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Food in the Renaissance: The Rebirth of Ancient Recipes

By Edited Apr 17, 2016 4 5

The Italian Renaissance

Innovation of Ancient Roman Recipes

The Italian Renaissance is considered to be an immensely innovative period of time dating from the 1350’s to the 1700’s. During this period, profound changes took place that would change the way people lived and the way that they viewed their world. Religion, art, politics, business, architecture and science all experienced changes due to the circumstances in Italy during the period.

Remarkably, changes also occurred to what people were eating. Exploding from the heavily spiced menu of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance cuisine re-popularized herbs, oils, salty foods, and garden vegetables. The birth of the Renaissance brought incredible changes to Italian food that shaped into what we consider to be “Italian food” of the 21st century. Some of the recipes used today have traces of ancient Rome and Greece that would not have been rediscovered if it had not been for this incredible era of rebirth and prosperity. 

Florence Cathedral

Communal Revolution

Beginning in the later 1300’s, Italy had experienced a communal revolution. This involved incredible urbanization and the centralization of power among a few elite cities, like Florence, Rome, Pisa, and Venice. This change was largely due to the devastation brought by the Black Death in 1347. With 1/3rd of the population of Europe wiped out, the people that survived experienced a feeling of renewal. This optimism created a feeling of individualism, “as those that survived must have survived must have been protected by God!”

With such a devastated countryside and apparent vacancies in the cities, many people moved into the cities to take over the power gaps. At this point in time, Venice and much of Italy were the economic capitals of the world. Spices and other precious items flowed into Italy from the Near-East. Merchants then sold these valuables to the rest of Europe for a much higher price. This incredible economic growth soon created a new, unprecedented class of extremely wealthy merchants. 

The Birth of the Italian Renaissance

With a larger wealthy class and a new sense of individualism, many powerful families became very competitive in an effort to have the most status in their community. Soon, many of these families banded together to form more exclusive and stronger guilds. During the high Middle Ages, guilds were flexible and were usually open to new members, even journeymen[2486]. However, guilds became increasingly exclusive, especially in Florence,  when more wealth and competition to create the best works became the staple factors that so defined the Renaissance.

Naturally, this competition included power struggles that usually ended with incredible violence. This constant struggle created a consistent reminder in the daily lives of people. Public life was made up of work, ceremony, discipline, fellowship, and civic ritual. To gain status, an individual must work extremely hard to please God, and more importantly gain the favor of wealthy individuals . Thus, those who were talented in creating, building, composing, drawing, singing, and so forth, could potentially gain status in society if their works were popular to the community. 

The Humanist Movement

Another important facet of Italian Renaissance society and which really fueled on this societal stimulation to create, was that of the Humanist movement. Near the end of the 15th century, members of certain professional groups, such as teachers began to rampantly study ancient Roman and Greek texts[2486]. With such popularity, ancient Rome and Greece became romanticized and Renaissance societies began to re-invent those classical cultures. This drive to create a society based on the ancient Roman and Greek legacies, popularized many ancient authors like Livy, Cicero, Plato, and Tacitus. It also brought back architecture modeled after Roman and Greek designs.

In Florence, great architects like Filippo Brunelleschi who created magnificent structures like the Florence Cathedral. Even thought the official link to the Roman Empire was severed with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the end of the Byzantine Empire, the rebirth of the classical culture kept the idea of Rome fresh. Thus, each city-state were driven to recreate the old, compete with each other, and ultimately leave their mark in history. 

Integration of Ancient Greek & Roman Recipes into the Modern Mediterrean Diet

The competitive nature of the wealthy merchants and nobles, and the rebirth of classical ways of life created a perfect atmosphere for the founding of Italian cuisine that echoes ancient Roman and Greek delights. Just as art, architecture, music, and other desired projects, food began wrapped in the competitive nature of the period.

Renaissance Food

“Immortal Gods! Was there ever such a cook as my Martino? Such eloquence! You should hear him laying down the law in our Roman taverns, those grammar schools of gastronomy. Now that’s something we really can do better than the Greeks and Romans.[2487]

Bartolomeo Platina’s praises his cook, Martino of Como, in his cookbook De Honesta Voluptate et Valitudine. Platina’s cookbook became the 1st best selling cookbook in history largely due to the invention of the printing press. Clearly, cooks are very important and their talents made them desirable to wealthy nobles and merchants.

With competitive spirit, many Renaissance chefs strove to recreate ancient recipes to appease the Humanistic fervor of their time. Ancient Roman and Greek cuisine was thought to be food of the high culture, and those that could have these recipes reproduced must have wealth to afford such an incredible cook. However, this was not the case as everyone could dine on these remarkable cuisines. By 1570, the Portuguese had taken over the spice trade from the Venetians and soon the English and Dutch were about to join the fray[2488].

