What happens when you bring a foodie to the Uffizi to look for food in Italian Renaissance art? You get hungry. But besides that… Last week Oriana of Tuscanycious and I went to the Uffizi on a hunt for food in painting. We wanted to make a great itinerary for you, a new way of approaching this museum. We admit partial defeat: there is not much food in the Uffizi, and I can explain why. But it was a lot of fun! To look for food in art in a general sense, there are various subject matters that you can search for that usually contain food. These are: the Temptation of Adam and Eve (at least an apple is guaranteed), the Last Supper (bread and wine, sometimes more), marriage scenes including the Marriage at Cana or peasant weddings (think Breughel); in the sixteenth century, in Northern Europe there are also many still lives and genre scenes (including markets) that provide a satisfying display of food. Food is used symbolically in some 15th-century Italian art, but it’s more common to find it in the following century as realistic accessories to an interior, sometimes religious scene.
Food in Early Renaissance artIn the first few rooms of the Uffizi, while you look at Giotto and the 13th- and early 14th-century art, you will not find any food. This is all religious art and there are no last suppers here. From this period the only food in art that comes to my mind is a lovely fresco of the Last Supper by Pietro Lorenzetti with cats that eat table scraps, but alas, that’s located in Assisi (Umbria). Things don’t improve as you seek food in Piero della Francesca or Filippo Lippi. However, there are a few interesting fruits in the Botticelli Room – in particular, pomegranates and a strange breed of oranges.
Fruits in BotticelliThe most obvious fruit here is the multi-seeded red one that Christ holds in Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegranate. In this case, the fruit serves a symbolic function - when broken or bursting open it is a symbol of the fullness of Jesus' suffering and resurrection. For this reason the pomegranate is often depicted in the hands of baby Jesus. There is also a pomegranate in the other large tondo (round painting) in the room, the Madonna of the Magnificat. This painting is such named for the words that appear on the page of a book to which Christ points, so frankly I’ve never noticed the pomegranate in it before. I have always liked this work best of all the Botticellis in the Uffizi Gallery because of its beautiful composition that follows the roundness of the frame.
The Mala MedicaThe mala medica is the tree you see in the back of Botticelli’s Primavera that has white flowers and orange fruits growing on it at the same time (impossibly). I always knew about that tree, but thanks to Oriana and our search for food, I now also see the very same type of tree in other works in this room, including the Madonna Enthroned with Saints by Domenico Ghirlandaio of 1484 (see photo), in which the fruit is very obviously large and significant. There is some confusion as to what the Mala Medica is. The word “mala” is similar to mela, apple in Italian, but in these paintings it is depicted as an orange and is definitely part of the citrus family. Dr. Albert Shneider writes of the Mala Medica in his 1899 article on BirdNature:
Lemons have been known for a long time. They were brought to the notice of the Greeks during the invasion of Alexander the Great into Media where the golden-yellow fruit attracted the attention of the warriors who gave them the name of Median applies (Mala medica). Later, Greek warriors also found this fruit in Persia, and hence named it Persian apples (Mala persica). The eminent Greek philosopher and naturalist Theophrastus, 390 B.C., described the fruit as inedible, though endowed with a fragrant odor, and having the power to keep away insects. On account of this latter property the so-called Median apple was, by some, supposed to be identical with the fruit of the cedar (Kedros) and therefore received the name “Citrus” from which is derived “citrone,” the German name, and “citronnier,” the French name for the fruit.As you can see, this helps little to none: so far our mala medica is either a lemon, an apple, or a cedar fruit. In any case, the mala medica, also known as mala aurantia or melarancia in Italian supposedly has therapeutic properties (for the digestive system, it seems), and the Medici family of Florence adopted it as part of their iconography. Medici means doctor in Italian, and the mala medica is a perfect wordplay that also has meaning through this medical connection. When you see what looks like oranges in art of this period, you can safely assume that the piece was a Medici commission. After the Botticelli room you’ll see some Leonardo da Vinci’s (no food there) and then end up out in the hallway, where if you look up to the decorated ceiling you’ll see ladies lounging and satyrs romping and often these late-16th-century characters are eating something. But if we all walked around with our heads up looking at these grotesque frescoes (that’s the art historical term for these, not a judgment on my part) we’d get a sore neck and it’d be a long time ‘till lunch.