Froth in Venice (Voltaire III)

October 24, 2016

The ironies abound when Candide and his new traveling companion, Martin, a downtrodden scholar, arrive in Venice. Their destination is the home of Count Pococurante, a wealthy Venetian senator with a riverside home known for its beauty. More importantly for this scene, he has the reputation of being “a man who has never known what worry is” (117). Here the travelers find abundant delights that recall El Dorado among his possessions, but find none of that land’s optimism in the host. In his home hang paintings by Raphael, "said to be two of the most beautiful in Italy" (118). Musicians perform concertos after meals and a fine edition of Homer’s Iliad opens on display in his extensive library. None of it pleases the count, who reveals himself in the first paragraph to be satiated by luxury to the point of boredom.

 

Given his disposition, the welcome Candide and Martin receive at the palace on the Brenta owes its refreshing feel not to the Count, whose attitude is cold, but to the chocolate, which is hot:

 

After an exchange of greetings, two pretty girls, neatly dressed, served them with cups of frothy chocolate. Candide could not help exclaiming at their beauty, their style, and their manners. (118)

 

Into this short appearance of the drink, served to refresh Candide and Martin after their travels, Voltaire packs at least five of the classic associations with cacao. Service of the drink to men by women is attested by Bernadino de Sahagún who explained the practices around chocolate preparation and service in the first ethnography by a missionary in Mesoamerica, General History of the Things of New Spain (Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España), circa 1550. A mere generation after the political conquest of the Aztec Empire and replacement with a Spanish government, Sahagún ascribes the preparation, frothing, and market commerce of chocolate to criolla. That hybrid cultural identity, women of Spanish descent born in the colonies, was a product of European occupation.

 

 

But the Maya and the Aztec, whose own women were depicted on pottery and in codices (such as the Codex Tudela plate above) frothing chocolate, had perfected that art. The earliest testimonies of Hernán Cortés’s soldiers circa 1520 show them marveling at the quantities served by women to Montezuma “frothed up in the Mexican style” (qtd. in Norton 14-15). Mayan and Aztec women poured it from great heights to agitate the cacao butter into a scum. Criollas used a long tool called a molinillo, standing it with its agitating bulb down in the chocolate pot and rubbing the dowel vigorously between their hands. The molinillo or molinet is still in use today.

 

Thus, at the moment of conquest, a legacy was usurped from Aztec women (who themselves would have usurped it from the Maya) by American-born Spanish women, who became keepers of the skill and recipes to make chocolate. Froth was the single most important part of chocolate’s preparation, what made it unique, and would also be one of the two uncanny physical aspects of the drink—along with its red hue from the spice achiote—that Spanish Inquisition missionaries found heretical.

 

Chocolate appears in Candide, then, “in the Mexican style”—served by women with a high head of froth on it. That Candide finds the servers of froth attractive harkens back to theories that Mesoamerican women had fine complexions thanks to their consumption of chocolate, when it was sold as a beauty aid in 17th-century England (Wadsworth, 1652). Within the halls of the senator’s palace, chocolate welcomes visitors with an invitation to seduction whose unfortunate end might be boredom. Not nearly as dramatic as the fates of those earlier indulgences—which were syphilis and death—satiation nonetheless also dulls the sensory pleasure associated with chocolate through most of its European history: sensuality.

 

Each scene involving chocolate features a male protagonist laid low as though by the brush with cacao, with that effect most marked in the second scene. In terms of Candide's plot, if we consider the scenes together, they tell the story of chocolate seduction in reverse. In the first scene, Pangloss’s syphilis means sex has already occurred. In the second scene, chocolate ignites the Prince of Massa-Carrara’s latent desire. Finally, in Venice, we see a scene of first blush intrigue, embodied both in the beautiful servers and the froth.

 

Chocolate in Candide might then be said to carry the danger of betrayal in the appeal of its froth, just as Spanish Inquisitors had feared. Voltaire's satire makes pain a companion to the pleasure, perhaps even the source of its appeal. That the two scenes of chocolate consumption in the narrative take place in Italy privileges its European present over its Mesoamerican past. What's more, Italy becomes a nexus of the risky pleasures of exoticism, usurping that role in the chocolate story from Mesoamerica.

 

 

For Further Reading

 

Carli, Andrea. "The Ritual of Colonial Drinks in the 18th Century," ItalyEurope 24.

 

Penrose, Andrea. "The History of Chocolate," Andrea Penrose, Diversions.

 

 

 

 

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