Absolutely, because the paintings, starting with the Baroque style of painting, then Rococo and then the late 19th century, have always immortalized foods, those that the artists themselves ate and those that they saw the rich consume on the lavish tables of their patrons. By studying the paintings in a scientific manner, in collaboration with the University of Parma, we have been able to obtain valuable information on the tastes, foods and culinary traditions of the past centuries. The link between art and food was born many centuries ago, perpetuated by the artists who specialized in the field of what’s known as "still life", and on display we have this large, varied and tasty selection.
What type of exhibition itinerary has been planned to bring the historical and artistic aspects together with those that are more purely sensory related to food?
The exhibition comprises a “ten-course” artistic menu, that is iconographical and chronological. It is arranged in ten sections: the allegory of the five senses, pantries and kitchens, fruit, vegetables, fish and shellfish, game, cold cuts and cheese, sweet wine and liqueurs, dinning tables, the food of 20th century art. I want to take the visitor on an artistic, culinary and sensory journey.
Looking at a painting can also be an opportunity to discover foods that by now have completely disappeared, of which it’s hard to imagine the taste: is it possible to give an example of a work that portrays foods that are no longer found, foods that are now "extinct"?
I cite this painting by Giuseppe Recco, a Neapolitan painter of the 17th century: on the left we see the loaves of bread, a ham and a bottle of wine, and on the right a kind of cake. What is it? It’s a casatiello, a pastry. A bread dough that has been rolled, baked in the oven and filled, on "fat" days, so holidays, with lamb, pigeon, veal, boiled eggs, spices, cheeses and other tasty items. On “lean” days it was filled exclusively with cheese and cooked herbs. This type of food is now very rare and demonstrates traditions and culinary customs that have since disappeared.
The artists are mostly Italian: what is the relationship between their place of origin and the foods depicted in their works?
The relationship is very close because analyzing the works, we understand that the artists tended to represent the foods of their homelands. Neapolitans were focused mainly on fish and shellfish, those from Emilia and Tuscany on cold meats, cheeses and breads from those regions. The Lombards instead have directed their brush on game, the Venetians on fish and some foods that are still prevalent today, such as polenta.
Are there any examples in the exhibition of paintings that depicted certain foods for the very first time?
The paintings on display, especially those in the 19th century section, immortalized in some cases for the first time foods that are common nowadays thanks to the food industry of the 20th century, but that at the time the painting was executed were the exclusive preserve of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. For example Cesare Tallone in his canvas signed and dated 1887, showed for the first time in history gorgonzola cheese and gruyere, two cheeses that are very common today. Emilio Longoni, the master of Lombard Pointillism and a student of Segantini, gave us a painting where for the first time panettone was immortalized in 1878. In this painting we see a Christmas composition where the panettone cake is low and wide, dating from before Angelo Motta’s invention that made it taller and narrower thanks to the process of leavening. Therefore the paintings are testament to the evolution of certain foods that are now well known.
At the end of the exhibition path will be the "Food Pyramid" installation by Paola Nizzoli: what message does it want to give?
The message of this work, that I commissioned directly from the artist, is the triumph of food that for a millennia has formed part of our extraordinary culinary tradition. On six shelves of the installation are the foods, seen earlier in the paintings, placed according to the balance typical of the Mediterranean diet. The final message of this work is that food is life, it is joy, but it must be balanced.
Alongside the exhibition there are also educational workshops: can you explains the reason for this choice?
I really wanted to heavily focus on educating and teaching the younger generation because food is such an important element in the lives of each of us. So I set up a team of six educators who specialize in such activities who prepared and offered to all the schools in Italy ten types of workshops where through play, key concepts such as respect of food and healthy eating are conveyed to the younger ones.
When did still life, the desire to portray fruit, fish, and vegetables in art begin to find success and why?
Caravaggio is the great Lombard genius who with the "Basket", painted in Rome around 1597-98, initiated the glorious season of Italian still life that during the Baroque era became a widespread genre. In this exhibition the painting with the "Metal plate with peaches and vine leaves" by Giovani Ambrogio Figino, will be on display, dated 1591-1594: a metal plate, a bed of vine leaves with wonderful peaches with a velvety skin. This work of roughly 20x30 cm is the first still life in the history of Italian art, and preceded the work of Merisi by around five years.
In the 17th century, still life had a tremendous success because it didn’t cost very much, the paintings were cheap, and it's a genre that was much liked: a decorative feature in the large dining halls of stately homes and a myriad of still lifes are mentioned in the old inventories of collections. In the 19th century, with the age of the bourgeois, still life became something for the elite, it entered into the aristocratic classes, the bourgeoisie of the new industries, wanted to be surrounded in the dining rooms by the foods that were eaten at their dinning tables. In the 20th century everything was changed by the arrival of Avant-garde, up to the appearance of Pop Art with Andy Warhol, where food became an emblem of the industrial age.
At the exhibition it will be possible to preview the paintings of the dinning tables of Giacomo Ceruti known as Pitocchetto: which aspects should we dwell on in particular to understand the meaning of this work and its message linked to food?
Ceruti is featured with three pairs of still lifes, probably three of the most beautiful pendants that he ever painted. There's one in particular that has never been exhibited before, of which I am particularly proud and it is this pair, with tables laden with food. In one of the paintings we see peaches, melons, bread loaves, a slice of cheese and wine: it seems to be an afternoon snack. In the other, Ceruti seems to portray with his epidermal realism, the ingredients of a recipe awaiting preparation: we see a large cabbage, garlic, onions, pieces of meat, sausages and tomatoes, which seem like the ingredients of Cassola, a typical dish of Lombardy.
Foody, the Expo Milano 2015 Mascot, is inspired by the style of Arcimboldo. Will we find him among the selected paintings?
Presented in the exhibition are Foody’s ancestors. In the fruit room, the public will find this very nice painting by Antonio Rasio, a Baroque painter, who reinterpreted the easygoing and jolly Arcimboldo. Hence this anthropomorphic figure consists mostly of autumn fruits and vegetables, his face made from apples, apricots, and cherries. But there's more: in a dedicated room, exhibited for the first time to the public, will be one of three world-renowned arcimboldesche sculptures: a colossal statue of over two meters in height and weighing over 800 kg, entirely carved from fruits and vegetables. It comes from a noble Lombard villa and its name is "The keeper of the vegetable garden" because an accompanying plaque in Latin denounces this role held in the gardens of the villa.
"Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life," wrote Henry Miller in "Wisdom of the heart": What is the wisdom that art can evoke as part of a healthy diet?
It's a very interesting question to which Massimo Bottura responded indirectly, the great chef of Osteria Francescana in Modena, that through a short text in the catalog points out how these works on display in the exhibition at Palazzo Martinengo teach us a great truth: the basis of cooking are the raw ingredients. In the paintings on display, we can see how artists portrayed the preparations, food, raw ingredients, fruit, vegetables, fish, shellfish, and game. For us today this has to be a message inviting us to rediscover the quality of raw ingredients.