“The Fruit Seller” (detail) by Vincenzo Campi, 1580, oil on canvas, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Food on the Vincenzo Campi’s paintings

Vincenzo Campi (c.1530/5–1591) was a 16th-century Italian artist best known for his significant contribution to the birth of Italian genre painting. His work was heavily influenced by similar genre paintings by Flemish artists Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Buekelaer.

Campi was the first to paint a series of paintings depicting food, butchers, fish vendors and poultry sellers as a commission for the wealthy Fugger family of Augsburg.

“Chicken Vendors” by Vincenzo Campi, 1580, oil on canvas, Pinacoteca di Brera

“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” by Vincenzo Campi, c.1580, oil on canvas, Galleria Estense

Campi’s depictions of the “villano”, or peasant illustrated and reinforced a contemporary northern Italian discourse that argued certain foods were only appropriate for high-born citizens and others for low-born.
Despite Campi’s choice to depict the lower working classes, his treatment of these subjects was neither sympathetic nor romanticized. With the heavy use of food metaphors and established character tropes, Campi often depicts his subjects as crude and dim-witted. An Art Historian Barry Wind sees these works as a contemporary extension of the classical idea of comic painting, where the painting served as a ‘”sustained bawdy joke” for and educated man with a low sense of humour.

“Fishmongers” by Vincenzo Campi, c. 1580, oil on canvas, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Campi’s “Fishmongers” depicts its subjects eating beans, dark bread, and scallions, which were the exact foods listed as only suitable for the working classes in Bartolomeo Pisanelli’s influential “Trattato della natura de’ cibi et del bere” published in 1585.

“The Ricotta Eaters” by Vincenzo Campi, 1580, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon

Cheese was also seen to be suitable nourishment for the lower classes, “(who) do not have the means to provide themselves with other more healthy foods”. Campi illustrates the low standing of cheese in his work, “The Ricotta Eaters”, which rather unflatteringly depicts “gluttonous peasants” laughing and spooning fresh cheese into their gapping mouths

“Kitchen” by Vincenco Campi, 1580, oil on canvas, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Vincenco Campi was a precursor to Caravaggio’s more progressive realism emerging in the following decade.

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