bread, wine, and the last supper -- 4/24/18

Today's selection -- from Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King. Italians of Leonardo da Vinci's time drank five times more wine than modern Italians:

"Virtually all paintings of the Last Supper showed bread and wine on the table. Occasionally a chalice of wine would be depicted in front of Christ, as for example by Cosimo Rosselli in his fresco on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. More often the painters simply showed several beakers of wine distributed across the table, with half-filled glasses in front of each apostle. The painter of the Last Supper fresco in the church of San Andrea a Cercina, a few miles north of Florence, was particularly generous: he made no fewer than thirteen beakers of wine available to the apostles, including choices of both red and white.

"There was, of course, a scriptural justification for showing bread and wine: they were necessary for the sacrament described in the synoptic Gos­pels. But in showing bread and wine on the table, painters were duplicating conditions not only in refectories but on Italian dinner tables in general. Bread and wine were the two staples of the Italian diet in the fifteenth cen­tury: the provisions on which the most household money was spent. Bread accounted for 40 percent of a family's total food bill and 60 percent of its total caloric intake, which explained why the harvest was literally a matter of life and death, and why biblical verses such as 'Give us this day our daily bread' or 'I am the bread of life' resonated so powerfully with people in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The Dominicans lived by begging, quite literally, for their bread, and the difficulty of obtaining enough bread to eat was a regular refrain in early Dominican literature.

The Last Supper

"Along with bread, wine was regularly (and copiously) served with meals, both in the refectory and in the family home, in part because its alcoholic content meant that, unlike water, it was free from bacteria and other patho­gens. The average Florentine household went through seven barrels (or more than 2,800 liters) of wine per year, and the annual per capita consumption of wine across the whole of Italy during the Renaissance is estimated to have been between 200 and 415 liters (compared to a paltry 60 liters in present-day ltaly). Leonardo was certainly careful to keep his own house well stocked with wine: his shopping lists record frequent purchases. One of his notes observed that a particular wine cost one soldo a bottle, and at that rate his household, over the course of three days in 1504, must have downed at least twenty-four bottles. Wine was even on the menu at breakfast chez Leonardo since a note from 1495 proclaimed, 'On Tuesday I bought wine for morning.'

"The clergy drank as abundantly as the rest of the population. The Do­minicans, in particular, were well-known for their love of wine. St. Dominic took his wine 'austerely diluted,' but his follower and successor, Jordan of Saxony, was more enthusiastic, noting that 'wine brings delight and puts a man at his ease.' Soon Dominicans began acquiring a reputation for enjoy­ing too much of this delight. One master of the order complained that in the refectories -- where silence was supposed to reign -- the friars discussed the merits of their wines through 'almost an entire meal,' saying, 'This one is like that and the other like that, and so on.' These oenophiles could at least console themselves that Aquinas declined to classify sobriety as a virtue and proclaimed 'sober drinking' to be good for both body and soul.

"Leonardo placed at least twelve glasses of wine on the table in The Last Supper, all of them at varying levels (the one sitting in front of Bartholomew is nearly drained: another reason, perhaps, to see the famously high-living Bramante as his model). Like most painters he gave Jesus and the apostles red wine, the better to allude to the blood of Christ."



Ross King


Leonardo and the Last Supper


Bloomsbury USA


Copyright Ross King, 2012


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