Index of Medieval Art

Medieval Iconography of Pizzerias

NB: This satirical post was shared on April Fool’s Day, 2024.

Although some scholars have claimed to see something like pizza in a wall painting at Pompeii, most historians trace the origins of modern pizza to sixteenth-century Naples. However, researchers at the Index of Medieval Art have discovered previously unrecognized medieval evidence of pizzerias in manuscripts dating at least two centuries earlier.

These early pizza-making scenes depict workers baking crusts, as in the miniature of a fifteenth century Book of Hours (Princeton University Library, MS Garrett 54). Notice how the pizza chef thrusts a long-handled peel with a round crust into a roofed pizza oven. Other steps in the preparation of crust have been identified in the iconography of pizzerias, including a hybrid figure tossing a circle of dough into the air to give the pizza its custom shape. Tossing dough in the air has long been the preferred method in pizza preparation to thin out the crust and give it its signature stretchy, glutinous finish.

A manuscript medallion enclosing a male figure, wearing a black cap, holding a baker’s peel with round piece of dough placing it into a roofed oven. Gold background behind the figure and surrounded by manuscript floral ornament.
Man baking the crust of a pizza in an oven, Book of Hours (Lyon or Savoy, ca. 1450). Princeton University Library, MS Garrett 54, fol. 13r.
A manuscript marginal illustration of a hybrid man wearing a pink conical hat and tossing a white ball in his left hand. Marginal ornament of gold leaves and penwork.
Man tosses dough into the air to form the pizza round, Book of Hours (Paris, ca. 1400). New York, Morgan Library & Museum, MS S.9, fol. 146r.

Our research found that the toppings for pizza throughout the medieval period would have run the gamut. The typical meats and vegetables that popularly eaten today would have featured on pizza in the Middle Ages, too…with one major exception: the edible berry of the plant Solanum lycopersicum, more correctly identified as the Amoris pomum and commonly called the “the tomato.” Tomato sauce on pizza was strictly prohibited due to the prevalence of the belief that the love apple is the devil’s fruit. But pizza was always a highly customizable dish, and pizza mongers were apt to use any combination of sauces with any number of toppings to suit their palates. Pineapple and anchovies on pesto with casu martzu was a particular favorite among both penitents and unrepentant heretics alike.

You can imagine our surprise at finding in one late fifteenth-century Neapolitan cookbook, known as the “Cuoco Napoletano,” a recipe for a type of blood sausage known as cervellato (manuscript inscribed “Cirvelato de carne de porco ho di vitelli”) with a mention of its use in pizza preparation. Legendarily, and much like today, sausage was a favorite topping among medieval consumers of pizza, and the following leaf in the cookbook describes such usage in great detail. Or are you a fan of fungi on your pies? Mushrooms too made it onto the menus of pizza chefs, and some illustrations in medieval manuscripts show the fleshy morsels lined up and ready to chop.

A manuscript page with Italian handwriting in a single column and plants drawn in brown wash in the lower margin.
Folio on making your own sausage, in the Cuoco Napoletano (Naples, ca. 1480). New York, Morgan Library and Museum, MS B.19, fol. 32v.
A manuscript illustration of three brownish-yellow mushrooms lined up in a row. A word of Greek text partly visible on the upper right.
Illustration of mushrooms for a favorite pizza topping. Dioscorides, De Materia Medica (Constantinople, 10c.). New York, Morgan Library and Museum, MS M.652, fol. 316v.

Whether deep-dish or thin with extra cheese, pizza was prized in the Middle Ages. Pizza to go wasn’t out of the ordinary, either, but the pie would have to be fiercely guarded by its consumer. Eating a slice, or “wolfing ’za” as the medieval collegiate vernacular would have it, was often a perilous, two-handed operation. In one medieval image, you’ll notice that a large man chowing down on a delicious slice folded in one hand was required to wield a club with his free hand to ward off would-be pizza poachers!

A manuscript illustration depicting a man, partly draped in a red and blue drapery, raising a club in his right hand, and holding a half-eaten round white morsel in his left hand. He is walking between two trees with two columns of French and Latin text surrounding the frame.
Man guarding his personal pizza, in Guyart Desmoulins, Bible Historiale (Paris, ca. 1325). New York, Morgan Library and Museum, MS. M.323, II, fol. 12r.

It was also a seasonal favorite. Such early forms of a pizza would have been regarded as the perfect addition to any menu on the first day of April.

(And by the way, April Fool!)