Fit for the Gods

My first Thanksgiving proper happened the year I met my Husband, and one thing struck me above all: it wasn’t the marvel of marshmallows on a vegetable dish, or the pungent pumpkin pie aroma hazing through the house. No. Instead I was intrigued by the inexcusable imbalance between the time it takes to set it all up and the time it takes to scoff it all down.

He and his American friends had camped for a couple of days at my parents’ house. 24 hours prior, the turkey got dunked in its basin of brine. The next morning the ladies were up at the crack, snipping, slicing, draining, straining, melting, pouring, crumbing and humming the dishwasher. As the novice I’d been ushered out of the kitchen and onto decoration duties.

As the eating hour drew near, dish after dish flowed forth from fridge, oven, stove and shelf and we tied on bibs in anticipation. An epic feast of Roman proportions, to be ingested over at least a few leisurely hours, I thought. But then it started. The scramble. I think it took all of 20 minutes for us to forage like feral things and then flop onto armchair/ sofa/ floor/ each other, belching and bellyaching in the uncomfortable aftermath.

Which is where our painting comes in. Now, I’m not for one minute suggesting that this bonkers bacchanalian scene is in any way similar to our post-turkey situation, but there’s just something about the saturated and satisfied languidness of this picture that resonates right well with what we’re talking about.

The Feast of the Gods (1514) has got to be among the best Renaissance paintings in America. It’s by Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430/35 – 1516), the leading Venetian artist of the High Renaissance. This work was the first in a series of mythologies commissioned by Duke Alfonso d’Este to decorate a room in his castle in Ferrara, and was later a little added-to by Titian, who mapped in the moody mountain landscape at the back left.

The story is about satiation and sauce: the gods (Jupiter, Neptune, Apollo et al) are partying hard in an idyllic wooded setting, fooding and boozing, served by nymphs and satyrs.

On the right is where the scandal happens as Priapus (thrusting god of fertility) approaches lustily a sleeping nymph, Lotis. But an ass belonging to Silenus (Greek god of drunkenness) brays at the crucial moment, alerting the deities who take much merriment in Priapus’ misfortune.

Venetian paintings, especially those by a big star like Bellini, are always infused with eye-catching color and crystal light. All the better for us to look in on a lavish and lascivious feast like this.