New Atlantis by Francis Bacon Land, food, Neverland and all that goes with it

New Atlantis by Francis Bacon Land, food,...

by  Franco Banchi

New Atlantis is an unfinished utopian novel by Francis Bacon, written in 1624 and posthumously published in 1627.

Bacon tells the story of a group of 51 travellers who depart from Peru and are directed to Asia but shipwreck on the island of Bensalem in the Southern Sea. The name of the island comes from the union of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. As the story of one of the shipwreck people, narrated in first person, unfolds, we get to know the culture and life of the islanders. The Bensalemites live in peace, nurturing wiseness through travels that some undertake in the civilized world to understand its most practical inventions. The most important institution is the Solomon’s House established by King Solomon of Atlantis, who named his foundation after King Solomon. In this House, the Bensalemites devote themselves to a wisdom that develops into the transformation of the world through the control over nature and the knowledge applied to improve everyday life and society.

Delicious food in the House of Strangers

Several passages in this novel are devoted to the products of the land, nourishment and food.

As soon as they land, the shipwreck people receive food in the House of Strangers. Bacon describes it as follows:

Soon after our dinner was served in; which was right good viands, both for bread and meat: better than any collegiate diet that I have known in Europe. We had also drink of three sorts, all wholesome and good: wine of the grape; a drink of grain, such as is with us our ale, but more clear; and a kind of cider made of a fruit of that country, a wonderful pleasing and refreshing drink. Besides, there were brought in to us great store of those scarlet oranges for our sick; which (they said) were an assured remedy for sickness taken at sea. There was given us also a box of small gray or whitish pills, which they wished our sick should take, one of the pills every night before sleep; which (they said) would hasten their recovery. 

We do not miss the perspective that unites food and health with foodstuffs that specifically treat diseases such as scurvy.

The water of Paradise.

The English philosopher and scientist dedicates particular attention to those techniques aimed at both the importance of water and its optimal conservation. He writes: 

The preparations and instruments are these: We have large and deep caves of several depths: the deepest are sunk 600 fathoms; and some of them are digged and made under great hills and mountains: so that if you reckon together the depth of the hill and the depth of the cave, they are (some of them) above three miles deep. For we find that the depth of a hill, and the depth of a cave from the flat, is the same thing; both remote alike from the sun and heaven’s beams, and from the open air.

In other pages, he gets back to the centrality of the collection, preservation and distribution of water, also as an artificial construction of a technological nature, dedicated to therapeutic purposes:

We have also a number of artificial wells and fountains, – Bacon writes – made in imitation of the natural sources and baths; […] And again we have little wells for infusions of many things, where the waters take the virtue quicker and better than in vessels or basins. And among them we have a water which we call Water of Paradise, being, by that we do it, made very sovereign for health and prolongation of life.

The island of early and late fruits

The part concerning the agricultural production of this ideal island is quite interesting: it allows us to grasp very modern interests and sensibilities. We could talk, for example, about the reconciliation between productive effectiveness and aesthetic dimension, attention to crop varieties, including wild ones, the importance of fertilization, the use of specific applied techniques, the reference to off-season production, and finally, the transformation of the products themselves.

We have also large and various orchards and gardens, wherein we do not so much respect beauty, as variety of ground and soil, proper for diverse trees and herbs, and some very spacious, where trees and berries are set whereof we make diverse kinds of drinks, besides the vineyards. In these we practice likewise all conclusions of grafting and inoculating, as well of wild-trees as fruit-trees, which produceth many effects. And we make (by art) in the same orchards and gardens, trees and flowers, to come earlier or later than their seasons, and to come up and bear more speedily than by their natural course they do. 

The following emphasis is quite surprising, as it anticipates one of the hot topics of contemporary debate, which we would actually call genetic manipulation. Thus, we read in The New Atlantis: 

We make them also by art greater much than their nature; and their fruit greater and sweeter and of differing taste, smell, colour, and figure, from their nature. 

We have also means to make diverse plants rise by mixtures of earths without seeds, and likewise to make diverse new plants, differing from the vulgar, and to make one tree or plant turn into another. 

Food industries

An interesting subsequent chapter is the one on transforming agricultural products in a technologically advanced way. Another side that reveals the modernity of this work is that it does not interpret agriculture as a mere domain of sustenance but as a non-repetitive enterprise: a purposive search for new horizons linked to the preservation and variation of products.

I will not hold you long with recounting of our brew-houses, bake-houses, and kitchens, where are made diverse drinks, breads, and meats, rare and of special effects. Wines we have of grapes; and drinks of other juice of fruits, of grains, and of roots, and of mixtures with honey, sugar, manna, and fruits dried and decocted. Also of the tears or woundings of trees, and of the pulp of canes. And these drinks are of several ages, some to the age or last of forty years. 

Concerning the new frontiers in the production and nourishment, we read with great interest the following passage, which introduces new scenarios, among which specific techniques in the making and destruction of the neat distinction between food and drinks, rigorous healthy advice and enhancement of taste:

We have drinks also brewed with several herbs, and roots, and spices; yea with several fleshes, and white meats; whereof some of the drinks are such, as they are in effect meat and drink both, so that diverse, especially in age, do desire to live with them, with little or no meat or bread. And above all we strive to have drinks of extreme thin parts, to insinuate into the body, and yet without all biting, sharpness, or fretting; insomuch as some of them put upon the back of your hand will, with a little stay, pass through to the palm, and yet taste mild to the mouth.

The extreme variety of proposals offered in this Neverland is surprising, combined in an exceptionally modern way with attention to the balance between tasting, nutritional and healing elements. We read:

We have also waters which we ripen in that fashion, as they become nourishing; so that they are indeed excellent drinks, and many will use no other. Bread we have of several grains, roots, and kernels: yea and some of flesh and fish dried; with diverse kinds of leavenings and seasonings: so that some do extremely move appetites; some do nourish so, as diverse do live of them, without any other meat; who live very long. So for meats, we have some of them so beaten and made tender and mortified, yet without all corrupting, as a weak heat of the stomach will turn them into good chylus, as well as a strong heat would meat otherwise prepared. We have some meats also and bread and drinks, which taken by men enable them to fast long after.

Medicine shops: smells and perfumes

The picture of New Atlantis is complete with two considerations. The first concerns the presence on the island of “dispensatories, or shops of medicines. Wherein you may easily think, if we have such variety of plants and living creatures more than you have in Europe (for we know what you have), the simples, drugs, and ingredients of medicines, must likewise be in so much the greater variety. We have them likewise of diverse ages, and long fermentations. And for their preparations, we have not only all manner of exquisite distillations and separations, and especially by gentle heats, and percolations through diverse strainers, yea and substances; but also exact forms of composition, whereby they incorporate almost, as they were natural simples. 

The second brings us to the fascinating world of essences, perfumes and smells:
We have also perfume-houses, wherewith we join also practices of taste. We multiply smells, which may seem strange. We imitate smells, making all smells to breathe out of other mixtures than those that give them. We make diverse imitations of taste likewise, so that they will deceive any man’s taste. And in this house we contain also a confiture-house, where we make all sweatmeats, dry and moist, and diverse pleasant wines, milks, broths, and salads, far in greater variety than you have.

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