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Fede Galizia, Still Life with Peaches, Quinces, and a Grasshopper, ca. 1610, Oil on panel, 30.5 x 43.2cm, private collection

Fig. 1 Fede Galizia, Still Life with Peaches, Quinces, and a Grasshopper, ca. 1610, Oil on panel, 30.5 x 43.2cm, private collection

Evaristo Baschenis, A Still Life with Musical Instruments, oil on canvas, 98 x 145cm. The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Fig. 2 Evaristo Baschenis, A Still Life with Musical Instruments, oil on canvas, 98 x 145cm. The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Giacomo Ceruti, Still Life with Lobster, Oyster and Fish, Rob Smeets Gallery, Geneva

Fig. 3 Giacomo Ceruti, Still Life with Lobster, Oyster and Fish, Rob Smeets Gallery, Geneva

Evaristo Baschenis, A Still Life with Musical Instruments (detail), oil on canvas, 98 x 145cm. The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Fig. 2 Evaristo Baschenis, A Still Life with Musical Instruments (detail), oil on canvas, 98 x 145cm. The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

A Reminiscence of Lombard Still Lifes and dinner with Silvano Lodi in 1982
John T. Spike

When Nicholas Hall asked me to jot down a reminiscence that would combine ‘eating and drinking’ with ‘Lombard still lifes’, I had to think back decades to New York in the summer of 1982, when I was a young art historian embarked on my second curating assignment.  

Two years before, I had guest-curated ‘Italian Baroque Paintings from New York Private Collections’ for the Art Museum at Princeton, meeting many aficionados of old Italian paintings in the process, and having lots of dinners surrounded by paintings, usually fueled by French wine, then the best available.  The Princeton show was meant to be an homage to the small and informative shows staged by Robert and Bertina Suida Manning in the 1960s at the tiny Finch College Museum of Art on East 78th Street. Great collectors and experts, they had done this out of sheer love – for Italian art and for each other.

After the Princeton show, a few nostalgic New Yorkers set out to encourage more such shows, if possible.   Italophiles like Bob Manning (of course), the paintings conservator Marco Grassi, the art historians Stephen Pepper and Ann Sutherland Harris, as well as John H. Dobkin, director of the National Academy of Design, settled on the idea of an impressive exhibition of Italian still lifes, which had never been done in America.  The plan was to open “Italian Still Life Paintings from Three Centuries” in the National Academy’s handsome galleries on Fifth Avenue in January 1983, slightly more than a year away.  As the youngest member of the group, the job of curating fell to me.

This backstory was needed to set the scene for the summoned-up reminiscence to which we have finally arrived.  Beginning in late 1981, I was immersed in the pursuit of the forty to fifty pictures that would constitute a triumphant array of still lifes ranging from Lombardy to Naples.  The first step was to read everything on the subject – which fortunately wasn’t too much – and make lists of the best works, then go to see them.  The months passed quickly as I studied, travelled, viewed, selected, and met the twenty or so prospective lenders, mostly museum curators in Italy. 

By spring of 1982, although everything was going smoothly, it dawned on me that art museums, however supportive of our plan, would be disinclined to lend more than one or two paintings at most.  Much of curating consists of counting the exhibits.  The following museums had generously agreed to lend more than one:  Brera (2),  Pinacoteca in Faenza (2), Uffizi (2), Palazzo Pitti (4), Galleria Borghese (2), Capodimonte in Naples (4),  Museo di Duca di San Martina in Naples (2).  The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. patriotically lent us two (2) fine still lifes.  Adding the lenders of one precious picture each, the total looked to be around thirty,  just enough.  I was disappointed that the list did not yet include the two most important Lombards, namely, Fede Galizia and Evaristo Baschenis. 

Thus it was with mingled hope and trepidation in the summer of 1982 that I accepted Marco Grassi’s offer to introduce me to Silvano Lodi, who was said to have the world’s largest and best collection of Italian still life paintings.  After making a fortune as an art dealer specializing in the still lifes and landscapes by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Lodi had moved from Munich to Campione d’Italia, an elegant enclave between Milan and Switzerland.   Lodi invested heavily in the pictures that he liked, and he was an expert in them too.  Grassi had seen a number of magnificent still lifes at his house.  As we drove the short distance from Lugano, Grassi also told me that Lodi had at least one still life attributed to Caravaggio, adding graciously, ‘but that would be up to you to decide’.  (Lucky me.)

During the next several hours, my fledgling knowledge of Italian still lifes was severely put to the test as Silvano Lodi, a small yet strong man of a certain age and overwhelming energy, carried out his paintings one by one, placing them in front of me so that I could guess the painter.   Even in the rare cases that I was able to identify them, I risked being wrong in his eyes because, in Silvano’s firm opinion, at least three of his still lifes were by Caravaggio.  One of these, a dramatic still life of fish, grapes and apples by Luca Forte was later acquired by Élie and Liliane de Rothschild for their Paris residence.  Many years later, after their estate sale, I had the honor of acquiring this great still life for the Muscarelle Museum of Art in Williamsburg, Virginia.   

