Rich People In Italy Used To Cover Buildings In Food To Watch Poor People Fight Over Their Scraps

There once was a Medieval land of plenty, known as "Cockaigne," where food literally fell from the sky. It was imaginary, of course, but it was the over-the-top inspiration for a very real type of festival that was popular in Italy in the 1700s. It was known as "cuccagna," and it represents an important if not slightly disturbing moment in Italian food culture. The aristocrats and royals would build temporary palaces and statues, which they covered with food and then - on their signal - allowed poor villagers to ransack. 

It was a brutal form of entertainment, both dangerous for the participants (there were usually stampedes to get to the precious food) and humiliating. The elite of Naples used the peasants' mad scramble for food for their amusement.

Whether the tradition was good, bad, or just extremely quirky, the food sculptures they created were impressive by any standards, and they left a cultural imprint that is certainly one of a kind.

  • Cockaigne Was A Mythical Land Of Bountiful Food Where No One Went Hungry
    Photo: Pieter Brueghel the Elder / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Cockaigne Was A Mythical Land Of Bountiful Food Where No One Went Hungry

    Cuccagna is commonly believed to be the Italian translation of the word "Cockaigne," which was the name of a magical (and made up) food utopia. This paradise is described as a place where nobody ever goes hungry and laziness is rewarded. There are rivers of wine, milk, and honey, houses made of cakes and tarts, and even rocks made of cheese. Basically, if you lived there, you never wanted for anything.

  • They Built Structures For The Sole Purpose Of Covering Them With Food

    According to Marcia Reed, chief curator at the Getty Research Institute, "An edible monument is simply an artwork or architectural construction that is, in whole or part, made of food." She used this term to describe the structures created by the cuccagna hosts, which were mainly fragile buildings or statues that had been almost completely covered with various food items. None of the buildings have survived, since they weren't made to last.

  • Giving Food Palaces To The Poor Shouldn't Be Mistaken For Charity

    While the positive aspect of the cuccagna was that poor people were fed, it is important to not forget that these events were held for entertainment purposes. The elite members of society hosted them, but the whole city was there to enjoy watching its poorest members fight in a degrading display of hunger and need. The participants also got physically aggressive fairly frequently in their quest to gather the food, which was considered to be added entertainment.

  • Not All Of The Food Was Dead Yet

    Occasionally, cuccagna celebrations would feature live animals as part of their food displays. As if it wasn't barbaric enough to have peasants fighting each other for coveted food scraps, they would also have to kill the animals themselves as if they were on some kind of manufactured battlefield.

    The live animals included bulls that were running around the grounds freely and birds that had been tied (sometimes nailed) to the tops of trees - the trunks of which had been greased so that only the best climbers could get to the top. In 1716, "The Feast Of The Roasted Pig" was held in Bologna, to which men showed up with hunting spears.

  • King Charles III Set Up A Fund For Widows Of The Cuccagna
    Photo: Artist Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    King Charles III Set Up A Fund For Widows Of The Cuccagna

    The cuccagna festivals were much more dangerous than one might assume. Since people brought knives to cut away the bread and cheese from the walls, as well as spears to kill the livestock, accidents were extremely common. In the 1730s, King Charles set up a fund for the widows and children of men who had been killed or injured in these risky events.

  • Not All Royals Took Delight In Watching The Festivities

    While many members of the higher classes did enjoy the spectacle of the cuccagna, some openly voiced their distaste. The Marquis de Sade was among them, as well as Princess Maria Carolina, who "reportedly expressed horror when she saw live animals being torn apart at her wedding Cuccagna."