Thursday, February 9, 2012

Bones of the Dead Subtletie

Here is a subtletie and associated documentation that I made for a feast that my Barony held in 2011. 

An Ossi dei Morti (Bones of the Dead) Subtletie

Subtleties (or sotleties) were highly ornamental table decorations used at feasts in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. They were often made of confectionery or pastry, and served to amuse guests and display the wealth and stature of the host. Some subtleties were not made to be eaten and contained dangerous ingredients such as mercury or lead; others were made of edible materials so that guests could enjoy eating the showpiece after enjoying looking at it.

I prefer to create subtleties out of safe and edible materials so that the populace can enjoy eating the creation. This subtletie is made from marzipan and sugarplate and is inspired by accounts of feasts with death themes from Roman times to the Renaissance.

Feasts with Dark Themes

The Roman Emperor Domitian was celebrated for his bloodthirsty reputation and known for his changeable nature and dangerous whims. Records indicate that Domitian held a Death-themed Feast to celebrate the soldiers who had died in a recent conflict. [‘Charlemagne’s Tablecloth’ p. 87.] The guests were served in a room draped with black fabric and lit by tomb-lamps. Gravestones were put beside each diner, and they ate black funeral foods while being entertained by boys made up to look like ghosts.

An account of an Italian Carnival Masquerade held during the lifetime of Piero di Cosimo reflects similar themes of death and darkness. A description in ‘Charlemagne’s Tablecloth’ (p. 88) describes it thus: 
               a masquerade which, 'through it's novelty and terror...filled the whole city with fear and marvel
together...for even as in the matter of food bitter things sometimes give marvellous delight to the human palate, so do horrible things in such pastimes, if only they be carried out with judgement and art.' Carnival hell-banquets were served in classical settings of a black-draped Hades, with devils offering food on fire-shovels and screaming wretches providing off-stage sound effects. The food and wine
   was exquisite, though, even allowing for its repulsive presentation: containers made to look like toads, scorpions, spiders and lizards revealed delicious creations made out of larks and thrushes”.  

My main inspiration for this subtletie was the account of noble banker Lorenzo Strozzi hosting a ‘Black Feast’ or ‘Feast Macabre’ at his house in Rome. During the 1519 Carnival, Strozzi invited three courtesans, two buffoons, four Cardinals and a number of noblemen to his house, and they were ushered into a dimly lighted room hung with skeletons. The table in the centre of the room was covered with a black cloth and had a ‘death’s head’ as a centerpiece, which contained roasted pheasants. In the adjoining dining room, the guests sat at an empty table and food appeared mysteriously from below. Diners were served a centerpiece of “bones” made out of sausage, and confections featuring “bones of the dead” made out of marzipan. Next, spectral forms appeared in the room. Apparently these surprises frightened the Cardinals so much that they left the feast, their appetites gone.
 It is interesting to note that none of the accounts of this feast that I have found refer to the reason that Strozzi decided to hold such a feast. We can only speculate as  to whether he was making a comment on the decadence of Roman high society, remembering a dead friend, reminding his guests that death is always near, trying to cause a sensation, or (as one modern writer has suggested,) because he had no other way of distinguishing himself “except by his grotesqueness”. [‘History of the Papacy’]

Guendalina Mahler [‘Heavenly Banquets and Infernal Feasts in Renaissance Italy] contrasts dark feasts such as this, with others with more angelic themes. She notes that the “Feast(s) of Heaven, marks a high point in the intellectual aspirations of the genre. It was a remarkably ambitious, if somewhat pedantic, attempt to sublimate the dinner party into an exercise in high culture. The second, a feast served in Hell, played on the appeal of the sublime. Held in a sophisticated courtly setting, it flirted subversively with the tradition’s rag-tag cousin: the popular carnivalesque. These banquets were high-stakes political events which spoke in the language of high art.”


I originally had planned to reproduce the Death’s Head from Lorenzo Strozzi’s 1519 Black Feast out of sugarplate and put marzipan bones inside, but I realised that such a structure would probably be difficult to transport safely. Instead, I decided to make skulls and crossbones out of sugarplate, and long bones out of marzipan. I used two types of sweets because I would like diners to be able to enjoy eating the subtletie, and many people do not like marzipan.
Both the sugarplate paste and the marzipan were modeled by hand. The sugarplate was painted with commercially available black food dye and rosewater. In period, dyes were made from fruit and vegetable juices, soot or charred materials, and sometimes real metals such as gold leaf and lead powder. I chose to use a modern dye over a period recipe using soot to make the end result more palatable and appropriate to modern notions of taste and safety.