As a proud Lombard, Silvano had a special knowledge of Fede Galizia’s greatness before anyone else.  Seeing these pictures and persuading him to lend one was the prime objective of my visit.  Two of his exquisite pictures by Galizia became famous: his Still Life with Peaches, Quinces, and a Grasshopper (fig 1), which has passed through important collections and is today with a private collection.  These two pictures exemplify Fede’s gift for introducing subtle allegories into her breathtakingly naturalistic fruitpieces.  

Exhausted by these hours of cordial, but intense, attribution debates with arguably the world’s leading expert on Italian still lifes, I was relieved when it was time for dinner.   Silvano’s good friend was the owner of a simple, but legendarily good, trattoria called la Taverna, also in Campione.  The décor was old style, meaning, the absolute minimum.  The point was fresh, flavorful food.  A house specialty was Tagliatelle ai Tartufi bianchi, followed by grilled tagliata di manzo.  The local wines were unpretentious and delicious.  I would not know until two more visits whether Silvano bore a grudge from our discussions, but in that evening the three of us picture-lovers had an exuberant, and memorable, dinner.   

We became friends.  In the end Silvano lent 10 paintings, including a Fede Galizia and a dazzling Musical Instruments by Baschenis (fig 2).  The exhibition of forty-five still lifes came off on time in January, warmly praised in the New York Times.   A month before the opening, Lodi found a dazzling  Still Life with Lobster, Oysters, and Fish (fig 3) by Giacomo Ceruti, a Lombard who worked in Venice.  It was too late to be in the show, but Silvano sent it anyway and it was proudly displayed hors catalogue. 

 

Epilogue: 

Many years later, I showed a photograph of the Ceruti to a Venetian friend in the hope he could explain the strange assortment of fish, turnips, onions, wine vinegar and a red earthenware pot.   My friend smiled and said, ’These are the ingredients of a typical Venetian zuppa di pesce. The fish are the red mullet and sole of the upper Adriatic.’   As Marcella Hazan tells us in The Classic Italian Cook Book, “The very idea behind fish soup, is that it can turn virtually any combination of fish into a succulent and satisfying dish.”

John Thomas Spike is an eminent American art historian, museum curator, author and lecturer, known for his focus on European artists before 1800, Italian still lifes, and a wide range of modern artists.  Born in New York City in 1951, Spike divides his time between Williamsburg, Virginia, and Florence, Italy.

© 2020 John T Spike and Nicholas Hall
All Rights Reserved

ON FOOD AND DRINK

READ

La Cote Basque
Truman Capote 

An extract from Capote’s classic 1975 exercise in biting the hand that feeds you. A short story, based on a lunch the author has with Lady Ina Coolbirth, a scarcely disguised characterization of Lady Slim Keith, in which the two characters dish the dirt on High Society at the legendary New York restaurant, La Cote Basque:

Then she decided against cocktails, saying: “Why not have a proper reunion?” From the wine steward she ordered a bottle of Roederer’s Cristal. Even for those who dislike Champagne, myself among them, there are two Champagnes one can’t refuse: Dom Perignon and the even superior Cristal, which is bottled in a natural-colored glass that displays its pale blaze, a chilled fire of such prickly dryness that, swallowed, seems not to have been swallowed at all, but to have turned to vapors on the tongue and burned there to one sweet damp ash…

Ina selected from her salad a leaf of Bibb lettuce, pinned it to her fork, studied it through her spectacles. “There is at least one respect in which the rich, the really very rich, are different from…other people. They understand vegetables. Other people- well, anyone can manage roast beef, a great steak, lobsters. But have you ever noticed how, in the homes of the very rich, at the Wrightsmans’, or Dillons’, at Bunny’s and Babe’s, they serve only the most beautiful vegetables, and the greatest variety? The greenest petit pois, infinitesimal carrots, corn so baby-kerneled and tender it almost seems unborn, lima beans tiner than mice eyes, and the young asparagus! The limestone lettuce! The raw red mushrooms! Zucchini…” Lady Ina was feeling her Champagne.

 

Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic which, with Ebeneezer Scrooge’s newfound generosity resulting in his gift to the sparse Cratchit family table, ushered in the more bountiful turkey as the Christmas bird of choice supplanting the traditional goose described below:

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were all the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family, indeed as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last! Yet everyone had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows!

 

Brideshead Revisited
Evelyn Waugh

Charles Ryder’s dinner in Paris with Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited

Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited during the second world war when rationing was at its peak and such meals as that described below would have been impossible. He revised the text in the 1960s finding the food passages overdone.

I was there twenty minutes before Rex. If I had to spend an evening with him, it should, at any rate, be in my own way. I remember the dinner well- a soup of oseille, a sole quite simply cooked in a white-wine sauce, a caneton a la presse, a lemon souffle. At the last minute, fearing that the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviar aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a bottle of 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and with the duck, a Clos de Beze of 1904….The soup was delicious after the rich blinis-hot, thin, bitter, frothy…the sole was so simple and unobtrusive that Rex failed to notice it. We ate to the music of the press-the crunch of bones, the drip of blood and marrow, the tap of the spoon basting the thin slices of breast. There was a pause here of a quarter of an hour, while I drank the first glass of the Clos de Beze and Rex smoked his first cigarette…I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder of an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another passion than his. By chance I met this same wine again, lunching with my wine merchant in St James’s Street, in the first autumn of the war; it had softened in the intervening years, but it still spoke in the pure authentic accent of its prime, the same words of hope…The cognac was not to Rex’s taste. It was clear and pale and it came in a bottle free from grime and Napoleonic ciphers.. It was only a year or two older than Rex and lately bottled. They gave it to us in very thin tulip-shaped glasses of modest size.

