Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
August 18, 2022
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Mangia Bene

        The painting on the book cover of A Mediterranean Feast is the fourth of four panels known as the Pucci panels, painted by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1444-1510) for the Florentine Antonio Pucci in 1483. The painting depicts a scene in the story of Nastagio degl'Onesti from Boccaccio's Decameron (Fifth Day, Eighth story). Nastagio degl'Onesti was a young man hopelessly in love with a beautiful girl who not only does not love him in return, but is, in fact, quite cruel and mean to him. He squanders his wealth on this girl, worrying his friends who encourage him to get away for a time so he will not think of her. He goes to a small village to ponder his predicament. On a long walk, deep in thought, he suddenly finds himself deep in the forest, oblivious of food and everything else, and is startled by the ear-shattering scream of a very beautiful young woman running naked through the woods. Her skin is torn by brambles and along her side are two hunting dogs sinking their fangs into her sides ripping more flesh. Behind the dogs a swarthy knight follows who threatens to kill her.

    Nastagio was unarmed, but desired to protect the girl. The knight called out to Nastagio by name, ordering him to stay out of this business that was of no concern to him. Nastagio was surprised the knight knew his name. Sadly the knight tells Nastagio that he, the knight, is dead, a suicide who killed himself over the girl he is chasing who he loved so dearly, who is likewise dead. This can only be Hell. For the girl, it is the hell of being chased and ruthlessly savaged and a hell for him to have to eternally kill the woman he loves. After he kills her, he slices open her back and rips out her heart to feed to the dogs. Then she springs to a life of the walking dead and the terror starts all over again.

    Nastagio's hair was standing on end when he heard this story, so frightened was he. But he had an idea, since the knight told him that this event repeats itself every Friday. He called his servants and friends together and said that for some time they had been urging him to desist from wooing the girl he loved. He would desist, he said, if they would do him one favor: invite the girl and her family to join him for breakfast the next Friday at this very spot in the woods where the young beauty was attacked. Nastagio arranged for a magnificent banquet with the tables arrayed so that they surrounded the site of the impending massacre. The girl he loved was seated directly in front of where the killing would take place. Soon, as they finished the last course, the wailing girl and chasing knight came. Everyone was amazed and terrified. The knight told them all to remain still, that there was no helping the girl as the horrible event repeated itself.

    The girl Nastagio loved realized that what she just witnessed was a parable concerning her own predicament and feelings. Her enmity and cruelty towards Nastagio was transformed into love and they soon married and lived a happy and long life. This painting, the fourth panel, is their wedding banquet and the food being served looks like an early course of fritters, typical in the fifteenth century as we know from Platina, as well as other appetizers.

Sandro Botticelli, Story of Nastagio degl'Onesti, Pucci Panel 1, Prado, Madrid

Sandro Botticelli, Story of Nastagio degl'Onesti, Pucci Panel 2, Prado, Madrid

Sandro Botticelli, Story of Nastagio degl'Onesti, Pucci Panel 3, Prado, Madrid

Sandro Botticelli, Story of Nastagio degl'Onesti, Pucci Panel 4, Private Collection, New York.