At table with the ancients at the Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria


An exhibition titled “Foodstuffs in ancient times: a journey through rituals, ethnography and everyday life” will be up until October 31

Cookery in the classical period, with its rites and ingredients, is the object of the above-mentioned exhibition”, which opened on the last October 3 at the National Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria.

Promoted by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage as part of a project called “From Expo to the Territory”, created and curated by Rossella Agostino (executive archaeologist of the Ministry) and Francesca Lugli (archaeologist and president of the Italian Ethnographical Association), the exhibition investigates the cooking traditions of the Greek and Roman civilizations, through a repertoire of archeological finds unearthed in the territory around Reggio.

It is an itinerary suspended between archaeology and ethnography, mounted in colorful, original style, which is somewhat reminiscent of pop-art, in an attempt to give up the rigor of more traditional museums. The mounting was carried out by Rosario Brandolino, a professor of Architecture at the Università Mediterranea, aided by a staff of professionals from many different fields. The exhibition was conceived as an homage to the mirthfulness of cookery as an art, in which meals are seen as a source of pleasure and conviviality, and as a celebration of nature and its cycles. Colors were used to symbolize foods and food-related traditions: cereals and pulses, cheeses and herbs, fish and meat. There is a jocular atmosphere and a gallery of characters from the history of the city to keep visitors company: the philosopher Aristotle, the sculptor Pythagoras, Alexander the Great and Giulia (the daughter of Emperor Augustus). Quotations from ancient poems and historical sources are strewn along the itinerary.

Cibi e pietanze 4

The exhibition shows that our ancestors used to eat foods that we know very well, the staple foods of the so-called Mediterranean diet. Many dishes and traditions were similar from a culture to another, suggesting that many populations must have exerted culinary influence on one another. The featured tradition of ethnographical research suggests similarities between different traditions: such as octopus fishing by means of pierced jars in Tunisia, all the recipes of seafood sauces, the drying of anchovies in Calabria (especially in Cetraro and Amantea, which is a tradition descending from the garum, a culinary treat of ancient times.

Food is therefore analyzed from different perspectives: its everyday-life dimension, as well as the ritual and sacral one, according to which foodstuffs were used as offerings to the Gods and each God had a particular food dedicated to them. Given the predominance of the cult of Persephone and Demeter in Greek Calabria, the pomegranate, a red fruit of autumn, became the sacred food of the Goddess’ daughter, who was kidnapped by Hades every year and forced to spend two seasons in the underworld.

Cibi e pietanze 2

The water element could not be missing from the exhibition: it clearly marks the beginning of the mounted itinerary, underlining the sacred function of rivers and seas, which were interpreted as the personifications of different gods, as well as means to the purification of the soul. The homage to Reggio and the myth of its foundation belongs to this cultural tradition. According to Aeschylus, it is to the river Aspias that Orestes was sent to purify himself after killing his mother. As is reported by Diodorus: “in that point where the Aspias, the most sacred of all rivers, goes into the sea, where upon disembarking from ships a man and a woman are seen in the act of mating; that is where you shall found a city, the asuonian land the God has granted you”. The city he mentions is the one founded on the shores of the Strait of Messina: therefore, a city whose destiny is shaped by the water element. Two other important symbols for this land and more generally for the ancient world  are vines and figs, representing the female and the male. When they were entwined, they were seen as signs of the god’s benevolence and the end of Orestes’ ordeal.

The exhibition will be open and for free until October 31. Although some sections of the Museum are still being mounted, visitors are coming in good numbers, attracted by the possibility to see the two Riace bronzes, that are again on display after a long restoration. This exhibition, which is also enjoyable for children, is a jewel in the crown of National Museum of Reggio Calabria, one of the most important archeological museums in the whole of Italy. It also marks the beginning of the career of Carmelo Malacrino as the new director of this institution.