I used lemon juice, gum tragacanth, water and rosewater with powdered sugar to make my sugarplate. I omit egg white from my recipes, even though it was often used in period for strengthening confectionery pastes, due to concerns over the remote possibility of salmonella poisoning. I used extra gum tragacanth in my mixture to make the paste more crumbly so that it would crack and craze slightly to make the skulls look more realistic. I am fortunate in being able to purchase pre-ground icing sugar, as in period it was ground by hand and was a laborious process.

I used commercially available marzipan for this project as it is extremely difficult to get almond meal to grind fine enough to make good quality paste. In the past, I have tried to grind my almond meal fine enough to match period accounts of ‘fine almond meal’ and have ended up with nut butter! Modern palates expect marzipan to be very fine and not grainy. I am not sure whether the consistency problems I have had in the past relate to the type of almonds I have been using or the kitchen equipment, or both.

There are a large number of cookbooks still available from our time period, and the plethora of recipes relating to confectionery prove that Renaissance people were just as fond of sweets as modern people. Some examples are listed below.

An example of a marzipan recipe fromValoise Armstrong's translation of Das Kuchbuch der Sabina Welserin

In the name of the Holy Trinity I, Sabina Welserin, begin this cookbook. God grant me His holy grace and wisdom and understanding and judgment with which I through His Holy will live here in this time and with Him forever. Amen. anno 1553

22 If you would make good marzipan - First take a half pound of almonds and soak them overnight in cold well water, take them out in the morning. Next pound them well until they become oily, pour a little rose water on them and pound them further. When they become oily again, then pour a little more rose water thereon. Do this until they no longer become oily. And pound the almonds as small as possible. After that take a half pound of sugar, pound not quite all of it in, leaving a little left over. Next, when the almonds and sugar are pounded well together, put them in a bowl, take the lid from a small box, loosen the rim completely, so that it can be detached and put back on again, however leave the lid and the rim together. Take wafers and make them about as wide as a pastry shell, very round. Spread the almond paste described above with the fingers onto the wafers, moistening the fingers with rose water and dipping the almond paste into the sugar, which you have kept in reserve. After that, when you have spread it out evenly with your hands, take the sugar that you have reserved and sprinkle it through a sieve evenly over the marzipan. And take a small brush and dip it in rose water and sprinkle the marzipan overall, so that the sugar is dissolved. Then let it bake. Check it often, so that it is not burnt. It should be entirely white. The amount of a half pound is necessary, so that the oil remains.

The following recipe for a marzipan tart was taken from ‘The Medieval Kitchen Recipes From France and Italy.’

“Marzipan. Skin the almonds very well and pound them as finely as possible, because they will not be put through a sieve. Note that to make the almonds whiter, more flavourful, and sweeter in the mouth, they should be put to soak in fresh water for a day and a night, or even longer, so that they can be skinned by pressing between your fingers. When you pound them, dampen them with a little rose water so that they do not become oily. And if you want to make this torta good, use equal weights of sugar and almonds, that is, one libra of one and the other, or more or less as you prefer; and also use one or two oncie of good rose water; and mix all these things together thoroughly. Then take cialdonui or nevole made with sugar and first moistened with rose water; arrange them on the bottom of the pan…….”
A recipe for Ymages In Sugar from ‘Early French Cookery’:

“And if ye will make any ymages or any other thing in suger that is casten  in moldys, seethe them in the same manere that the plate is, and poure it  into the mouldes in the same manere that the plate is pouryde, but loketh  youre mold be anoyntyd before with a littell oil of almaundes.”

