The Baroque era was a time of exuberant, twisting, turning, exploding artistic expression. The style of the Renaissance was released and left with no bounds, free to explore on its own. That new, exciting, intriguing concoction from the New World, chocolate, seemed to find its home in this new environment of Europe. Chocolate managed to weave its way into the very fabric of European society – starting at the top of society, and in due course working its way down. Just as the art of the era was not meant to be enjoyed passively, but rather actively sought out and engaged the viewer, chocolate seemed to flow across Europe and cover all of society. The Baroque made it possible.
Indeed, the Baroque was a decadent time, but not one of hedonism, for there were still rules. More so than in Renaissance art, the lives, struggles, thoughts, emotions, and realities of everyday people took centre stage in much of Baroque art. Even the most high of society, and even religious figures were regularly depicted with a stark, humanistic realism that created a connection with the viewer. The various art forms of the Baroque sought to engage the people of all levels of society. Perhaps that focus on everyday people, coupled with a focus on the humanity of the upper classes, helped to diffuse chocolate through all ranks of society – and at a rate likely faster than without the principles of the Baroque.
Chocolate was introduced to Europe by Spain. The various nations of the Italian peninsula, the venerable birthplace of both the Renaissance and the Baroque, then took to chocolate enthusiastically. In the beginning, chocolate was consumed in a broad sense in the same way that it was consumed among indigenous populations of the New World, i.e., as a beverage. One key difference is that the Europeans often added sugar as a sweetener in addition to honey. Tastes differed then as now. Some preferred thicker chocolate, others thin, perhaps foreshadowing the modern choice of milkshake thickness.
In the Baroque, what is fashionable and in taste was defined and determined by those in power or positions of influence – just as it is today and more than most would like to admit. That the Spanish Kings developed a liking for chocolate virtually assured its popularity in the Spanish court and elsewhere. People must often be induced to try something new, and popular, powerful people often help in that. King Philip IV (Spanish House of Habsburg), for example, had chocolate as part of his morning routine – and he was indeed a creature of habit. His habit reinforced the cultural trend of chocolate.
Along with this exciting new decadent treat came new tableware to be used for its serving and consumption. Keeping with the ceremony of the era, chocolate even gained its own special serving tray. Additionally, chocolate was believed to have medicinal qualities and was exempted from Friday and Lenten fast requirements. It was believed that chocolate not only was a tasty treat, but also could cure a surprisingly vast array of diseases, maladies, and ailments. However, the death of composer Henry Purcell was blamed on “chocolate poisoning,” a mystery that was memorialised in a dramatic work entitled Henry Purcell: Death by Chocolate.
Chocolate and the Baroque seemed like a match made in heaven. Chocolate found in the exuberance of that era a happy home. As Europeans came to the New World, they were likewise influenced by that New World delicacy, chocolate. In time, chocolate conquered the hearts and minds of Europe. As the Baroque waned, so too did that most Baroque of substances, chocolate, suffer a decline. Yet, chocolate proved resilient and showed permanence even to the present day. Without it gaining such a strong foothold in the Baroque, it may not be the popular food that it is today.
The author teaches economics and international culture at the University of Minnesota Crookston, is a clergyman, and also is a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.
Coe, S.D. and Coe, M.D. (2013). The True History of Chocolate. New York, New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd., London.
Hume, M. (1907). The Court of Philip IV. Spain in Decadence. London: Eveleigh Nash.
Lindorfer, B. M. (2009). Discovering taste: Spain, Austria, and the spread of chocolate consumption among the Austrian aristocracy, 1650–1700. Food and History, 7(1).
Massot-Cladera, M., Pérez-Cano, F., Llorach, R., & Urpi-Sarda, M. (2017). "Cocoa and Chocolate: Science and Gastronomy"-The Second Annual Workshop of the Research Institute on Nutrition and Food Security (INSA): 9 November 2016. Nutrients, 9(2), 156. doi:10.3390/nu9020156
Squicciarini, M.P. and Swinnen, J. The Economics of Chocolate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Januszczak, W. (2009). Baroque! From St Peter's to St Paul's. London: BBC.