Wine depicted in ‘Last Supper’ paintings

There is a very Florentine phenomenon of Last Supper paintings in the refectories of convents and monasteries; these images functioned to remind religious diners of the sacrament of the Eucharist, when Christ declares that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood. What wine was served at that table and was it any good?


last supper

Before modern water treatment was introduced, wine was a necessary beverage; people added wine to water to make it potable and water made vinegary wine taste a little better. In Roman and Etruscan times, herbs and spices were added: Pliny the Elder indicates that his first-century contemporaries were fond of adding myrrh, cedar and frankincense to wine. Dr. Patrick McGovern, an expert on ancient wines, cites pepper, wormwood, capers and saffron: “The idea was not just to cover up the signs of a deteriorating wine but to keep the wines for a longer time and produce new, exciting tastes for jaded palates,” McGovern told wine magazine Decanter.

What wine was Jesus drinking? That ancient Passover Seder of eggs, bitter herbs and roast meat was probably paired with a red. Should you wish to emulate it, the closest modern wine would be Amarone, but for a really authentic experience, make mulled wine with the afore-mentioned ingredients.

The food and wine depicted in Florentine convent art does not represent ancient menus but rather contemporary fifteenth- and sixteenth-century dining, so we should turn to this period to discover what was served at these painted meals, and why.

At wine tasting events in modern Italy, you’ll see people sniffing, swirling and swishing, considering scents and flavours, and rating aspects like balance and complexity. Dr. Allen Grieco, a food historian, explains to The Florentine that pre-modern wine tasting was based on very different factors.


“Taste, color and provenance were relevant, but most of all, taste was an indicator of humoural composition; the four qualities—hot, cold, dry and wet—constituted the backbone of scientific thought. Ideally, one sought a balance of humours. Food and wine helped create that, taking also into consideration the four elements, seasons, times of the day and the ages of life.”


This theory dictated an almost medical prescription of appropriate wines; the “pre-modern sommelier” was most often a doctor whose vinous arsenal could stave off plague, ease the chills of old age or calm lust in the young.


Grieco uses medieval and Renaissance medical treatises in his forthcoming book Food, Social Politics and the Order of Nature in Renaissance Italy (Villa I Tatti, Summer 2019) to provide examples of the suitability of wines for specific people. We learn that sweet and powerful wines like Malvasia should be consumed in very small quantities or on special occasions like weddings: too much would cause dangerous overheating of the body and lead to physical and moral consequences. Thus, you would not serve it to categories of people who were “hot,” like lusty young men, but an acidic or weak white wine could temper such problems.


Dietary prescriptions balanced food and drink, so the pairing of salad with red wine—unthinkable today—served to compensate for the coldness of lettuce. This perseveres in the Italian habit of eating peaches in red wine, recorded in the proverb “Pesche, peri e pomi vogliono vini buoni.”                  SALUTI !

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