We All Scream for Ice Cream

Posted in journal articles by Editor on July 20, 2013

In case you’re somewhere hot, thinking about ice cream . . . (a full list of contents for the current issue of Past & Present is available here).

Melissa Calaresu, “Making and Eating Ice Cream in Naples: Rethinking Consumption and Sociability in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present 220 (August 2013): 35-78.

Pietro Fabris, Venditore di sorbett’a minuto, from his Raccolta di varii vestimenti ed arti del Regno di Napoli (Naples, 1773). © British Library Board D-7743.h.13.

Pietro Fabris, Venditore di sorbett’a minuto, from his Raccolta di varii vestimenti ed arti del Regno di Napoli (Naples, 1773). © British Library Board D-7743.h.13.

Two barefoot children reach out to lick the spoon of the ice-cream seller. He carries a pouch around his waist that hints at the profits that are to be made from his trade. Two wooden containers rest on the ground beside him, one of which has a canister inside it and a strap outside to carry it, while the other holds a tray of cups to serve the ice cream (Plate 1).1 Behind this scene is the Angevin castle in Naples and a crowd gathered around a puppet stall. Pietro Fabris made this engraving as part of a collection depicting the costumes and customs of Neapolitans which was published in 1773 and dedicated to the British emissary to Naples, William Hamilton. Three years later, Fabris would provide elaborate hand-coloured illustrations for Hamilton’s scientific study of the eruptions of Vesuvius published in French and English and dedicated to the members of the Royal Society.2 Both books projected an image of Naples that appealed to the Grand Tourists who were flocking to see the excavations of the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii and the volcanic spectacle nearby (Vesuvius was particularly active in the last decades of the eighteenth century), and to experience life on the streets of the city. The collection of engravings including the sorbet seller appealed directly to a growing interest in Neapolitan popular culture and presented an image of the city as a theatre of extremes, in which the pleasures of life collided with the extreme poverty of the lazzaroni, and where its poorest inhabitants splurged on what — from a northern European perspective — might be seen as one of the great luxuries of the eighteenth century. We could leave our interpretation of the Fabris engraving there, safely within a history of the vast visual production of the Grand Tour in Italy, but the image conveys more than a tourist discourse about the exotic.3 In fact, the engraving illustrates the eating of a food product that was far from a luxury, and its sale to ordinary people on the streets of Naples, a point that has been completely overlooked by historians of the early modern period. . .


1 There is a variety of vocabulary in English, French and Italian describing ice or frozen desserts and drinks with a water or milk base. In Italian, sorbetto is used in the eighteenth century generally to describe what we know today as both sorbet and ice cream. Here I use the term ‘ice cream’ generically. All translations from Italian are my own unless otherwise stated.

2 Pietro Fabris, Raccolta di varii vestimenti ed arti del Regno di Napoli (Naples, 1773); William Hamilton, Campi Phlegræi: Observations on the Volcanos of the Two Sicilies as They Have Been Communicated to the Royal Society of London, 3 vols. (Naples, 1776–9), i–ii. On Fabris and Hamilton, see the essays in Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan (eds.), Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and his Collection (London, 1996).

3 The use and the study of the term lazzaroni have a long history. It generally had a pejorative sense in travel accounts describing some of the poorer inhabitants of Naples, meaning ‘scoundrels’ or ‘layabouts’, although the lazzaroni became of increasing ethnographic interest at the end of the eighteenth century: see Melissa Calaresu, ‘From the Street to Stereotype: Urban Space, Travel and the Picturesque in Late Eighteenth-Century Naples’, Italian Studies, lxii (2007).

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