(The following is a post by Lucia Wolf, reference librarian for Italy, European Division.)
In 2016, the Library of Congress acquired an Italian manuscript recipe book entitled “Zia Annita” (Aunt Annita), composed between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in Lombardy. This booklet is but a recent addition to the Library’s notable collection of approximately 7,000 Italian cookbooks and gastronomic works. It is a one-of-a-kind source of traditional recipes from a large region comprising Lombardy, Piedmont, and Liguria, all in northwestern Italy.
This modest booklet, with its blue marbled cover, delivers familiar local recipes handwritten by various individuals and passed on from one generation of cooks to another. The first 18 unnumbered pages are in a cursive script commonly used at the end of the 19th century in Italy, dating the recipes to that era.
The 19th-century cook in the service of a noblewoman began the recipe book feeling that it was necessary to record the recipes for Domenica, who may have been her assistant, and whose name appears in a note by the cook at the bottom of page 17, saying: “The rest can be studied by Domenica if our mistress approves….” This may have been an attempt to plan a whole menu requested by the mistress of the household. The other recipes are drafted in a variety of modern handwritings, some hurriedly scribbled on loose pieces of paper later pasted into the book. Based on the handwriting, these recipes likely date to the period between 1910 and 1930. They range from risotto to meat and fowl entrees, side dishes, sauces, and some desserts.
Enduring the test of time and the hurdles of travelling across the Atlantic Ocean, this plain recipe book carries the secrets of a native Italian cuisine that may eventually have vanished from memory, had they not been recorded and transmitted by generations of local cooks. In recent times, there have been widespread official efforts to rediscover and codify these local culinary traditions from all regions of Italy. In November 2016, this continued interest prompted the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry to launch the First Week of Italian Cuisine in the World, also celebrated at the Library of Congress.
The Library’s collections hold two very rare Renaissance Italian recipe books, also connected to Lombardy via the birth places of their authors, Maestro Martino (b. ca. 1430-) of Como, and Bartolomeo Sacchi, also known as Platina (ca. 1421-81), from Piadena. The two Lombards, Martino and Platina, probably met while serving at the Vatican, Maestro Martino as a chef, and Platina as an abbreviator (chancery writer).
Maestro Martino created the first Italian cookbook, “Libro de arte coquinaria” (The Art of Cooking), in the late 1400s. Martino’s recipes were clearly written instructions on how to manipulate basic ingredients and transform them into actual dishes. Earlier, recipes were mostly transmitted orally, or simply jotted down as lists of ingredients without explanations on how to use them. For some time, the Library’s Martino manuscript was the only one known, until four others were later identified—at the Vatican Library, at a library in the town of Riva del Garda, the New York Pierpont Morgan Library, and a copy sold at a 1974 auction by Christie’s auction house in London.
In one of his intricate recipes, Martino provides instruction on “How to dress a peacock with all its feathers, so that when cooked, it appears to be alive and spews fire from its beak,” a delicacy in vogue since medieval times (recipe title from “The Art of Cooking,” an English translation by Jeremy Parzen). The recipe, a gory description that disturbs our modern sensitivities concerning animal cruelty, involves specific knives, ways of cutting, and even the assembly of a contraption to hold the poor peacock propped up for display.
The second earliest Italian cookbook in the Library of Congress is Bartolomeo Sacchi’s “De honesta voluptate et valetudine” (On Right Pleasure and Good Health). Sacchi, known as Platina, became a famous Renaissance academician and was created librarian of the Vatican Library in 1477 by Pope Sixtus IV (1414-84). Platina’s successful gastronomic treatise is considered to be the first printed cookbook in Europe. Initially published in Rome in 1474, it was printed at least 18 times throughout the 16th century. After that, its fame waned until the German-American chef, restaurateur, and scholar Joseph D. Vehling shed new light on the connection between Martino and Platina.
Vehling’s carefully researched 1941 work, “Platina and the Rebirth of Man,” compared the Martino manuscript he had purchased in 1927 with recipes translated by Platina in books 6-10 of his own treatise. It turned out that most of Platina’s recipes were simply literal translations into Latin of Martino’s original Italian recipes.
Neither Martino’s nor Platina’s works contain illustrations to help us imagine their exotic and archaic ways of cooking. We can get some ideas of the utensils, kitchen organization, and table seating from a 16th-century gastronomic treatise by the papal chef, Bartolomeo Scappi (ca. 1500-77) Like Martino and Platina, Scappi was also from Lombardy. His very successful cookbook “Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi” (Works of Bartolomeo Scappi), published in 1570, was the first known printed cookbook with illustrations.
Circling back to where we started on this culinary voyage, in Lombardy, the newly acquired recipe book from the late 19th-early 20th centuries shows other interesting connections to the notable Italian Renaissance cookbooks preceding it. For example, the late 19th-century section of the book contains a recipe for “Uccelletti scappati” (literally: little birds flown away) that under a different name also appears in Maestro Martino’s “Libro de arte coquinaria” and Platina’s “De honesta voluptate et valetudine.” It is a recipe for a traditional Lombard version of shish kebab with cubed veal liver alternating with cubes of lard fried in butter and sage, and served with polenta. In Martino’s earlier cookbook it is referred to as a recipe for Roman-style “Coppiette,” replacing veal liver with beef, and sage with coriander and fennel seeds and, instead of frying them, roasting them on a spit. Platina proposes the same recipe with the Latin name “In pulpam romanam” (in Italian, “polpetta romana”), or in plain English—meat balls.