Food Arches and Early Modern Court Festivals
Court festivals allowed courts to distinguish themselves. They functioned as a ‘ritual performance of omnipotence’, extending the court’s power to a wider audience. Through ceremony and spectacle, festivals enacted power structures through theatrical performances. Such performances depended on the deferential presence of courtiers, alongside the wider masses, who gave legitimacy to the proceedings.
In the context of post-Reformation Europe, the court played a particularly important part in the construction of confessional identity, which manifested in strict observance of religious feasts. This proved one way for the Habsburg monarchy, for instance, to demonstrate their piety and dignity, and for Henri II of France to construct a closer relationship with God, through the creation of a new order of the chivalry. In a similar vein, the Cuccagna arch edible monument constructed in honour of the Viceroy of Naples, Duke Antonio Alvarez di Toledo, in 1629 (as part of the Feast for St John the Baptist), highlights how Philip IV of Spain connected with audiences.
Made by Francesco Orilla in 1630, just under a year after the feast, this woodcut, measuring 8.5 by 6.25 inches, shows an edible monument of food presented in an arch. The dimensions of the actual food arch are unknown, but it was composed of locally sourced meat, fruit, and vegetables. The fine detail in the shading indicates that this was a more advanced woodcut designed for a single-leaf fine art piece (as opposed to simpler woodcuts used for images in books).
The creation of this object is significant for several reasons. Firstly, it represented the Viceroy’s paternalistic image in allowing the consumption of food for a mass, presumably peasant audience, feeding the population and showing care for his subjects. It therefore fulfilled both a practical and a symbolic purpose. Yet, the presence of the nobles would have signalled the gift of food as a performance, which is made even more apparent by the inclusion of fireworks in the pigs’ mouths. The structure of food as an arch captured the hierarchy and diplomacy. The value was not in the food itself (some of which were commodity items) but in how it was presented as a composite whole and thereby a piece of architecture. In giving food, Philip upheld the social hierarchy and communicated his power in a medium that was accessible even to illiterate audiences.
Secondly, the representation of this food arch indicated a specific intention to transform a temporal item into a permanent fixture in the woodcut form. The woodcut was a deliberate act to memorialise the event for both present and future audiences, both within and beyond Philip’s kingdom. The food arch connected the Viceroy, and thereby the Spanish kingdom, to a larger audience through its function, symbolism, and memorialisation. The food arch was not just a functional construction offering food to those beyond the court, but the theatrical way the court presented such items, and subsequently recorded the event. Yet, how we understand such constructions in a courtly festival is based on how courts wished their omnipotence to be remembered. What the actual food tasted like, what it felt like to see such a structure, is an untold story for this St John the Baptist Feast. While court festivals extended the court’s power to a broader audience, how this was actually received by the masses is a different story. Still, the court was dependent on this mass audience to legitimise the credibility of the festival – and therefore courtly proceedings as a whole.