Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Big Kitchen at the Pitti Palace

A Kitchen for Kings

Before the guided tour to the newly-renovated Medicean Cucinone or Big Kitchen started, there was time to explore the Royal Apartments of the Pitti Palace.

the divine right to luxury
The Royal Apartments are perfect examples of the much-money-little-taste syndrome: magnificent workmanship and raw materials, to be sure, in the brocades, the gilt mouldings around doors and windows, the damask wall coverings, the tassels and fringes and folderols, but the final effect is heavy and ostentatious in the extreme. Buone cose di pessimo gusto as the poet Guido Gozzano wrote.

corridor leading from the Sala di Bona to the service area, haunt of armies of servants; the contrast in style could not be greater. These plain corridors were refreshing after all the show in the grand areas
While most of this display can be blamed on the last dynasty to reside at the Palace: the Savoys, in the persons of Umberto and Margherita of Savoy, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose sister took charge of some of the renovations and the Habsburg-Lorraines in the 18th and 19th centuries, made their own substantial contributions. This layering of styles and ideals doubtless adds to the overwhelming effect.
The kitchens were located in the small building to the right of the Palace, accessed by the covered bridge. Nowadays this building has been absorbed into the larger structure of the palace and most of the service areas have been converted into storerooms. Recently, until its restoration, the Big Kitchen was being used to house furniture. This illustration dates to 1599 and is a detail from a lunette by Justus Utens, a Flemish painter who depicted the Medici villas for Ferdinando I. The almost complete series of delightful lunettes can be viewed at the Villa Medici Petraia.
The kitchen or Cucinone is another thing. Although it is part and parcel of those times and those lives, and would not have existed without them, it is also testimony to the hard and at times back-breaking work of the underclass which served the masters, dishing out all the banquets and celebrations as well as everyday meals. The Cucinone was the kitchen used to prepare meals for the noble family; at one time it was called the Secret Kitchen since it was for private use; other large kitchens served the rest of the court and small kitchens were scattered throughout the palace so that light meals could be prepared as needed.

illustration of a celebratory feast from Bartolomeo Scappi's Cookbook
Interestingly, there is no dining room as such in the Palace. The ruling family regularly dined alone and the extended family and other nobility would eat in different places at different times. It was only on occasions of feasts and celebrations that grand tables were prepared for the royals to entertain their guests. Although it appears that these occasions were frequent.
Settings for dozens of guests at another grand feast. Interestingly, Bartolomeo Scappi worked as chef for two Popes.

So, to the Cucinone, the Big Kitchen:

The kitchen must be spacious and of good height so that it does not warm up easily and the fire and smoke from the cooking must not be blinding. The kitchen must be vaulted to ensure against fire and rain and to absorb noise. The air must be fresh and cool.
from Of the Idea of a Universal Architecture by 
Vincenzo Scamozzi, 1616

The kitchen, built at the end of the 16th century for Ferdinando I dei Medici after he transferred the ducal residence from Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti, (which had been the home of his mother Eleonora di Toledo), seems to anticipate Scamozzi's guidelines for the ideal kitchen. It is a room which soars up to a high vaulted ceiling with two clerestory windows admitting a surprising amount of light.  
clerestory windows elegantly inset within the ceiling vaults

Two of the three enormous chimney hoods, the one on the right being the original Medicean one, designed by the court architect Bernardo Buontalenti (1531-1608), who decorated much of the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens
The Buontalenti fireplace is the star of the original Medici kitchen. The hood, painted in muted red which evokes the color of the red hot coals that once glowed under the hood, soars from circular pietra serena pilasters up into at least two storeys of space. The six-metre wide mantle of carefully fitted, sloping ashlar (square-cut) masonry that flares and fans outward is a feat of precise, striking design and construction. Little, if any mortar, is visible. Building accounts indicate that noted stone masons from Fiesole shaped the stones and that men with oxen (no doubt Chianina) hauled the stones from the Boboli gardens in order to work them.
the magnificent chimney hood restored to its original colour

