Even prolific Italian geniuses had to unwind, although it should come as no surprise to learn that their revelries were a cut above the average mortal booze-up. Just as modern artists vie for invitations to the hottest receptions or Biennale party, so the hippest insider scene in Florence was La Società del Pauiolo, the Company of the Cauldron. This artists-only club was run by the most eccentric and flamboyant sculptor in the city, Giovanni Francesco Rustici. Its meetings were really the ultimate potluck, a sort of cross between a dinner party and a gallery reception. Every guest had to bring a meal that was also a sculptural creation — a cathedral made of pasta, say, or a scene from mythology crafted from roast poultry. Some of the most inventive minds in art history threw themselves into the challenge, creating edible objets that, had they not been so essentially ephemeral, would bring tens of millions on the block at Sotheby’s today.
In his famous Lives of the Artists, the Florentine painter and biographer Giorgio Vasari describes in detail one of the Company’s first parties, held around 1505.
Scoring an Invitation: The club had 12 permanent members, all artists, architects, goldsmiths or musicians, and each one could invite several guests. These had to be fellow creative types, not rich patrons or art-loving voyeurs; it was a relief for artists to relax away from their employers and groupies. We know the names of the core 12 — which included the painters Andrea del Sarto, Francesco di Pellegrino, and Ruberto di Filippo Lippi; the sculptor Solosmeo; and architect Aristotile da San Gallo — but not those of the occasional guests. Of the marquee Renaissance artists, one possible invitee was Leonardo da Vinci, a close friend and former roommate of the host Rustici. In 1505, Leonardo was around 50 years old, living in Florence with an entourage of comely young men, and polishing off the Mona Lisa; despite his Gandolf-like beard, he was as handsome, courtly and energetic as he had been as a teenager. Also in town was the austere, intense, and rather boorish Michelangelo, who was then aged about 30. It seems certain that the illustrious pair would have attended at least one of the Society’s events, although not at the same time, since they disliked each other intensely.
Pre-party Preperation: We’re talking far beyond the realms of the Food Network here. Preparing the edible art could be time-consuming and expensive. You didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of your peers, and originality was essential: If two artists used the same theme, they would be disqualified and, Vasari says, hit with a fine. (Although he wrote his account of the club some four decades later, Vasari had studied painting under club member del Sarto, had apparently met Rustici, and knew others personally).
What to Wear: Bohemian garb was acceptable — some of the craftsmen may even have worn their work gear. Despite his noble lineage, Rustici paid no heed to fine clothing or personal grooming. Only talent and good humor counted (although he may have flinched at Michelangelo, who rarely washed or changed his clothes).
Party Progress: At nightfall, the lucky guests would descend on Rustici’s mansion near the Florence University. The club’s oddball host established a tone of civilized frivolity: In his early 30s, Rustici was (unusually for a Florentine artist) from a wealthy noble family and famous for his eccentric habits, ebullient sense of humor, and improbable generosity. To the amazement of Florence’s tightwad merchants, he kept a basket full of spare change in his studio to give to poor artists and beggars. His home was also unique, a true Renaissance fantasy. Although the Society’s name sounds like something out of Harry Potter, it was taken literally from the design of the club room itself. Rustici had converted a huge wine vat to look like a cooking cauldron, within whose beautifully decorated interior the guests could sit around a circular table. Above their heads arched the cauldron’s handle, where a series of lamps suffused the room with a warm, comforting glow. It was a rowdy scene as old friends met and newcomers were introduced. Servants would prowl around the outside of the vat, refilling artists’ cups with the finest Tuscan vintages. The trilling of hired musicians wafted up through the floorboards, along with the noises of the kitchen below the guests’ feet.
Once guests had settled in, the banter was interrupted by the shrill blast of a fife. The round dining table had been ingeniously designed to be lowered by winches to the cooking area below; throughout the night, it would emerge with the guest’s edible artworks, which the company would first critically admire and then set upon and devour.
