Leonard Barkan. The Hungry Eye: Eating, Drinking and European Culture from Rome to the Renaissance. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey. 2021. pp. 326 ISBN: 9780691211466.
Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)
Leonard Barkan has served up a personal and academic meditation on Western art and culture through the lens of food and drink . In a beautifully written and illustrated book, he has explored how what is eaten and imbibed —literally and figuratively –portray, shape and explain how Western culture from Rome through the Renaissance –shape one’s understanding of culture and the periods involved. The result is a delicious rich broth filled with depth and nuance that will satisfy the learned reader and urge her or him to ask for more.
In the discourse about art and culture, Barkan contends that food and drink have been marginalized and understated in terms of frames of reference and prisms of understanding (pp.24-5). A look at the Index of a standard history of art, such as Marilyn Stokstad’s Art History (2009) shows no reference to either food or drink. He likens edibles and spirits to marginalized groups who are now getting appropriate recognition. Food and drink are both objects themselves and metaphors for addressing all aspects of life. His field is Western art and culture. In Barkan’s words : “Our questions, as always, have to do with the ways in which the scenes of eating and drinking defines the larger culture…(2021:25).”
Throughout all his servings, Barkan offers brilliant “tidbits” [his term] of insight about art, literature, and life. In his amuse-bouche, the prefacing chapter, for example: “Socrates and his fellow truth seekers do everything they can to guarantee the seriousness of their enterprise, but it is folded into the structure of an evening meal, and that brings up the inevitable prospect of inebriation (2021:16). The reader of this book should expect to find a plethora of these morsels for digestion. They are too numerous and too valuable to list, except for an exemplary offering herein.
For the first course, Barkan addresses the ways in which the realities and linguistically metaphorical domains of food and wine shaped Roman art, social practices and thought, especially during the Republic and early Empire. The ruins of Pompeii feature frescoes, showing the eating, and drinking utensils of dining and drinking—and sex, showing their central place and interconnectedness in the Roman mind. Furthermore, Barkan lays out the extensive wine lexicon of the Romans and their preoccupation with it in their descriptive and philosophical discourses (2021:61, et seq).
The second course, pardon the pun, is of Biblical proportions. Barkan aptly entitles it “Fooding the Bible” and explores this theme in Renaissance art and culture. He continues: “…the Bible, and the traditions of representation that follow from it, display an interest in eating and drinking that is more constant than might have been noticed, and furthermore that there are ways in which these instances, taken together, can be seen as systematic rather than merely accidental or marginal (2021:95.)” One beautiful example, Barkan notes, is a Vermeer with Jesus and Mary and Martha around a centerpiece of a newly risen bread (2021: 119-120).
Barkan suggests that the Israelites value food, in the case of the Exodus, and specifically manna, as the connection between G-d and humans. Christians, he argues, have a contradictory attitude towards food. Luke, he says, quotes Jesus, to paraphrase that life is more than food (2021:98). Yet Barkan notes that Jesus saw the provision of food to people as part of His ministry (2021:98-9). Furthermore, food as metaphor was the very language of Jesus’s sermons (2021:99).
Pre-Renaissance and Renaissance painters used both Biblical and New Testament stories to “food” their art, seeing edibles and repasts both as crucial to the activity mentioned and symbolic in important ways. In one painting, Giotto di Bondone featured Herod’s Feast from the Life of St. John (2021:206). In another, Lucas Granach the Elder places St. John’s head on a platter at Herod’s feast (2021:114-5). And many of the various paintings of the Madonna and Child feature different kinds of food, most often fruit, especially apples, as crucial to understanding the meaning of the portrayal (2021:131-9.) These are but a few of the plethora of examples Barkan serves us to show that food was central to the expression of artistic expression drawn from religious themes. The reader should visit Barkan’s offerings to explore the range of his insights and connections to the culture of the period and to later periods as well.
Barkan then repositions food, dining, and drink as central to certain Western philosophical discourses. Socrates, he notes, phrased his rhetoric in terms of food and dining, and saw that discussion as less lofty than speaking of it in more explicit philosophical terms. Later philosophers, and his examples are Bertrand Russell and Roman Jakobson, followed Socrates’ path—food was “…a mere rhetorical convenience (2021:148).” But Athanaeus (and others), to Barkan, placed food and dining “…in the center of the picture, indeed they are the picture (2021:149).”
In his fourth “serving,” Barkan turns his roving eye towards seeing the “food” connection in Renaissance and later literature and philosophy. Rabelais and Montaigne, for example, focus on the feast—on the people involved in the production of comestibles and in the consumption of these foodstuffs, as symbols and signs of enjoyment, satisfaction, and acting out of the ordinary. Food itself can be sensual, as in the Erotic Vegetables painting at attributed to Giovanni di Undine (2021:192). Moreover, the ways in which explorers /colonizers such as Columbus destroyed food and food product ion become themes in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (2021:201 et seq).
In his “piece de resistance,” his last offering, Barkan traces and explores the artistic representation of food from antiquity, especially late antiquity, through the Renaissance and into the nineteenth century. The actual portrayal of foodstuffs from mosaics to painting is real, that is, not stylized. And the food stuffs—the fish, the grapes, the asparagus, to use some examples, are each individualized and in a setting where they would or could be consumed, with reference to commensality. As Barkan notes, this often contrasts with representations of more generic individual persons (2021:206 et seq). Furthermore, delving into the literature of these later times, Barkan argues that the food as metaphor in Bacon, Shakespeare, and Proust, for example, is again real. It is the way to understand both the action and the event and the larger meaning (Citing Milton as one example, Barkan argues: “It is that peculiar act of ingestion that counts as Milton’s ultimate destination, and it is ours as well (2021:241).”
A discussion of Communion and related food gatherings is the way Barkan ends his presentation. He delves into the many interpretations of the Jesus’ proscriptions of the consumption of bread and wine/His Body and His blood , in the New Testament and in later theological interpretations. Whether the food and liquid are “real,” whether they are metaphors or metonyms, depends on the writer . John, Paul, later Augustine, and Calvin may differ. But to Barkan, the fact is that food and drink—consumed in a social setting–are central to the theological message. From the artistic side, painters from late antiquity through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, reprised this theme—food and drink at mealtimes are the crucial link between G-d and people (2021:246 et seq).
The previous discussion is an understatement of the incredibly rich and stimulating discussion Barkan provides about the importance of reaffirming a significant and often central place of food in drink in Western thought, religion, literature, and art. It is worth the price of the meal itself. Specialists in all the fields mentioned can and should debate the points Barkan raises. It is heartening to see that there is now more interest in food represented in art in general, as in Reference 1 and Reference 2. Barkan’s writing style varies from the high formal tone of academic discourse to informal and familiar ways of speech with jokes and puns throughout. The book is appropriate for upper division, graduate students, professionals, and the educated reader .
2009 Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. 1 and 2. Harry N. Abrams. New York.
(Accessed March 25, 2022.)
(Accessed March 25, 2022.)