The Philosophy of food, as a measured and healthy pleasure

The pupil did not surpass the master, but helped to disseminate his culinary concepts. How? By turning them into a veritable doctrine.

The author

Bartolomeo Sacchi (1421 – 1481), called “Platina” because he came from Piadena (near Mantua), was one of the great names of Italian Humanism.

Appointed by Pope Sixtus IV as first director of the Vatican Library (an event depicted in the fresco by Melozzo da Forlì, today in the Vatican Museum), in the 1460s he had the opportunity of meeting Master Martino da Como, personal chef to the Patriarch of Aquileia in Rome, and admired him greatly from the start.

In his treatise De honesta voluptate et valetudine (On honest indulgence and good health), Platina wrote: “What cook, o ye immortal gods, could compare with my Martino da Como, from whom I have learned most of what I write?”

Indeed, Platina’s debt to the cook from Ticino is far from slight: of the 250 dishes presented in books 6 to 10 – the part of the text dedicated to recipes -, no less than 240 were borrowed from Master Martino who, at the time, had not yet published his Libro de arte coquinaria (The art of cooking), which was composed around 1450 but only printed in 1480.

The work

De honesta voluptate et valetudine, the first printed cookery book in Italy, was first published in Rome in 1474 in Latin, in Venice in 1487 in Italian, and then throughout Europe, translated into French, German and English.

Emilio Faccioli provided the first modern Italian translation of the text, published by Einaudi in 1985 (as well as the first modern translation of Master Martino, published by Einaudi in 1987).

What was behind the great success of Platina’s work? Undoubtedly the novelty of the book’s organization. But also the systematic discussion of the art of cooking, nutrition (related to the usefulness of regular physical activity), food hygiene, the ethics of eating, and the pleasures of the table, according to practical and moral prescriptions about food and eating.

Reconnecting with the medical and philosophical thought of classical antiquity, Platina posited an integral humanism that also included an “honest”, that is to say, measured pleasure of food among the legitimate components of a person’s existential balance. “Moderation in food – he stated – leads to happiness, just as medicine restores health to the sick.” In other words: food is not a sin, if you don’t overdo it.

As in the aforementioned book by Martino da Como, the recipes in this work attest to the growing popularity in Italian cuisine of sweet flavours and sugar, the “new spice” which, from the 14th century onwards, accompanied or replaced traditional ones. They recipes followed the principles of Galenic medicine, according to which foods must restore balance between the primary elements making up the human body, namely air, fire, water and earth, and their respective qualities – cold, hot, wet and dry.

Another precious source of knowledge about 16th-century daily life and cooking is the treatise De partibus aedium (The parts of the house).

Composed by the humanist Francesco Maria Grapaldo (1465-1515), first published in his town, Parma, in 1494 and re-issued no less than thirteen times by the mid-16th century, this text ranges from architecture to mechanics, from medicine to botany, zoology, and household management.

The book describes a Renaissance aristocratic residence and provides information on the arrangement of the kitchen, the pantry (with notes about cheese, butter, sugar, salt, spices, and pork meat), the cellar (with comments about wines), granary, vegetable garden, vineyard, chicken coop, barn, and animal buildings.

Why read it?

Together with Master Martino’s Libro de arte coquinaria, Bartolomeo Sacchi’s work is one of the cornerstones of Fifteenth Century culinary writing. It is a summa of the culinary knowledge of the second half of the 15th century.

The repertoire of recipes is neither new nor different from previous ones. The work, which is more a treatise on the nutritional and curative power of food than a cookery book, is important because it suggests the adoption of a new imperative: frugality. Although the medium-high classes that the author was addressing still loved flaunting tables laden with all kinds of goods, from an intellectual and moral point of view they were ready to consider sobriety as a value, both at the dining table and in their lives.

Moderation in eating is a very topical issue, both as regards the impact that many products have on the environment and the planet, and the well-being of body and mind that only a balanced diet can provide. Why not, then, take inspiration from Platina’s culinary ideas?