A gigantic pineapple, resplendent on a bright pink plinth, has landed on the front lawn of The Fitzwilliam Museum. An installation by contemporary artists Bompas & Parr, this symbol of hospitality and welcome heralds the opening of Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500 – 1800, a remarkable new exhibition celebrating the production, preparation and presentation of food, its consumption or rejection as well as its ideologies and identities.
This story of food is told through nearly three hundred objects, a beautifully curated mix of ceramics, paintings, textiles, books, glassware and magnificent Cambridge Renaissance silver tableware from two Cambridge colleges. Many of these artefacts were already held in the Fitzwilliam’s reserves and a number of paintings have been especially conserved for this exhibition, their bright colours singing out against the dark grey walls of the galleries.
Internationally renowned food historian Ivan Day has created three bespoke and historically accurate culinary recreations – a sugar banquet for an English renaissance wedding, an English 18th century confectioner’s shop window and workspace and a Baroque feasting table. These intricate recreations took my breath away. It was fascinating to hear Ivan speak about how he researched and made them, wherever possible using original moulds from his own collection, several of which are also on display.
If you like food, you’ll love this exhibition. We live in a world of supermarkets where we can pretty much get our hands on any type of food at any time of year. This exhibition reminds us that in days past, feasting and fasting were linked to the liturgical calendar as well as to seasonality (although many of the artists ignore seasonality in favour of portraying an abundant table in their paintings!). It presents food in a religious and moral context, as a display of wealth, status and power, as medicine, as an aphrodisiac and even looks at its role in national stereotypes, politics and satire. And I learned that vegetarianism and veganism are nothing new … debates about the impact of these ways of eating on the body were happening back in the early modern period too.
The final room of the exhibition, painted bright pineapple yellow, is a creative zone where visitors can relax and respond to what they’ve seen. You’ll find contemporary cookery books alongside facsimiles of historical cookery books, scent boxes, objects to handle, a short film and activities for children as well as an opportunity to give your feedback.
Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500 – 1800 opens on 26 November and runs until 26 April 2020. Don’t miss it!!
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, CB2