Food in 16th Century Venice

Sabine d'Ricoldi da Forli


Venice was an Italian city unlike any other when it came to cuisine. The lagoon city had close trade ties with many European and far eastern countries, so many foods and spices came into Venice that were not seen in other parts of the country.

The Culinary Discoveries of the Great Explorers

The travelling merchants of the 16th Century allowed an enormous amount of new culinary experiences in Venice. First, there was maize, widespread in North Italy, which became the base for the most common dish: polenta (a sort of meal mush). Then there were potatoes, tomatoes, and beans. Rice from Asia was an instant success and joined pasta as the nation’s first course. Venetian merchants imported sugar from the Orient and this, initially very expensive, was used in medicine and only later in cooking. Last there was coffee, of Turkish origin, and also first used as a medicine.1

The Spice Trade

There was already a spice trade in the Early Middle Ages, but this really intensified after the Crusades and demand was as much for cooking as for medicine. Alongside the fascination of rarity and high price, spices had other more practical and important qualities: the preserving of meat and fish for longer periods and the flavouring of otherwise bland foods. There was also an obligatory route for spices fixed, as with other prized merchandise, by customs and taxes. For many years the last lap of the journey was the monopoly of the great Venetian merchants and bankers.2

For a long time historians thought that spices were used to disguise the flavour of tainted meat. According to historian Prof John Munro this is quite incorrect. Indeed, the use of highly spiced dishes in a menu was kept to a minimum. The meat dishes were usually quite plain and freshly cooked.3 The spices seemed to be as much a social status acquirement as a culinary delicacy.

Cuisine in the Renaissance

Compared to the 15th Century, the 16th Century had a greater variety and richness in the preparation of foods: soups, grilled, roast and boiled meats, meat pastries, fish, vegetable (also in oil) and refined salads, almond-based sweets, pine-nuts and candied fruits; cane sugar (then still expensive) began to replace honey. Renaissance court banquets were famous for their enormity and refinement, whilst the food of the common people remained rather simple: beans, lentils, chickpeas, buckwheat (used to prepare soups and porridges) as well as eggs, cheese and mutton.4

The Role of Religion

Religion played a major role in regulating and restricting types of food used. On fasting days, which were every Friday, though also Wednesday and Saturday for the pious, as well as annual feasts such as Advent and the six weeks of Lent, meat could not be eaten, and strict observers would also not use eggs or dairy products.5 Thus fish and milk substitutes like almond milk were regularly used on these days.

A Sample Day’s Menu

The family often ate together for the two meals in the day.6 Arising early the kitchen staff would begin cooking very early in the day. The lord or lady of the manor would arise and attend to their required toiletries, church and so on. It would be around midday before they could partake of their first meal. The second meal would be in the evening and often as not there would be visitors to the table.

Midday meal:

It is not easy to define the order that dishes were served in Italy due to the wide range of customs,7 but these are some of the dishes often served:

Erbolata ‘cheese pie with herbs’
Rice with Almond Milk – served on meatless days, Lent, days of fasting
Wild Game Stew
Hemp Seed Soup8
Braised Spring Greens

A Sample Evening Meal:

Wholemeal Pasta in Anchovy Sauce (BIGOLI IN SALSA)
Rice and Peas (RISI E BISI)
Assorted Sweet Biscuits (GOLOSESSI)

A Typical Feast Menu

Each course is to be served with bread, wine, and water. The large feasts had many courses. There is record of a feast in honour of Giuliano and Lorenzo de Medici as having over twelve courses.9 But for the purposes of this menu, only four courses will be mentioned.

First Course

RISOTTO DE GO (Gobry Risotto)
Rice with Almond Milk

Second Course

BIGOLI IN SALSA (Wholemeal Pasta in Anchovy Sauce)
PASTA E FAGIOLI (Pasta and Bean Soup)

Third Course

FEGATO ALA VENEZIANA (Venetian Style Liver)
SEPPIE COL NERO (Cuttle fish in their Ink)
BISATO SU L’ARA (Eel Cooked in Bayleaves)
MOLECHE FRITE (Fried Soft-shelled Crabs)

Fourth Course

GOLOSESSI (Assorted Sweet Biscuits)
“Fritters” with Elderberry Flowers

Some recipes are common to many areas of Italy, like the Panis bread, the elderflower fritters and the gingerbread, but the recipes in capitals are quite unique to the Venetian area.



1 Windows on Italy site visited 13 July 2002
2 Windows on Italy site visited 13 July 2002
3 Munro, J (2001) The Consumption of Spices and Their Costs in Late-Medieval and Early-Modern Europe: Luxuries or Necessities?
4 Windows on Italy site visited 13 July 2002
5 Black, Maggie The Medieval Cookbook London: British Museum Press, 1992, p11
6 Alberti, Leon Batista trans as The Family in Renaissance Florence, trans Watkins, Renee Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1969, p186
7 Translated 15th Century Italian Recipes,ric330_e.htm
8 The use of foods containing narcotic substances was often dictated by famine or poverty. In fact, there are numerous reports of bread partially prepared with hallucinogenic cereals such as darnel or zizania. These grains cause states of collective excitement that may have been the driving force behind many popular revolts. In 1527, Roberto di Spilimbergo notes in his diary that rye was mixed with darnel. “which intoxicates into a vacant demeanour, and immediately confounds, the one who eats the rye bread”.
Translated 15th Century Italian Recipes
9 Translated 15th Century Italian Recipes