This morning I have been mixing up a little bit of Renaissance Stardust (recipe courtesy of Gillian Riley from her wonderful book: A Feast for the Eyes The National Gallery Cookbook). I intend to use the stardust sprinkled over some roast chicken together with orange juice and rosewater (Renaissance Chicken) a recipe also from Gillian’s book.

I have a great interest in historical cooking and a real passion for the history of medicine and cosmetics. Usually I am brewing up herbal potions in my little space I call my Spezieria or apothecary. Pharmacies in Renaissance Italy were variously called apoteche, spezierie or aromatarii.

During the Renaissance the Apothecary Shop sold a variety of products including herbs, medicine, spices, candles, sweetmeats and syrups. It was also where artists would purchase their pigments. It is known that the Apothecary shop was as much a social gathering place as somewhere to buy products such as those above. People would meet here to chat, gossip, share information and sometimes even gamble. Whenever I have had to queue at our local pharmacy I am always amazed at the amount of chatter that goes on amongst those who have come to collect prescriptions. I could well believe that if you were able to buy the assortment of items available in the Renaissance Apothecary shop and you had to wait for your remedy to be weighed out and ground up, there would be scope for a real assortment of discussion.

Many years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Castello di Issogne in the Val d’Aosta with its absolutely incredible fresco cycle painted c.1500, which depicts places of sale including a tavern, pie shop, vegetable market, drapers and an apothecary shop. The fresco of the apothecary shop (see above) is useful since it shows an array of items that would have been typically on display in such places: labelled jars, pestle and mortar, scales, herbs, small wax objects in the form of a leg, foot, hand and a horse and an assortment of containers for medicaments.

I think I would have felt truly quite at home in the Renaissance Apothecary shop, I can just imagine the smells, the sound of the grinding of pigments and herbs (see fresco with the little chap dressed in ragged clothes and wearing only one shoe straddled on a low stool) who is engaged in doing exactly this. I can just hear the incessant chatter surrounding the efficacy of weird and wonderful remedies. I would have loved it!

It is well known that medieval monks grew medicinal plants in their monastic gardens but fewer people are aware of the important role that nuns and convents played in the commercialisation of medicines during the Renaissance period. I am however, pleased to say that this subject has been greatly addressed by scholars in recent years. The San Vincenzo d’Annalena convent in Florence which was founded by the subject of my book Annalena Malatesta was amongst those convents which became renown for its sale of medicines from the beginning of the sixteenth century.

  • Dawn Cumming

For the past five years or so I have been living in the past or sort of, since I have spent all of that time doing research for my book: In Search of Annalena: a Life of Tragedy and Triumph in Renaissance Florence, due to be published by the end of October 2020. I’ve lost track of the number of hours that I must have spent poring over ancient documents in the State Archives in Florence and working in libraries both in Italy and in the UK. Carrying out the research was an immensely satisfying part of the process of writing my book whilst the actual writing itself was the ultimate expression of my labours.

The wonderful thing about research is that you never know where it might take you. Entering into the world of the fifteenth century noblewoman Annalena Malatesta brought me closer to a whole host of fascinating and interesting personalities from Renaissance Italy including members of the great Medici family of Florence, the Guidi of the Casentino and not least Annalena’s own family the Malatesta. Dark secrets came to the fore; most significantly the intrigue and mystery surrounding the murder of Annalena’s husband the great condottiere Baldaccio d’Anghiari. Furthermore, important Italian Renaissance art works both surviving and lost, took on a surprising and exciting new significance.

I wanted to live and breathe the air that Annalena Malatesta once did but most importantly I want to share her remarkable story with others. The name of Annalena still lives on in the city of Florence today. Annalena Malatesta was one of the most important female spiritual figures in fifteenth century Florence and as such her name deserves to be included in the line-up of individuals that helped to make Florence great.

  • Dawn Cumming

Many years ago we had great fun helping out at our local 'vendemmia' or grape harvest. The small vineyard belonged to our neighbours Bruna and Alberto who knew that we were keen to get involved. After some instructions as to how we should pick the grapes we soon set to work. We had prepared ourselves for a very long and hard day. However, after about an hour of working and chatting across the rows of vines with other villagers who had come to help , we were all given the signal to stop for a break. We were offered a sample of the previous year's vintage and then we resumed picking the grapes. About an hour after this we enjoyed another short break and even more 'vino'. This was the pattern until we reached lunch time when once more 'everything ground to a halt'. We all huddled around a small vehicle whose bonnet had been magically transformed into a table top complete with a red and white check tablecloth. Bruna and Alberto were the perfect hosts and provided us with a hearty Tuscan lunch: huge chunks of Tuscan bread, flavoursome pecorino cheese, proscuitto (ham) and of course more wine. After a great many plastic cartons of wine, chatter and laughter soon filled the air. Following our most enjoyable lunch we returned to the vines and we filled up more plastic pails with grapes. Before long we had collected every last grape. As a reward for our labours we were given a bottle of grappa. It certainly was an experience we will never forget although it has to be said that I can't quite remember how we climbed back up the hill to our house!

All images copyright Dawn Cumming, Tuscany At Home