These knives, which have musical scores engraved in their blades, brought a table together in singing their prayers, and may have been used to carve the lamb or beef in their â€œstriking balance of decorative and utilitarian function.â€ At least historians think such â€œnotation knives,â€ which date from the early 1500s, were used at banquets. â€œThe sharp, wide steel would have been ideal for cutting and serving meat,â€ writes Eliza Grace Martin at the WQXR blog, â€œand the accentuated tip would have made for a perfect skewer.â€ But as Kristen Kalber, curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which houses the knives at the top of the post, tells us â€œdiners in very grand feasts didnâ€™t cut their own meat.â€ Itâ€™s unlikely they would have sung from the bloody knives held by their servants.
The knivesâ€™ true purpose â€œremains a mystery,â€ Martin remarks, like many â€œrituals of the Renaissance table.â€ Victoria and Albert Museum curator Kirstin Kennedy admits in the video above that â€œwe are not entirely sureâ€ what the â€œsplendid knifeâ€ she holds was used for. But we do know that each knife had a different piece of music on each side, and that a set of them together contained different harmony parts in order to turn a roomful of diners into a chorus. One set of blades had the grace on one side, with the inscription, â€œthe blessing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat.â€ The other side holds the benediction, to be sung after the dinner: â€œThe saying of grace. We give thanks to you God for your generosity.â€
Kristen Kalber, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, discusses these knives.
Maya Corry discusses the Fitzwillian Museum’s musical notation knives starting at 2:30.
Bartolomeo Scappi, [as] head chef for popes and cardinals throughout the middle decades of the sixteenth century, … prepared unashamedly decadent banquets for the most powerful men on earth. For thirty years, his art embodied the thrilling, brief moment when the papal court was one of the worldâ€™s leading patrons of artistic expression and intellectual enquiry. But no sooner had he hit his peak than he was forced to lay down his ladle: reform had gripped the Vatican.
Realizing that his lifeâ€™s work would soon be only a memory lingering on the taste buds of a chosen few, in the last years of his life he recorded his genius in Opera dellâ€™arte del cucinare. Published in 1570, the year of Scappiâ€™s seventieth birthday, it was the worldâ€™s first illustrated cookbook, a colossal nine-hundred-page tome that includes a thousand recipes and serves as a treatise on cooking as an art form, a courtly pursuit, and a domestic science. …
Scappi was born to modest circumstances around the turn of the sixteenth century, probably in Dumenza, a tiny town about forty miles north of Milan. At the time, medieval tastes still dominated elite dinner tables. In the Ancient world, the cuisine of the Mediterranean, based on bread, oil, and wine, was held up as a marker of its innate superiority over the Germanic peoples, with their supposedly barbaric fare of meat, milk, and beer. After the fall of Rome, the two traditions slowly merged until, in the late Middle Ages, the food served on the tables of the mighty across Europe was broadly similar: heavily spiced sweet-and-sour combinations, given layers of earthy complexity with great heaps of garden herbs. Many of the dishes Scappi chose to record in his magnum opus retain that sensibility, such as his recipe for an omelette made with pigâ€™s blood goat cheese, spring onion, cinnamon, clover, nutmeg, marjoram, and mintâ€”the kind of concoction that would nowadays be considered inedible just about anywhere on earth. Yet, among these forbidding relics of the medieval world, the Opera abounds with innovation that put cookingâ€”perhaps for the first timeâ€”on a plinth next to the other creative arts. …
The Opera overflows with references to a Bolognese sauce for this, a Genoese garnish for that, or a delicious dessert known and loved by the people of Padua but virtually secret from anyone else. It suggests he traveled a lot with the express intention of trawling markets, speaking to traders, and experimenting with every new ingredient that came his way. Though he hardly ever refers to something as â€œItalian,â€ in a rudimentary way Scappiâ€™s recipes inadvertently assemble the nation that had yet to be made, sitting side by side dishes from the Veneto to the Kingdom of Naples in a single, sumptuous meal. This roving palate also encompassed the New World, the flavors of which are on every page of the Operaâ€”especially sugar, which features in something like 90 percent of its recipes, including as a pizza topping, along with pine nuts and rosewater.
It was never enough for Scappi to please diners: he set out to amuse, astonish, and confuse them with vast menus of pungent flavors and retina-searing colors, presented in displays more akin to a performance art piece than a dinner party. His banquets were the talk of royal and ecclesiastical courts throughout Christendom; one of them comprised hundreds of dishes, including seventy-seven different desserts and edible statues of weird beasts from the Orient, Greek gods, and cavorting nymphs. Once their bellies had been filled, guests were presented with posies of silk flowers attached to stems of pure gold. Scappi specialized in elaborate visual jokes, such as salmon sculpted into the form of a glazed ham or a goatâ€™s head, and everything was served on highly polished tableware of silver, gold, and exquisite Maiolica. Decorous restraint was not to be found in his kitchen.