This Italian engraving showcases an abundant utopia of bounty and excess, complete with lakes of meatballs, diamond rainfall, and rivers of wine
Imagine a place where “he who works least earns most.” That place is the Land of Cockaigne (Cuccagna in Italian), a mythical world of self-indulgence and epic idleness. Denizens of this utopia never work, age, or suffer. Most importantly, they never go hungry. Food and drink spring from the land and lakes, drop from the sky, and citizens consume partridges, pastries, and pasta to their hearts’ content.
In the 17th century, the printmaking firm Remondini created this etching of the Land of Cockaigne. Playful text and loose hand-coloring describe a world in which people go to prison for working, and the laziest person becomes the leader of the land.
The Getty Research Institute recently acquired this artwork, which complements the Institute’s existing collection of prints portraying street monuments and floats created for food-related festivals. It’s on view now for the first time in the exhibition The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals.
The Island of Bustbelly
The Land of Cockaigne appears in texts and images dating back to the 13th century. It grew in popularity as an escape from the harsh realities of life in the middle ages and thrived during the 17th century as symbol of overabundance and excess. Variations on the theme appeared across Europe; one French broadside from the mid-16th century describes it as “The Island of Bustbelly.”
In early modern Italy, Cuccagna-inspired festivals regularly occurred, whisking impoverished citizens away from the hardships of daily life and launching them into the hedonistic world of Cockaigne. The celebrations featured elaborate temporary monuments decorated with food—meat, cheese, cakes, breads, and other culinary delights. The destruction of this public art, as people grabbed as much food as they could and climbed Cuccagna trees which had prizes at the very top, was entertainment for the court.
A Prolific Print Family
Cuccagna prints were printed by the Remondini family. Their prolific publishing firm was founded in the mid-17th century by Giovanni Antonio Remondini after he purchased the stock of a Flemish publisher in Venice, the company produced decorative papers, playing cards, books, music, and other printed ephemera. Cheap woodcuts, etchings, and engravings of popular and devotional images were Remondini’s bestsellers.
By the mid-18th century, the firm had eighteen printing presses, four paper mills, and several bookstores. Although the company was located in Bassano, the northeastern Veneto region of Italy, traveling salesmen brought the prints to Russia, Poland, Armenia, Spain, and—by extension—Latin America, further extending the reach of Remondini’s prints.
Remondini’s Land of Cockaigne showcases a world of magical visions. In the top left corner, pearls and diamonds rain down from the sky, while the opposite corner features a downpour of cooked partridges, chickens, and game, all destined for a table where eager diners await.
Beneath the prosperous skies are mountains of gold and a sea with ships laden with all sorts of salted meats. A river of Spanish wine runs through the land, past the flatlands of marzipan and under a bridge of sliced melons. There is a lake that tosses out cooked fish of all sorts and another lake of meatballs and sausages. A fountain of wine and ovens that keep baking fresh bread provide a never-ending source of sustenance and libations.
The plants also furnish delights, including trees of fresh fruit, trees of fruit cocktail, and plants that produce pastries and cakes. A giant lettuce is home to sheep—they reside under the leaves to stay cool. In this village, the cows give birth to veal every month, the donkeys are tied up with sausages, and the horses are born with saddles and reins.
A turreted building, surrounded by a moat of Greek wine, is a prison for people who enjoy labor. In the bottom right corner, an incoming ward is led to jail. The village’s laziest resident is nearby, riding a pig while brandishing a flag and goblet. He is Mr. Panigon, who was said to be the head of the Land of Cockaigne. Inscriptions on the print serve as a field guide to this mythical land, announcing 37 points of interest including “Cannons that fire flasks of moscato,” “The cave of ravioli,” and “It’s raining all kinds of cooked poultry.”
As the Remondini print attests, “Here you only worry about being happy!”
#ArtofFood is a series about food in art in medieval, Renaissance, and early modern Europe. It complements the exhibitions The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals at the Getty Research Institute and Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Food in the Middle Ages and Renaissance at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Visit the Getty Center to explore both exhibitions via the Art of Food mobile tour.