The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Last night, on BBC 2, there was a lovely little programme on Bartolomeo Scappi, the first of the superchefs, master cook to six Popes, the daddy of culinary writing. It was presented by Antonio Carluccio, no mean foodie himself, a weighty and jocose man, avuncular, amiably following the life and career of the great Lombardian chef.

Carluccio and the Renaissance Cookbook starts in Dumenza, where Scappi is thought to have been born around 1500. There is no evidence in the parish registry of his birth or baptism, but there is an engraving in the local church stating that mass will be sung daily in Scappi's name to lessen his sojourn in purgatory. He had lived through the tumult of the Protestant Reformation; as he remained a Catholic, he purchased exactly the sort of indulgence from the Church that was so bitterly condemned by Martin Luther. Dumenza, a little village in Lombardy near Lago Maggiore, close to the border with Switzerland, is as much a backwater now as it was five centuries ago, and it is truly astonishing that a man of so humble an origin could have exalted himself to the circles of the Vatican.

For that is indeed what Scappi accomplished. Events from his early life are largely missing. The first reference to him appears in 1536 at Bologna: while in the service of a cardinal Lorenzo Campeggi, he prepared a meal in honour of Charles V. Campeggi was no minor princeling - he was a wheeler-dealer, top man in the Pope's great war against Lutheranism, a diplomat striving to unite the Christian lands against the Turks. It is clear already that Scappi's talents had been recognised - and by a very gourmet! The churchmen of the time, in glorious contravention of the injunction against the deadly sin of gluttony, were known to love their meals. Indeed, it was a duty to present a great spread with as many expensive and rare ingredients as possible, to show off one's temporal prestige. Not for nothing were these cardinals known as Princes of the Church.

From Bologna, Scappi moved on to Venice, where in quick succession he served under three more cardinals. Unfortunately, I didn't note down their names, but Carluccio pointed out their houses overlooking the Grand Canal, still standing and in use (one is a hotel, another is the Venetian Court of Appeal). Venice was a great power in the Italy of the time, and Scappi's career evidently was still on an upward trajectory.

It is known that he became a secret, that is to say, private, chef to Pope Paul III around 1549. That year, Paul died, and Scappi was involved in preparing the meals for the two month long conclave that ensued to elect the successor to the Bishopric of Rome. Amid much political skullduggery and backstabbing, the rule of providing successively smaller quantities of food the longer the conclave continued was ignored, so Scappi found himself fairly busy. A wit remarked that the conclave would have been much shorter had it not been for the excellence of Scappi's cooking.4

The elected pontiff, Julius III, lasted only a few weeks. After his death, the next Pope - Marcellus II - also didn't tarry long, kicking the bucket within 22 days. Scappi continued wielding his magic for the next Pope - Paul IV - who was gracious enough to survive for another four years; and the next one - Pius IV. This fellow had digestive problems and Scappi needed to be particularly inventive to keep him happy.

How do we know all this about Scappi? Well, after Pius IV died, a Dominican cardinal took on the mantle of the Papacy. An austere man, Pius V, threatened to excommunicate anyone who added anything rich to his food. Scappi found himself therefore with a lot of time on his hands, whereupon he began to compile his masterwork. The Opera, as it was named on publication in 1570, became the first known systematic treatment of the culinary arts. He was encyclopedic in his coverage, providing weights and measures, illustrations (check some of them out here), details on the appropriate utensils, sources for the ingredients, precise guidance on the preparation of food appropriate to the season and location, for the gastronome and for the infirm, instructions on preservation of food, and tips on recognising and selecting good quality products for cooking. He was aware of regional variations in cuisine and limned them in his treatise, where appear phrases such as alla moresca (Moorish), or bolognese, or veneziana.

The Opera describes and dates the menus for the grand feasts he had prepared, including the one in 1536 welcoming Charles V, and the daily offerings during the conclave of 1549. Expensive spices were used liberally: nutmeg, fennel, ginger, cinnamon. New foods from the Americas were making their appearance: turkey, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and his recipes reflect his imagination in putting them to use. To the modern palate, however, the most striking ingredient in much of his haute cuisine is the liberal application of sugar.

Carluccio, in the TV programme, cooked several of the recipes from the book. In Dumenza, along with a local chef, Renzo of the Smeraldo Restaurant, who still cooks dishes in the style of Scappi, he prepared two dishes:

Riso alla lombarda - Rice in the Lombardy style
Torta di funghi - Wild mushroom tart

Next, in Venice, at the Da Romano restaurant in Burano, he cooked:

Per cuocere l'anguilla su la graticola - Grilled eel
Sarde in saor - Venetian-style sardines

In Rome, at the Villa Lante and the Villa Aldobrandini, he organised:

Pomi sdegnosi - Disdainful apples, baked aubergines
Porchetta - Stuffed suckling pig
Ravioli con polpo di cappone - Ravioli of capon breast

Finally, as he jokingly put it, because the Pope was unavailable for a recreated Scappi meal, Carluccio organised an ornate dining hall at the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, where he arranged all the above dishes for the friends he made during his exploration of the life of Scappi.

After the publication of the Opera, Scappi vanishes from history. Perhaps he had retired from the public eye, or perhaps he died. But his memory lives on in his magnum opus. In Carluccio's gentle words: Scappi seemed a very nice man who taught you to enjoy life.


1. Jozef Schildermans, A Dutch Translation of Bartolomeo Scappi's Opera (1612).

2. Maitre Chiquart, Medieval Gastronomy

3. André L. Simon, A History of Gastronomy, 1944.

4. Practically Edible: Bartolomeo Scappi


~~louise~~ said...

Thank you so much for sharing such an in depth post about "The First Celebrity Chef."

I appreciate the time and energy you have put into this thoughtful post and just wanted to take a moment to say thanks. I am saving your link for a future post (I hope:) Thanks again. Louise

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