The town of Ascoli was under papal rule and in 1482 Pope Sixtus IV granted it a degree of self-government. This altarpiece was painted for the church of SS. Annunziata in Ascoli to celebrate the event. The coats of arms are those of the Pope (left) and the local bishop, Prospero Caffarelli (right). News of Ascoli's new status reached the town on the feast of the Annunciation on 25 March, which then became a special feast day when the town celebrated its liberty.
It is rare to include a saint with the Archangel Gabriel in a depiction of the Annunciation. Saint Emidius, the patron saint of Ascoli, is shown carrying a model of the town. Ascoli is dominated by towers and is still recognisable today in the model which Emidius carries.
Miranda Hinkley: Where others admire technique and composition, Gillian looks for cooking tips – plundering paintings for information about what we ate in centuries past. She chose to speak to us about a work by the 15th-century Venice-born master, Crivelli. ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ depicts the Virgin Mary shortly before she discovers she’s destined to give birth to the son of God. It’s a subject that traditionally inspires piety rather than pies, and when I met Gillian in the Gallery, I began by asking her to explain why she chose the work.
Gillian Riley: There’s an awful lot to eat in this painting. First of all, we have the cucumber and the apple in the foreground. They’re there for symbolic reasons, because the apple is the symbol of the Virgin Mary and the cucumber is the symbol of Christ. But it gets better – it gets more edible, because if you look at the shelf above her bed, you’ll see an interesting collection of objects. The jar next to the candle there is probably holding fruit in a runny syrup, which would be offered to guests as it still is in Greece today. Next to it is a flat wooden, circular wooden box, with some white bowls on top of it, and inside the box, I’m pretty certain must be 'cotignata', which is quince paste. And the books which it’s standing on – these are always said to be devotional books, but I do wonder if they’re not household manuals, cookery books, books of recipes. About that time, there would be in circulation the cookery books of Maestro Martino who was writing in Rome in the 1460s. His cookery recipes… one of which is for peacock which we’ll come to later…
Miranda Hinkley: Ah, because just above all of that, there’s… standing on the upper parapet, is a peacock with its tail hanging down, right almost close to those cookery books.
Gillian Riley: The peacock has a lot of symbolic meaning because it signifies imperial and kingly power. That’s political, earthly power. But it also symbolises the immortality of Christ because it is said that the flesh of peacocks does not go off quickly, so it’s quite a useful thing to have in your larder. And because Christ was immortal and peacocks are almost immortal, there’s this connection there. And also the splendour and majesty of Christ is there in the peacock with its tail splayed out.
But when you come to cook it, it gets really interesting because the peacock was skinned with the feathers intact so that the tail feathers and even the head and the neck would be preserved on the skin. The bird was cooked on a spit, spit-roasted, and the bird itself, once cooked, would have metal rods inserted in its legs and possibly even a clockwork mechanism inside the body of the bird, so that it could be made to stand upright on a stand and the skin and the feathers would be sewn back on and if the clockwork mechanism is working it can be made to walk along the tablecloth.
Miranda Hinkley: I mean, that’s not the only bird for the pot, is it, because I can see that there are plenty of doves up towards the top of the painting.
Gillian Riley: Yes, up top on the left, you can just see in this very extreme perspective, there is a dovecote and in and out of the holes are coming semi-wild pigeons which will have been treasured and protected by law by the townspeople because they were for the pot. And there are wonderful recipes in the Marche, the Italian Marches, where Ascoli Piceno was, and one of them – I’ve had it cooked there with rabbit, but you can perfectly well apply this to pigeons or to guinea fowl, which has something of the gamey, slightly chicken qualities that these cultivated pigeons would have – and if you time, it’s a very good recipe, very quick – you joint your rabbit or guinea fowl or pigeon or whatever, brown it in olive oil with some chopped up pancetta, onion and garlic, then you tip into it a glass or so of white wine, and raise the heat so that the wine is more or less completely evaporated, then you tip some more wine in and add capers, stone black olives, mushrooms, or dried funghi porcini, plenty of herbs – and the characteristic herbs of the Marche would be wild fennel, which has this wonderful aromatic flavour, and it’s growing wild there, but if not use fennel seeds, along with fresh sage, rosemary, thyme, whatever you have, and cook slowly, uncovered, so that the liquid is almost completely evaporated, so that you have this very strong, dense sauce.
Miranda Hinkley: That sounds wonderful – it sounds like there are lots of flavours going on. It’s not just those herby flavours, but you’ve got the olives, and the capers, and really quite strong flavours as well.
Gillian Riley: Yes, that’s characteristic of the cooking of the Italian Marches. But the thing about this painting is that everybody who looked at this and admired the peacock would also know of the gastronomic significance – so why shouldn’t we?
Miranda Hinkley: Thanks to Gillian Riley. 'A Feast for the Eyes', Gillian’s cookery book inspired by the collection, is available from National Gallery shops.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty Eight, December 2009