Sugar Paste recipe in the ‘Good Hus-wives Jewell’ of 1596:

“To make a paste of Suger, whereof a man may make all manner of fruits  and other fine things with their forme, as Plates, Dishes, Cuppes and such like things, wherewith you may furnish a Table.”
“Take Gumme and dragant as much as you will, and steep it in Rosewater til it be mollified, and for foure ounces of suger take of it the bigness of a beane, the juyce of a Lemon, a walnut shel ful, and a littke of the white of an eg. But you must first take the gumme, and beat it si much with a pestell in a brazen morter, till it be come like water, then put it to the iuce with the white of an egge, incorporating al these wel together, this done take four ounces of fine white suger wel beaten to a powder, and cast it into the morter by a little and a little, until they be turned into the form of paste, then take it out of the said morter, and bray it upon the powder of suger, as it were meale of flower, until it be like soft paste, to the end you may turn it, and fashion it which way you wil. When you have brought your paste to this fourme spread it abroad upon great or small leaves as you shal thinke it good ans so shal you form or make what things you wil, as is aforesaid, with such fine knacks as may serve a Table taking heede there stand no hotte thing nigh it. At the end of the Banket they may eat all, and breake the Platters, Dishes, Glasses, Cuppes and all other things for this paste is very delicate and saverous.”


Barber, A. 1973, Cooking and Recipes from Rome to the RenaissanceAllen LaneLondon.

Creighton, Mandell, 2010. A History of the Papacy from the Great Schism to the Sack of Rome, Nabu Press.

Dawson, T. 1596, The Good Hus-wife’s Jewell

Eleanor Scully D. and Scully, T. 1995, Early French CookeryUniversity of Michigan Press, Michigan.

Fletcher, Nichola, 2005 Charlemagne's Tablecloth, St Martin’s PressUK.

Mahler, Guendalina, 2007. Heavenly Banquets and Infernal  Feasts in Renaissance Italy, Brepols Publishers

May, R. 1685, The Accomplisht Cook, Prospect Books 1994 Reprint, London.

Redon O, Sabban F. and Serventi, S. 1998, The Medieval Kitchen - Recipes From France and ItalyUniversity of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Redon O, Sabban F. and Serventi, S. 1998, The Medieval Kitchen - Recipes From France and ItalyUniversity of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Further Reading:

Ajmar-Wollheim, Marta, and Flora Dennis. At Home in Renaissance Italy. V&A Publications, London: 2006. ISBN: 1-85177-489-0.

Barber, A. 1973, Cooking and Recipes from Rome to the RenaissanceAllen LaneLondon.
Black, Christopher F. Italian Confraternities in the Sixteenth CenturyCambridge University Press, New York: 2003. ISBN: 0-521-53113-6.
Black, Maggie. The Medieval Cookbook. Thames and HudsonNew York: 1992. ISBN: 0-500-01548-11230.1
Burke, Peter. The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in ItalyPrinceton University Press, New Jersey: 1999. ISBN: 9780691006789.
Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier. Originally printed, 1528. Trans. by Leonard Eckstein Opdycke. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York: 1903.
Cohen, Elizabeth and Thomas. Daily Life in Renaissance ItalyGreenwood Press, Westport CT: 2001. ISBN: 0-313-30426-2.
Currie, ElizabethInside the Renaissance House. V&A Publications, London: 2006. ISBN: 978-1-85177-490-6.
Florio, John. Queen Anna's New World of Words: or Dictionarie of the Italian and English tongues. Melch and Bradwood, London: 1611.
Frugoni, Chiara. A Day in a Medieval CityUniversity of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1997. ISBN: 0-226-26635-4.
Platt, H. 1602, Delightes for Ladies

Scully, Terence. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Boydell Press, Rochester: 2005. ISBN: 0-85115-430-1.

Scully, T. 1997, The Vivendier, Devon: Prospect Books
Scully, Terence. The Neapolitan Recipe Collection: Cuoco NapoletanoUniversity of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor: 2000. ISBN: 0-472-10972-3.
Sider, Sandra. Handbook to Life in Renaissance EuropeOxford University Press: New York, 2005. ISBN: 978-0-19-533084-7.
Stinger, Charles. The Renaissance in RomeIndiana University Press, Bloomington IN: 1998. ISBN: 978-0-253-21208-5.

 Strong, R. 2002, A History of Grand Eating

Reading Carnival: The Creation of a Florentine Carnival Song
Andrea Gareffi. La scrittura e la festa. Teatro, festa e letteratura nella Firenze
del Rinascimento. Bologna: Il Mulino, 1991. Pp. 41 1.
Andrea Gareffi. La scrittura e la festa. Teatro, festa e letteratura nella Firenze
del Rinascimento. Bologna: Il Mulino, 1991. Pp. 41 1.

Welserin, S 1553.  Das Kuchbuch der Sabina Welserin alcohol/cordials/CordialPaper.html

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