For the first time in Italian history, spices became expensive much like it had always been to the rest of Europe. Due to the expensive price of spices, Italian cooks quickly adapted to the decline in spices and in doing so created the mouthwatering cuisine that still blesses our taste buds to this day. The Renaissance cooks had brought the European diet from heavily spice and sauce laden cuisine to an inexpensive salt and herbal palate.  Recipes of the high Middle Ages can easily be distinguished from that of the Renaissance.

Sample of Medieval Food

In 14th century Paris, a merchant’s guest might have been offered a menu like this[2488]:

Large joints of meat, roasted or boiled. 
Eels in a thick, spicy puree. 
A cameline ‘brewet’ which is peeves of meat in a thin cinnamon sauce. 
Beef marrow fritters.
Loach in a cold green sauce flavored with spices and sage. 
Lampreys with hot sauce. 

Clearly, spices and sauces smother everything! Cinnamon is one of the most common spice found in Middle Age cuisines as it was found quickly by Venetian merchants in Middle East during the 13th and 14th century[2489].  Naturally, the price was fixed, which was very expensive, but it became the most used ingredient that the cookery of the late Middle Ages could not do with out. Sage was added to many meat dishes, because it apparently helps people digest the dry meat properly[2489].

Sample of a Renaissance Recipe

In contrast, a Renaissance menu would require less spice and more herbs, nuts, and salt. This selection is from a meal served to Pope Pius V[2488]:

Plain pastries made with milk and eggs.
Fresh grapes.
Spanish olives.
Salted pork tongues cooked in wine, slice.
Sweet Mustard.
Fresh almonds on vine leaves. 
Stuffed breast of veal, boiled, garnished with flowers. 
Spit-roasted rabbits with sauce and crush pine nuts. 
Milk calf, boiled, garnished with parsley.
Almonds in garlic sauce. 

There is a noticeable change in menus between the two periods. The Renaissance menu is very simple and requires almost no seasoning. Simple sauces, nuts, parsley, and garlic are easily added to the dishes, while the Middle Age menu requires heavy sauces and spices to season the food. 

Ancient Gardening: Introduction of Herbs & Vegetables

From the Renaissance menu served to Pope Pius V, one can see that there is much more vegetables, herbs, and garden ingredients. Amazingly, this garden revolution occurred due to the discovery of outstanding ancient praise of gardening[2485].  

Pliny the Elder (23-79 c.e.), was a Roman officer but most noted as an encyclopedist and for writing his Natural History, which documented his observations[2484]. Pliny is a consistent voice of the ancients, whom wrote many accounts about gardening and what should be used in the kitchen. In regards to parsley, he wrote “parsley is universally popular for sprigs of it are found swimming in draughts of milk everywhere in the country, and in condiments it enjoys a popularity all its own[2484].” These garden ingredients were not restricted to the wealthy elite, as Pliny reports that garlic  “holds a high rank among the dishes of the country people, particularly in Africa[2484].”


To add to their dishes, Romans used sunflower oil, vinegar, dates, mint, boiled-down grape juice, garlic, parsley, artichokes, and asparagus. Mint was brought to Europe by the Arabs and is delicious with salad, green peas and lamb[2489]. It is thought to be a stimulating tonic and good for the stomach, which is why it gained popularity with the Romans. Interestingly, Romans also ate a staggering amount of garlic as they thought it was an aphrodisiac[2483].

In comparison, the Greeks chose a variety of herbs and greens to make up their menus. The first hors d’oeuvre included, a cup of garlic for instance. When the Greek city-states were engulfed in war, many people resorted to whatever they could find which included: greens, turnips, beechnut, lupin seeds, and dried fig[2488]. Nevertheless, herbal ingredients, greens, and oils had considerable popularity in Roman and Greek society just waiting to be re-popularized by Renaissance cooks. 

Ancient Salads make a Renaissance Debut

Renaissance cooks discovered these many herbal and green recipes and soon applied it to their own repertoire. Costanzo Felici (1525-1585), a cultivated doctor and naturalist, sent recipes for salads to his friend the great botanist Ulisse Aldrovandi of Bologna[2487]. Many of Felici’s letters contained seeds, roots, and fossils for Aldrovandi to study or cultivate. 

Raw Salad of Young Vegetables

Take the freshest possible, tender baby artichokes, asparagus, and shelled broad beans. Wash and dry them and trim away any coarse or unsightly bits. Arrange decoratively on separate plates. Guests help themselves to salt, pepper, and extra virgin olive oil and season the vegetables as they wish. Resist the temptation to tart this up with olives and fiddly bits and pieces; simplicity is all. 