Thorough inventories reveal that the furnishings of the kitchen are largely intact although it is hard to tell from which era they date; much originates from the subsequent Habsburg-Lorraine dynasties and the Savoy occupation.  Among them we see a copper vegetable steamer, copper chocolate pots, a copper juice pan for roasts similar to those used today, many lovely copper moulds and tins for measuring dry goods hung on original hooks in their numbered places. Each item has an inventory number that is either engraved or painted on. As with most Italian kitchens today, there are the ubiquitous scales, these using weights.
kitchen scales
handsome copper pot with lid and inventory number
copper mould next to its placing number: a place for everything and everything in its place
beautiful utensils in brass and wood
the original ceramic mixing bowl

a selection of Scappi's utensils, echoed in the Pitti Palace Cucinone
detail from the more recent Habsburg-Lorraine or Savoy-era workstations
An ingenious feature of the kitchen is the long, wooden, metal-lined warming cabinet with a counter of inset copper plates that were heated from below with fuel shovelled onto a grill; the cinders would fall into an iron box under the grill. 
warming cabinet with grill and cinderbox
copper plates for heating and keeping warm; the cabinet is several metres long
Other facilities seem rudimentary today.  Two albeit large stone sinks appear to have served the entire kitchen, and outside, in the corridor, a small two-seat toilet with a tall vent apparently served the entire kitchen staff which at times numbered 50 to 70. A small sink with one (cold?) tap in a wall niche in the hall would appear to have been for washing hands.
one of the stone sinks
What would it have been like working in this kitchen under the Medicis, or the Habsburg-Lorraines and the Savoys for that matter? 
imagine this bustling with cooks, assistants and scullery maids
Invitations of the early 17th century reveal that banquets usually started late and lasted throughout the night and were frequent. So, the kitchen was always busy. With activity around the clock, particularly during special feasts or banquets, a veritable army of servants with highly specialized tasks must have been at work: meat grillers, vegetable choppers, bakers, confectioners, spice men, ice men, cleaners, teams of waiters and so forth. 

one of the former bread ovens, located either side of the main fireplace
There would have been a constant stream of servants traipsing up and down the stairs leading to the cellars where all the food, wine and oil was stored; to the icehouses in the Boboli Gardens; to the spice and condiments rooms; to wherever the livestock was kept. And to the other palace kitchens, since the Cucinone was mainly reserved for the ruling family and entourage. Security and fear of poisoning in the ducal kitchen were probably other concerns and undoubtedly the reason it was separated from the "Cucina Comune", the common kitchen. Surely the most skilled and most trusted servants worked in the Cucinone.
a section of the former cellars (now bathrooms and cloakroom) where all the provisions were stored, several storeys below the kitchen
Just as in the early Renaissance, servants slept wherever they found a space, for example in the narrow corridor outside the kitchen. Unlike today's workers, servants were virtual slaves; they had no unions and no rights.

Hygiene in the kitchen area must have been a problem. The lack of refrigeration may have led to food contamination; foods like gelatine, meat and fish must have been stored in one of the icehouses in the Boboli gardens stocked with ice hauled in from Abetone. The emphasis on eating freshly shot game and gelatine moulds with live fish (!) suggests concerns about food poisoning.
original stone flagging in the kitchen; imagine how many times this was scrubbed!
the tiles are found in the part of the kitchen furnished and decorated by the Habsburg-Lorraines and are probably by Ginori
With its two bread ovens, gargantuan fireplace, stone-flagged floor and spacious working area, in late 1600 the kitchen was to become the fulcrum for the magnificent celebrations of the wedding by proxy between Ferdinando I's niece Maria dei Medici and Henry IV of France, who was delayed by war from attending his own wedding. Despite the groom's absence the wedding was by all accounts an elaborate and sumptuous affair. Amongst the many innovations introduced for the occasion was the new musical genre of opera with Jacopo Peri's Euridice.

