanied the presentation of these entremets.
By the sixteenth century the entremets had undergone a transformation, with the culinary and theatrical elements separated. The between-course entertainment consisted almost entirely of performance—music, mime, dance, and acrobatics—leaving cooks free to devote all their skills to culinary artistry and visual display.
The banquet for don Ercole, for example, began with the performance of a comedy by Ariosto, after which guests moved to another room where they were entertained with music while tables were being set with silver candelabra, silver salt cellars, and intricately folded serviettes, or napkins. On their return they washed their hands in perfumed water before the dishes of the first service were presented, to the accompaniment of music and song. Messisbugo specified precisely the vocal and instrumental complements to each of the services, continuing through the interval between services, as well as the performance of a group of Venetian jesters.
Since the raison d'être of a banquet was to honor an occasion such as a marriage involving powerful and wealthy families, or the visit of a noble guest, or the arrival or departure of a prince (when it was often associated with the dramatic ritual of a procession), then it was necessary to highlight this purpose, typically through the entremets and table decorations. The sugar sculptures of Hercules at don Ercole's banquet were a clear reference to his strength and power, just as the recurring theme of a castle symbolized might and authority.
If the role of the banquet were to promote or strengthen strategic alliances (and marriages could easily fall into this category), the entremets might be designed to flatter the guests of honor. Thus at the dinner offered the Hungarian ambassadors the entremets presented paid homage to the guests and their mission. The first, a large castle atop a rocky peak, was decorated with the banners and coat-of-arms of the king of Hungary and the visiting nobles while the second, a fire-breathing tiger, bore the royal coat-of-arms on its collar.
Banquets also served to demonstrate, on a grand scale, the generosity of the host and, obliquely, his wealth and influence. Commenting on the growing popularity of banquets in northern France in the second half of the fifteenth century, Olivier de la Marche notes that their splendor accrued as each noble who gave a banquet wished to outclass the previous one. Their political importance meant that an element of social obligation was also involved; Messisbugo records the banquets don Ercole gave as well as those at which he was a guest.
Sumptuous, wealth-displaying spectacles involving food and performance continued into the seventeenth century. Vatel, a French counterpart to Messisbugo, was responsible for the organization of one such event in 1661 at the chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte, to which the young Louis XIV was invited. Later at Versailles, Louis himself entertained on an even grander scale but by this time the term banquet seems to have referred simply to formal dinners, the Versailles extravaganzas being known as fêtes.
See also Medieval Banquet ; Taillevent .
Jeanneret, Michel. A Feast of Words: Banquets and Table Talk in the Renaissance. Translated by Jeremy Whitely and Emma Hughes. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1991.
Messisbugo, Christoforo di. Banchetti: Compositioni di vivande et apparecchio generale. Ferrara, Italy, 1549.
Montanari, Massimo. The Culture of Food. Translated by Carl Ipsen. Oxford, U.K., and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994.
Strong, Roy. Splendour at Court: Renaissance Spectacle and Illusion. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1973. Detail of theatrical aspects of festivities, mostly late Renaissance.
La Condamnation de banquet
In the late fifteenth-century French morality play La Condamnation de banquet, banquet was an additional meal, differentiated from dîner and souper by the absence of servants; an array of food was set out on the table and guests helped themselves. It was also differentiated from the other two meals by the refined, elaborate dishes on offer, including a selection of sweet tarts, custards, fruits and nuts together with sweetened spiced wine.
Since the purpose of this play was probably to demonstrate the price of overindulgence, it should not be assumed that in fifteenth-century France the banquet was a supplementary evening meal, following the two standard meals of dîner, around midday, and souper in the early evening. In the play, the three meals are personified; after enjoying the hospitality of Dîner and Souper, the happy group of revellers—rejoicing in such names as Gourmandise, Friandise, Bonne Compagnie (Good Company), Passe-Temps (Leisure)—are led on, by Banquet, to a banquet. Here, however, they find they have been double-crossed as a horde of maladies (Gout, Colic, Jaundice, Quinsy) attack them. Those guests who escape bring a case before Dame Experience who finds Banquet, and to a lesser extent, Souper, guilty of corrupting the guests. Banquet is executed, and Souper is ordered to keep a respectable distance from Dîner. It is clear that the banquet was seen as promoting a pleasure-seeking lifestyle which, given the importance of the sin of Gluttony, would hardly have met with church approval.
Banquet of the Pheasant
Because of their political significance, banquets often attracted the attention of chroniclers. One of the best known is the Banquet of the Pheasant, held at Lille in February 1454, which was thoroughly documented by Olivier de la Marche, who helped organize the event for Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy. The ostensible purpose of this banquet was to inspire knights to join a crusade to recapture Constantinople, recently taken by the Turks.
The chronicler says little about the food and wine, but a great deal about the visual effects. The banquet took place in a large room, decorated with tapestries depicting the life of Hercules, in which were three tables, each displaying a series of entremets. On the first was a delicately constructed church, a model of a naked young boy pissing rosewater, a ship laden complete with cargo and sailors, and a fountain, fashioned partly of glass, and surrounded by trees, fruit, and flowers of glass. On the second table was a large pasté (a pastry case) in which were twenty-eight musicians, while from another castle jets of orange-flower water sprayed into the moat and the figure of a man atop a barrel in a vineyard invited guests to help themselves. On the third table was a forest with wild animals, moving as if they were alive, according to Olivier de la Marche. On a tall dresser were displayed platters of gold and silver, together with crystal jugs decorated with gold and precious stones. Near the wall were two high pillars, one supporting the figure of a woman whose right breast gushed spiced wine, and the other a lion, guarding the woman.
After admiring these, the guests were seated and a series of musical and other diversions followed, culminating in the presentation of a white-clad lady, representing the church, who pleaded to be rescued, her speech incorporating the motto of the Crusades, Dieu le veut (God wills it; or, God's will be done). At the end of her lament a live pheasant, richly ornamented with gold and jewels, and the duke (who, noted our diarist, knew exactly his purpose in organizing this banquet) made his vow to save Christianity, whereupon other nobles followed his example. After yet more music and spectacle, the dancing began, hippocras and candied spices were served, and guests enjoyed themselves until two or three in the morning.
SOURCE: Mémoires de Messire Olivier de la Marche. Collection complètes des mémoires relatifs à l'histoire de France. Edited by Claude B. Petitot. Paris: Foucault, 1820.
An Italian Renaissance Wedding Banquet
Banquet celebrating the marriage of the Marquis Gian Giacomo Trivulzio with Beatrice d'Avalos d'Aragona, Milan, 1488.
- Rosewater-scented water for the hands Pastries of pinenuts and sugar Other cakes made with almonds and sugar, similar to marzipan
- Asparagus (to the amazement of the guests, since it was enormous and out of season)
- Tiny sausages and meatballs
- Roast grey partridge and sauce
- Whole calves' heads, gilded and silvered
- Capons and pigeons, accompanied by sausages, hams and wild boar, plus delicate "potages"
- Whole roast sheep, with a sour cherry sauce
- A great variety of roast birds—turtledoves, partridges, pheasants, quail, figpeckers—accompanied by olives as a condiment
- Chickens with sugar and rosewater
- Whole roast sucking pig, with an accompanying "brouet"
- Roast peacock, with various accompaniments
- A sweetened, sage-flavored custard
- Quinces cooked with sugar, cinnamon, pinenuts, and artichokes
- Various preserves, made with sugar and honey
- Ten different "torte," and an abundance of candied spices
SOURCE: Mario Bendiscioli and Adriano Gallia. Documenti di storia medioevale, 400–1492. Milan: Mursia, 1970, pp. 267–268.