Review: The Hungry Eye

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.


Reference 1 


(Accessed March 25, 2022.)

Reference 2


(Accessed March 25, 2022.)

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