I acknowledge the Traditional Owners on whose land I walk, I work and I live. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and future.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Tree of Cockaigne

Chloe Salmon reaches the top of the greasy pole and clutches her
prize of cash. Photograph by Sarah Scragg, State Library of
Queensland: Australian Italian Festival
Picture attribution: Landscape with greasy pole. Majolica Cloister
of Santa Chiara, Naples, (1739-42). Architect Domenico Antonio
Vaccaro, painters, Guiseppe and Donato Massa.

We repeat community and family traditions, but often we don't know where or how they originated. The greasy pole, which features at each Australian Italian Festival is such a tradition.  Everybody enjoys the spectacle and amusement but does anybody know the origins of this challenge? It  began in a time when the poor and the rich ate very, very different foods. The competition, which requires strategy and stamina, traditionally, has as its reward, foods of some value, like prosciutto e formaggio! Winners of the greasy climb were rewarded with food that was usually unavailable to them.
Peter Robb in a work called Street Fight in Naples: A City’s Unseen History has this to say about the history of the greasy pole. “All over Europe the Tree of Cockaigne was part of the carnival festivities that preceded the austerities of Lent. It was basically a greasy pole with a couple of sausages tied to the top and whoever reached them first won the sausages. In Naples the Land of the Cockaigne was always more elaborate, Naples having more poor people than anywhere else in Europe. The rewards were greater and so was the violence of the contest. The Land of the Cockaigne involved painted scenery and an ersatz forest  of trees, a complex construction usually described as the Cockaigne machine, bearing cheeses, hams, sausages and other delights in their upper branches. The mass assault on the food was a brawl that always ended in shed blood, broken and bones and quite often deaths. It was an entertaining and reassuring sight for those who were not themselves hungry, and choreographed for laughs.”
The Land of Cockaigne comes from Dutch literature and refers to Luilekkerland which is the land of the lazy and the gluttonous. In popular stories this land was described as a “mythical place where there is no need to work, and where food and drink are so abundant that we only need to open our mouths to take in what we desire.”  The Land of Cockaigne is the subject of many famous artists’ paintings.
Next time you watch and laugh as keen competitors slip and slide down and hopefully up the pole spare a thought to the hungry of Naples for whom long ago, the prize meant more than life and for whom the risk of scaling the pole could be injury or death.
Sources: Robb, Peter. Street Fight in Naples: A City’s Unseen History.London:  Bloomsbury, 2010.

“Heilbrunn Time Line of  Art History,” The Met,  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/26.72.44/.

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