The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals

A new exhibition at The Getty, titled The Edible Monuments: The Art of Food and Feasting, brings to life the ostentatious displays of both court and civic celebrations from the 17th through the 19th centuries, as they revolved around food as spectacle in Europe.

Edible Monument - Bosse, Abraham - Le pâtissier
Bosse, Abraham, Le Pâtissier, ca. 1650. Image courtesy of The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Edible Monument - Book
The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals exhibition catalogue.

When we think about fine dining and the culinary theatrics involved, what many of us fail to realize is that today’s version of haute cuisine is actually far more subdued than it once was. A new exhibition at The Getty, titled The Edible Monuments: The Art of Food and Feasting, brings to life the ostentatious displays of both court and civic celebrations from the 17th through the 19th centuries, as they revolved around food as spectacle in Europe.

Conceived by Chief Curator Marcia Reed of The Getty Research Institute, the exhibition pieces together this fascinating edible history through a collection of rare books, serving manuals, lithographs, and elaborate architectural and sculptural works created in both silver and sugar.

One example of extravagance from The Edible Monument exhibition is a 1693 private banquet design (see illustration below) for Senator Francesco Ratta of Bologna, Italy. Crowning the elaborate 60-foot-tall centerpiece of his table in the round for 80 guests was a gilded libertas figure of the city herself, supported by other mythical triumph figures and beasts handcrafted from sugar paste. Beneath this assemblage stood a lavish fruit pyramid base, around which the senator’s guests would have been seated and served a procession of courses.

By comparison, such opulent displays of the past make contemporary fine dining seem relatively modest. Listen below as Evan and Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold discuss the irony of today’s fine dining trends toward eating locally and the elimination of food waste.

Signor Senatore Francesco Ratta
Giacomo-Maria Giovannini, Marc’Antonio Chiarini and Giovanni Battista Zaccarini, Disegni del convito fatto dall’illustrissimo signor senatore Francesco Ratta all’illustrissimo publico, eccelsi signori anziani & altra nobilita: terminando il svo confalonierato li 28. febraro 1693. Image courtesy of The Getty Research Institute