Ferdinand I stands in for Henry IV of France, who was at war, in the proxy marriage of Maria dei Medici on October 5, 1600. Rubens (1622-25). Behind Maria dei Medici, a young Rubens holding a cross.
For the royals and their 4000 guests the wedding banquet must have been breathtaking and presumably mouthwatering. Leading architects, set designers, sculptors and painters were employed to create  designs for the meats, pies and elaborate dishes with representions of the Labors of Hercules, heroes, animals, monsters, gods and temples. Noted artists and architects like Buontalenti, Pietro Tacca and Jacopo Ligozzi conceived sugar sculptures in collaboration with ironmongers who made the supports, and goldsmiths who executed the silver and gold gilding. This and the fantastic folding of napkins, amongst other things, are described by Michelangelo's great nephew in his Descrizione, an officially commissioned report on the great event.
2015 recreation of one of the designs for the folded napkins at the wedding
Tradition has it that Buontalenti invented ice cream for the wedding; Buontalenti gelato, based on confectioner's custard, cream and honey, is still made in Florence (see gelateria Badiani in Viale dei Mille).

The frontispiece from the famous Renaissance cookbook of Bartolomeo Scappi, (1500-1577) in which 1000 recipes, cooking techniques and utensils are described and depicted. A master who would have influenced the choices in the Pitti kitchens.
Accounts of the wedding show that the ducal kitchen was busy preparing 24 cold dishes and 28 hot dishes for the reception at Palazzo Vecchio with the added help of three French cooks. The complete menu
(some of these dishes are untranslatable and/or unknown;  
others seem very strange to our palates)

Cold dishes:
Insalate lavate in bacini - Salads washed in bowls
Susine semiane - Plums
Fragole - Strawberries (it was October)
Pavoni rivestiti - Dressed peacocks
Fortezze piene d’uccelleti vivi - Fortresses full of live birds
Galli d’India affagianati in foggia d’idra e guarniti - Turkeys in the form of a hydra 
Capponi in pasticci in forma di grua - Capons representing cranes
Pasticci di vitella a foggia di liocorno - Veal pie in the form of a unicorn
Pasticci di cinghiali in forma di cignali - Wild boar pies in the shape of wild boars
Pasticci a uso di drago con carne - Meat pies in the shape of dragons
Tartara secca addiacciata di zucchero - Sugar-glazed tartar of dried meat
Torta biancha senza sfoglia addiacciata di zucchero - Sugar-glazed white cake without crust
Torta di più colori - Multi-coloured cake
Lamprede piene di crema - Lamprey filled with cream
Piatti di palle di citornate adornate di figurette - Platters of ? decorated with figurines
Aguglie di pane di Spagna adornate del medesimo - Sponge garfish decorated with the same
Turbanti sfogliati con animalii sopra - Pastry turbans decorated with animals
Prosciutto sfilato a foggia di un gallo - Prosciutto cut to resemble a rooster
Un lavoro di figure di burro - Figures made out of butter
Tortiglioni ripieni sfogliati - Ravioli
Lingue di bue adornate - Decorated ox tongue
Pollastri abborracciati e armati di pere - Chickens armed with pears
Pollanche abborracciate piene di crema - Chickens filled with cream
Anitrotti coperti di meciado - Ducks covered with sauce?
Capponi coperti del medesimo - Capons covered with the same
Piccioni torraioli alla Catelana - Pigeons alla Catalana
First hot dishes:
Ortolani con fette di pan dorato - Vegetables? with slices of gilded bread
Quaglie con sua crostata - Quails in a pastry crust
Piccioni grossi arrosto - Large roast pigeons
Pollanche d’India arrosto - Roast turkey
Fagiani a lanterna - Pheasants 'a lanterna'
Pollanche affagianate, adornate di bracciuole lardate - Chickens done like pheasant, decorated with larded chops
Leprotti o conigli lardati alla franzese - Hare or rabbit larded alla francese
Capponi lessi senz’osso coperti di ravioli - Boiled, boned capons covered with ravioli
Petti di vitella stufati alla moresca - Veal breast braised alla moresca
Pasticci all’inglese in forma di pescie - English pies in the shape of fish
Bianco mangiare in fette - Sliced blancmange
Pasticci di piccioni torraioli a rocca - Pigeon pies
Crostate di cervelle e animelle - Tarts of brains and sweetbread
Torte verdi alla milanese - Green cakes alla milanese
Tartara di rilievo - Tartar
Orecchioni di pasta - Orecchioni pasta
Rose di biscotto - Rose-shaped biscuits
Tommacelloni con fegatelli - ? with liver
Second hot dishes:
Tordi e allodole con salsiccia - Thrushes and larks with sausage
Pasticcio a triangolo di carne battuta - Triangular mincemeat pies
Tortole con crosta e sua adornamenti - Doves? in a crust with decorations
Crosta di persiche - Perch pie
Porchette ripiene - Stuffed suckling pig
Pollastrelli a uso di pavoncini arrosto - Roast chicken to resemble peacock chicks
Pasticcio ovato d’oglia potrida - Egg pie with roasted garlic (reads like putrid garlic)?
Stame o coturnice alla franzese - ?
Crostata di vitella - Veal tart
Torta d’Inghilterra - English cake 
Cold dishes served on the sideboard:
Paste fatte con le arme del Re e della Regina - Cakes decorated with the royal arms
Crostata di cedro - Citron tart
Torta di bocca di dama - 'Lady's mouth' cake
Ciambellette - Ring-shaped cakes
Torte diacciate - Glazed cakes?
Pasticcetti di tartufi - Truffle cakelets
Latte mele in bacini - Bowls of milk and honey
Pasticci voti, entrovi conigli con sonagliera - Empty pies containing rabbits with bells
Cheese and fruit course:
Ulive - Olives
Cialdoncini - Wafers
Pesche in vino - Peaches in wine
Pere - Pears
Uve - Grapes
Azeruole - Apples
Carciofi - Artichokes
Sedani - Celery
Finocchio - Fennel
Fragole - Strawberries
Pere cotognie in gelo - Quince comfits 
Mele appie in candido zucchero - Appia apples in white sugar
Maria dei Medici and Henry IV of France and family in 1607, Franz Pourbus the Younger; by 1607 they had four children under six and were to produce a further two: three of these became the monarchs of France, Spain and England.

