The Forgotten Italian Tradition of Building Monumental Food Palaces


Poor Neapolitans rush to pillage this Cuccagna, built for the birth of Prince Phillip.
Poor Neapolitans rush to pillage this Cuccagna, built for the birth of Prince Phillip.

In 1768, Austrian princess Maria Carolina married Ferdinand IV, the king of Naples. To celebrate, they had a magnificent, fake fortress built in front of the Neapolitan royal palace and decorated with delicious food. At a signal from the king, a mob of Neapolitan commoners waded through a moat stocked with live fish, slipped through the mud, and grabbed all the food, to the delight of the noble spectators.

The event was a tradition of Naples and other Italian cities, because nothing caps off a royal wedding or holiday like watching hungry people fight for food. Temporary temples, pyramids, and castles were plastered in roasts, bread, and cheese, which the poor risked their lives to gather.

These Cuccagna festivals represented an earthy paradise where no one went hungry. For centuries, European poets and artists described the magical land of Cockaigne, or Cuccagna, where the lazy were king and food fell from the sky. One 14th-century poem described rivers of milk and honey. Unpleasant reminders of daily life, such as bad weather or fleas, didn’t exist.

Cuccagna festivals brought the dreamworld of Cockaigne to life. But instead of paradise, they were demonstrations of wealth and power that often descended into brutality.

This Cuccagna close-up shows the food pinned to the monument's walls.
This Cuccagna close-up shows the food pinned to the monument’s walls.

Creating a real-life Cockaigne meant displaying massive quantities of fruit, cheese, meat, and bread in beautiful configurations, Marcia Reed, the chief curator at the Getty Research Institute, explains. But not all the bounty was dead. Reed, who also curated the GRI’s The Edible Monument: The Art of Food For Festivals exhibition, notes that Cuccagna also featured hunts of live pigs, bulls, and birds.

People hunted livestock and gathered birds from
People hunted livestock and gathered birds from “Cuccagna trees” at the Feast of the Roast Pig. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

In 1716, Bologna had a Cuccagna-inspired Feast of the Roasted Pig. Men with spears pursued loose bulls, while commoners climbed “Cuccagna trees” in the gardens. The trunks were covered in grease, so only the most nimble could pluck the whole,…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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