Sugar – A Venetian Soft Commodity

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Sugar now average but once exorbitant exclusive and only for the few, this decadent sweetness was used in Venice during the Renaissance to the building of sugar sculptures, pieces known as trionfi di zucchero or trionfi di tavola.
My proposal deals with the soft commodity of sugar, the history of sugar as art in the Venetian Renaissance were it can be observed as a perceived reality through paintings and detailed descriptions in historical documents.
Venice created an institutional basis for commercial capitalism based on major progress in shipping technology, silk textiles, glassblowing and jewellery but also by transferring Asian and Egyptian technology in cane sugar production and processing. For years sugar was a major product, and using techniques borrowed from Syria, Venice established plantation agriculture and processing facilities with slave labour in Crete and Cyprus where Venetian families, like the Cornaros, in the 14th century had large plantations devoted to producing sugarcane.

The proposal deals with the historical identity of Venice, i.e. how the Venetians designed an identity through sugar - embodied through and crystalized in - events and images.
Sugar being extravagant expensive was usually kept under lock and key and even in Venetian standards being able to waste large amounts on decorations was a sign of a society’s wealth. Sugar sculptures became a fashionable way to show off and Venice fostered creators of some of the most spectacular banquet decorations ever seen. The most famous sugar art piece of the time was designed by the great architect Jacopo Sansovino in occasion of a grand feast in 1574 in honor of Henry III, who was passing Venice on his way to coronation.

At the historical Banquet the whole table was one giant sugar confection, but such was the artistry of the Venetians that he’d had to touch it to be able to tell. In addition to every kind of statuette, bread, plates, knives, forks, tablecloth, furniture, fruit, flowers, and trees that were all said to be so lifelike that is was only when the napkin broke in his hand that the astonished King realized that the settings were an illusion, there to dazzle him with works in sweet that spoke to Venice’s great power. And they were all impressive.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTypical Venice? : Venetian Commodities, 13th-6th Centuries
EditorsElla Beaucamp
Place of PublicationVenice
Publication date2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017
EventTypical Venice?: Venetian Commodities, 13th-16th Centuries - Venice, Italy
Duration: 3 Mar 20165 Mar 2016


ConferenceTypical Venice?

Bibliographical note

Proceedings is expected published spring 2017.

International conference organized by Philippe Cordez (Research Group "Premodern Objects", Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München / Elitenetzwerk Bayern) and Romedio Schmitz-Esser (Deutsches Studienzentrum in Venedig)


  • Venice


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