What did Leonardo da Vinci eat?

July 2, 2008
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We all know what he painted, invented, and thought – but in this fascinating guest post, Merrianne Timko lets us in on what fueled Leonardo da Vinci’s fabled genius – a sneak peek into the Museum’s upcoming Cultural Feast.

Snoot fun
Creative Commons License photo credit: Phil Romans

Many of the foods we eat today –  including tomatoes, corn, potatoes, and chocolate, were “discovered” by explorers to the New World, and introduced into the European diet only after Leonardo’s death in 1519.  

Leonardo’s manuscripts for the time when he lived in Florence from 1500-1506 provide us with several lists of food items which are often interpreted as shopping lists or accounting entries for his household.  Although not all of the entries are in Leonardo’s handwriting, items listed include: good beef, eggs, wine, meat, mulberries, mushrooms, salad, fruit, flour, bran, herbs, buttermilk, and melon. 

Although Leonardo designed stage sets and mechanical devices for The Duke of Milan’s court banquets – which were renowned for their sumptuous dishes – Leonardo’s writings reflect moderation regarding food and wine.  One excerpt reads:

To keep in health this rule is wise.
Eat only when you want and sup light.
Chew well, and let what you take be well cooked and simple…
(Codex Atlanticus)

Some of Leonardo’s  manuscripts suggest that he may have preferred a more vegetarian type of diet, although vegetarianism was somewhat controversial during his time period. 

Creative Commons License photo credit: filologanoga

Leonardo’s interest in diet may be seen in a list of books that he owned around 1499, including an edition of Bartolomeo Sacchi’s work On Right Pleasure first published in 1470.   Sacchi,  perhaps better known as Platina, relied heavily on ancient Greek and Roman writings regarding the medical properties of food, and proper consumption.  Thus, Leonardo’s mention of parsley, mint, wild thyme, burnt bread, vinegar, pepper, salt, may not simply be a recipe for a salad, but a remedy for a stomach condition. 

Drawings of edible plants, including blackberries, are found in some of Leonardo’s manuscripts.  In addition, he used citron trees, olive trees, fruits, and nuts as the subjects of some of his fables. 

Reference should also be made to Leonardo’s Last Supper painted in the refectory of S. Maria delle Grazie in Milan – the most well-known depiction of a subject that became popular during the late 15th century in Italian art. 

With few Biblical details regarding what was eaten at the Last Supper, Leonardo depicted a menu largely of his choosing.  Despite the poor preservation of this fresco, a scholar has recently identified one of the dishes served to be grilled eel with orange slices – a popular Renaissance dish of the time, and perhaps a favorite of the Duke of Milan, or even Leonardo da Vinci himself!

Ms. Timko has combined her background in art history and archaeology with her interest in food and wines in order to research topics in Culinary History. She’ll share her knowledge of the foods da Vinci and his contemporaries would have enjoyed during the upcoming Cultural Feast, Leonardo’s Renaissance Table.

Authored By Erin B Blatzer

Erin is the Director of Business Development at HMNS. In a past life, she was a public relations and online marketing dynamo at HMNS.

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