corner of the Cucinone enhanced by a still life

Although the kitchen eventually became a storeroom, its role in World War II during the German siege and bombardment of Florence is touching. While the local population took refuge in Palazzo Pitti from the bombs and cold weather, the grand ducal kitchen was reactivated to prepare 5000 meals for them.

a corner of the kitchen and its 19th century furniture

The Pitti Palace is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 815 to 1850, and is closed on Mondays, New Year's Day, May 1st and Christmas Day. Unfortunately, our informers tell us that as of April 2016 the Kitchen is no longer open for visitors and for now there is no certainty about when it will reopen. We suggest checking the Pitti Palace site for updates.

Lion attacking a cow or calf in a 2015 recreation of a sugar sculpture from Maria dei Medici's wedding

This post was prepared in collaboration with ET who scouted out the Cucinone, took excellent notes and provided some of the images. Many thanks!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  3. What a most interesting tour of the Pitti Palace Royal Apartments,and then on to The Big Kitchen where all was in very large numbers and proportions;the kitchen itself,cooking utensils,fireplace,chimney hoods,etc.What a great amount of hard and skillful work was carried out here.I would have passed on the gelatine moulds with live(!)fish;cooked fish for me.
    The menu for The Reception at the Palazzo Vecchio was mind blowing,both in the
    number and variety of dishes on offer.
    As usual the clarity of literary style,and the photography,left absolutely nothing to be desired.

  4. salve ditemi se devo scrivere in inglese..
    ho notato con piacere che il Vostro articolo è il più completo ed esaustivo sull'argomento trovato sul web!
    mi preme pertanto segnalarVi che le piastrelle del rivestimento 'nuove' sono state prodotte da un artigiano della zona di Montelupo che sto cercando di promuovere e far conoscere


    qui potete vedere delle varianti possibili dello stesso decoro che è stato chiamato a riprodurre (solo una piccola parte del rivestimento è originale del 1500, il resto è stato riprodotto da chi poteva farlo rispettando tutte le caratteristiche del prodotto artigianale di un tempo)

    Qualora voleste aggiungere le ulteriori informazioni di questa 'perla' che Vi ho accennato sul Vs. blog (proprio per la sua completezza e ricchezza!)

    non esitate a contattarmi!
    ringraziandoVi anticipatamente

    leone Pecchioli

    mob. +393314001081

    (il sito web non è ancora attivo...)

  5. Grazie a Leone per il commento e la segnalazione. Siamo sempre contenti di promuovere gli artigiani locali.
    Thanks to Leone for his comment and information. We are always happy to encourage local artisans.


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