Native Roots of Italian Cuisine from the Region of Lombardy cover

Native Roots of Italian Cuisine from the Region of Lombardy

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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.
(The following is a post by Lucia Wolf, reference librarian for Italy, European Division.)
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Native Roots of Italian Cuisine from the Region of Lombardy

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.

Cover of the recently acquired recipe book from Lombardy, late 19th-early 20th centuries entitled “Zia Annita” (Aunt Annita). Library of Congress, European Division.

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.

Page with recipe for “Piccata di vitello” (Veal Piccata), veal sautéed in butter, garlic, and parsley), and the note by the cook to her assistant Dominica, mentioning the mistress of the house. From “Zia Annita.”

Recipe for “Risotto di magro” (Vegetarian Risotto), a meatless risotto with mushrooms, eggplant, tomatoes, and parmesan cheese, probably for the period of Lent. From “Zia Annita.”

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).

The city of Como, in Lombardy, birthplace of Maestro Martino. Image from ca. 1890 to ca. 1900. Detroit Publishing Co., 1905. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

Title page of Maestro Martino’s “Libro de arte coquinaria composto per lo egregio Maestro Martino coquo olim del Reuerendiss. Monsignor Camorlengo et Patriarcha de Aquileia.” (Book of the art of cooking composed by the extraordinary Maestro Martino, former cook of the Most Reverend Monsignor Chamberlain and Patriarch of Aquileia). Northern Italy, ca. 1460-80. Katherine Golden Bitting Collection. Library of Congress, Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

Joseph D. Vehling’s intriguing bookplate in the Library of Congress copy of Maestro Martino’s manuscript. The skull wears a chef’s hat, and the words “mors coqua” mean “death” and “cook,” respectively.

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 Senses of Hearing, Touch, and Taste” by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625). On the table a roast peacock with feathers, similar to the one described by Maestro Martino. Courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.

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.

Title page of Bartolomeo Sacchi’s “Platyne De Honesta Uoluptate & Ualitudi[n]e …” Impressu[m] in Ciuitate Austrie [Cividale]: Impensis & expensis Gerardi de Flandria …, Nono Kalendas Nouembris Mo.cccco.lxxxo, 1480. (Platina on Right Pleasure and Good Health). Library of Congress, Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

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.

Illustration of 16th-century knives, forks, and other utensils from Bartolomeo Scappi’s “Opera di m. Bartolomeo Scappi. Con il discorso funerale che fu fatto nelle essequie di papa Paulo III” (Works of Bartolomeo Scappi with eulogy for the funeral of Pope Paul III). Venice: Tramezzino, ca. 1574. Library of Congress, Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

Kitchen scene. From “Opera di m. Bartolomeo Scappi.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Interior view of large, spacious kitchen, with cooks preparing a meal. From “Opera di m. Bartolomeo Scappi.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Procession of domestics serving the cardinals. From “Opera di m. Bartolomeo Scappi.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

Want to know more about the Library’s collection of Italian cookbooks and gastronomic works? Contact the European Reading Room at EurRef@loc.gov.