The Menu: Cries of delight and a burst of applause greeted the first course, which had been created by the host himself — a scene taken from the Roman poet Ovid, with two broiled roosters dressed up as Ulysses and his father. Using iron needles to pose the limbs, the poultry-Ulysses was dipping his father into a moist pie, which represented the Fountain of Youth. (Further culinary details are lacking, but we can speculate that their robes might have been made from lettuce, and expressive heads carved from broccoli and fruits). No sooner had this elaborate wonder been polished off than the table reemerged with a creation by Andrea del Sarto — a model classical temple made of multi-colored morsels. Its floor was a glossy mosaic of colored jellies; the columns red sausages, veined to resemble marble; its capitals, parmesan cheese; the roof, marzipan. The temple’s piéce de rèsistance was the oversized altar, upon which was spread sheet music made of pasta with peppercorns for the notes. This was surrounded by a group of thrushes perched upright, their mouths open as if in song and wearing scarlet beetroot capes. And so the dazzling courses kept emerging — amongst them, Vasari records, a pig dressed completely as a serving girl and a set of blacksmith’s tools which included an anvil made of an entire pressed calf’s head in aspic.
High Point: First-time guests were given an honorary house tour: a devoted animal-lover, Rustici had turned his mansion into a sort of Noah’s ark, where birds flitted through the rafters, monkeys gamboled, and an entire room was taken up by an indoor pond for his snake collection. Throughout dinner, guests were entertained by a talking raven that hopped above their heads making oracular pronouncements. To the hilarity of all, Rustici’s pet porcupine also had the habit of rubbing up against guests’ legs like a dog, a surprise to unwary newcomers, who would jump squawking from their seats.
Conversation Tips: There was only one rule. No one was allowed to discuss the most heated topic amongst Renaissance artists: Which was the preeminent art form — painting or sculpture? In 1505, the juiciest topic of gossip was the tense “painting competition” between Leonardo and Michelangelo, both of whom had both been hired to paint murals on opposite sides of the Hall of Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio. The rivalry was intense, especially when the irritable Michelangelo openly insulted Leonardo after an imagined slight. As it happened, neither painter finished their work — the over-moist plaster on Leonardo’s wall crumbled and Michelangelo moved to Rome.
The After-Party: “Whether they had games or merry-making after supper I leave to the imagination,” Vasari discreetly notes. Needless to say, revelries continued until dawn.
Long-term Evolution: In 1512, the Company of the Cauldron morphed into the larger Società della Cazzuola — Company of the Mortar Trowel — which met once a year on the feast of Saint Andrew, November 30th, in a large studio connected to the Church of Santa Maria Nuova. (This time, the bizarre club name came from a jape played on a hunchback Feo d’Agnolo, who was once so intent on shoveling ricotta cheese into his mouth that a friend was able to substitute mortar on a trowel in between mouthfuls). This next phase of events, which attracted the poet and author Niccolò Machiavelli, became even more elaborate. On one occasion, the guests were given an architectural blueprint and told to create a building using bread loaves and cakes as bricks, ground cheese and ricotta as sand and mortar, pieces of liver for the ornaments, and sweetmeats for gravel. After the hard work, the artist-guests, fueled with wine, demolished their creation in a giant food fight. On other occasions, the master of ceremonies would decorate the church for theme nights. Once, it was turned into a haunted house, where guests entered the gaping mouth of a fanged serpent, dodged mythical hounds of Hades in the darkness and were prodded into their seats by a pitchfork-wielding Devil. Laid out on the dinner table were spiders, toads, scorpions, and bats, which turned out to be food morsels “frightful to behold but delicious to devour.” These were washed down with fine wines from hideous horned cups. On a less frivolous occasion, guests were met by ushers dressed as beggars and prisoners, and given a lecture by their patron, Saint Andrew, on their wastefulness.
But like so many artists gatherings in history, the Company was co-opted by the fashionable in-crowd. The club eventually relaxed its rules on non-creative guests, permitting an illustrious array of locals to attend, including Medici family members. By 1550, Vasari reports, the gatherings were no longer being held, perhaps because of the expense, perhaps because Rustici was then in his late 70s — or quite possibly, one guesses, because of the cloying presence of the patrons, which defeated the purpose. • 9 September 2008
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Chirico, Robert, “From Cave to Café: Artists’ Gatherings,” Gastronomica, vol 2, no. 4, 2002, 33-41; Lucas-Dubreton, J., Daily Life in Florence In the Time of the Medici, (New York, 1961); Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Artists, Painters, Sculptors and Architects, (trans. Gaston du C. de Vere, New York, 1976).