This very small recipe captures the Renaissance view of vegetables. Little salads were very popular, because of their simplicity. This image stands true to this day, as we tend to have simple salads before our meals. Naturally, we dress them up with our salad dressings, just as the Renaissance and ancient people used salt, garlic, pepper, olive oil, vinegar, etc. to dress up theirs.

Salt Money

Interestingly, this small recipe also captures the desire for a salty-acidic taste that like the garden revolution exploded from the Middle Ages.  Accompanying the herbs, oils, and garden ingredients was a reemergence of an acidic- salty taste. Humanistic scholars would have marveled at the popularity of salt during Romans times. Due to it inexpensive nature, salt was given to Roman soldiers as pay though this method was replaced with money as it was too difficult to transport the salt. In fact, the word salary comes from salarium which means “salt money.”

To the Greeks and Romans, salt was a royal gift and was used extensively used in most recipes of their time. Pliny wrote “yet the gods used not to regard with less flavour the worshippers who petitioned them with salted spelt, but rather, as the facts show, they were more benevolent in those days[2484].” Pliny was referring to his displeasure with the intrusion of eastern customs, i.e cinnamon and sage, into the Greco-Roman cuisines.

Liquamen, or Garum

Fish Sauce(85346)

One of the most common Roman seasonings was liquamen (or garum)[2488]. It was made by keeping a fish, soaked in salt, in a vat over night. The salty fish mix would be placed in the sun for 2-3 months. The remaining juices would be mixed with old wine. Apparently, this seemingly nasty sounding brew  was a very expensive and superior-tasting luxury to the Romans.

Over time, salt faded away as more and more seasonings were discovered or brought from foreign empires.  Another classic ingredient that the Greco-Roman world craved was vinegar, verjuice, and olive oil, which also added a very acidic taste to their food. Olive oil was claimed a discovery by Mediterranean ancients and its used for their own gods, which is was associated with fertility, peace, and victory[2489]. Although olive tress will not give an olive crop for seven years after planting, olive trees are very manageable and the Greco-Roman peoples were able to obtain huge quantities of olive oil for personal and commercial uses.  

Vinegar and verjuice (the juice of sour grapes)  were used to sharpen the taste of food[2488].  Modeling recipes after the ancient texts of the Greco-Roman world, Renaissance cooks were able to recreate forgotten recipes that may have never been used if there was not this societal stimulation to recreate the “high culture” of the ancients. The following Renaissance recipe for garlic sauce captures the blend of herbs, greens, oils and salts. 

Renaissance Recipe: Mixture of the Ancients 

Garlic Sauce[2487]

3 cloves.
6 peppercorns.
4 cloves of garlic.
1 cup shelled and peeled walnuts.
½ cup white breadcrumbs soaked in vinegar.
½ teaspoon of salt.
1 tablespoon of olive oil.
½ cup fresh basil leaves.

With the recreation of Roman and Greek ingredients and seasonings, Italian cooks began to incorporate these popular items into their own favorite dishes, such as macaroni and tortellini. Although disputes over where pasta originates (Italy or China?) have arisen, pasta is still considered to be the defining cuisine of Italy[2488]. Although the color of the pasta has changed over time with the introduction of tomatoes from the New World, recipes for pasta dishes and sauces still retain much of the Renaissance ingredients.

Modern-Day Marinara Sauce & Pasta

Modern-day marinara sauce is a great example a Renaissance and modern-day blend.:

Marinara Sauce[2483]

4 tablespoons olive oil.
1 large onion.
2 teaspoons dried basil.
1 medium bay leaf.
2 pound can Italian plum tomatoes.
Salt & Pepper.
3 flat anchovies, drained. 

Modern-day Italian food would not be the same today, if it was not for the Humanist movement to recreate the Greco-Roman ingredients that we are so fond of to this day. Lasagna, ravioli, macaroni, spaghetti, and all other Italian delights would all lack those essential herbs and seasonings that make their mouthwatering flavor come to life. 



Feb 19, 2012 11:09pm
I was just thinking the other day that it's very difficult to find a decent lark's tongue pie or eels in a spicy puree these days.
Feb 21, 2012 2:50pm
Haha! I agree! Thanks for the comment!
Mar 2, 2012 7:35pm
Interesting. Never realized some of the recipes of today were already being cooked ages ago, like the delicacy lengua for one. Great article!
Mar 7, 2012 12:18am
I love Italian cooking and art and ... This feature is absolutely fantastic. Nice writing.
Mar 11, 2012 3:24am
This is amazing, simply because, like listening to madrigal music, we can relive the experience of those earlier cultures. It's also interesting to see what survived the test of time. A thumb for sure.
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