‘Brandy’s one of the things I know a bit about,” said Rex. “This is a bad colour. What’s more, I can’t taste it in this thimble.”

Then they brought him a balloon the size of his head. He made them warm it over a spirit lamp. Then he rolled the splendid spirit round and round, buried his face in the fumes, and pronounced it the sort of stuff he put soda in at home.

So shamefacedly they wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and moldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort.

“That’s the stuff,” he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings around the sides of his glass. “They’ve always got it tucked away, but they won’t bring it out unless you make a fuss. Have some.”

 

Madame Bovary
Gustave Flaubert
translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling

Emma Bovary’s wedding is being celebrated. In a highly symbolic and quintessentially post revolution bourgeois manner, Flaubert contrasts a lavish yet simple spread of food with an ambitious and kitsch wedding cake. 

The table was laid under the cart-shed. On it were four sirloins, six chicken fricassees, stewed veal, three legs of mutton, and in the middle a fine roast suckling pig, flanked by four chitterlings with sorrel. At the corners were decanters of brandy. Sweet bottled-cider frothed round the corks, and all the glasses had been filled to the brim with wine beforehand. Large dishes of yellow cream, that trembled with the least shake of the table, had designed on their smooth surface the initials of the newly wedded pair in nonpareil arabesques. A confectioner of Yvetot had been intrusted with the tarts and sweets. As he had only just set up on the place, he had taken a lot of trouble, and at dessert he himself brought in a set dish that evoked loud cries of wonderment. To begin with, at its base there was a square of blue cardboard, representing a temple with porticoes, colonnades, and stucco statuettes all round, and in the niches constellations of gilt paper stars; then on the second stage was a dungeon of Savoy cake, surrounded by many fortifications in candied angelica, almonds, raisins, and quarters of oranges; and finally, on the upper platform a green field with rocks set in lakes of jam, nutshell boats, and a small Cupid balancing himself in a chocolate swing whose two uprights ended in real roses for balls at the top.

 

Ulysses
James Joyce

The hero, or anti-hero, of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom is introduced to the reader, in this excerpt, through a description of his appetites. Mel Brooks named the mousy accountant who comes up with the scam in his film The Producers Leo Bloom after the literary character.

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine

 

 

The Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre Dumas
translated by David Coward

In this excerpt, Dumas describes the various delights the Count assembled for a grand dinner party at his house in Auteuil. Over these opulent dishes, Monte Cristo tells his guest of the strange and dramatic history of the house—slowly ensnaring them in a net of long planned revenge. 

It was an Oriental feast that he offered to them, but of such a kind as the Arabian fairies might be supposed to prepare. Every delicious fruit that the four quarters of the globe could provide was heaped in vases from China and jars from Japan. Rare birds, retaining their most brilliant plumage, enormous fish, spread upon massive silver dishes, together with every wine produced in the Archipelago, Asia Minor, or the Cape, sparkling in bottles, whose grotesque shape seemed to give an additional flavor to the draught.

 

Rijksmuseum Cookbook
Jonah Freud 

A cookbook inspired by art as much as ingredients specific to Dutch cooking and printed on paper resembling baking parchment. It is compiled by Jonah Freud, cookery journalist and owner of De Kookboekenhandel in Amsterdam. She collected original and modern dishes based on one or more of the fifty ingredients that define Dutch cooking, then invited fifty Dutch cooks and patissiers to create their own recipes inspired by one of the ingredients. 

 

WATCH 

 

Eat Drink Man Woman 
1994 – opening scene

Ang Lee’s breakout 1994 film based around a Chinese chef and his daughters. The chef is played by Sihung Lung who must have had a body double do the amazing opening food preparation scene. Engaging as the ‘father knows best’ family drama is, the food is the real star.

 

Babette’s Feast
1987 

Based on a story by Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) Babette’s Feast is a 1987 Danish food classic that chronicles the efforts of a French refugee to bring the pleasures of haute cuisine to a pious Protestant village on the Jutland coast.

 

The Trip
S01 - E01 - The Inn At Whitewell 

The Trip portrays two British comedians sampling the delights of gastropubs on a sort of road trip in the Penines. Poking fun at the pretensions of foodies it also obsessively showcases the art of impersonating famous film stars.

 
 
The Trip
S01 - E02 - L'Enclume

 

Julie & Julia
2009 - cooking scene

Meryl Streep is Julia Child the 6’2” American author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. A hugely popular TV chef, prone to gaffes in front of the camera, Child was criticized for her Francophile use of butter and cream, while she in turn lashed out against a “fanatical fear of food..(which)..will be the death of gastronomy”.

 

 

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