The greatest treatise on cooking of the 16th century

As the culinary historian Anne Willan wrote, Bartolomeo Scappi’s masterpiece is to cooking what Michelangelo is to the fine arts. His Opera, with its lively and meticulously precise drawings and its comprehensive and richly detailed text, is indeed an example of the linear elegance of the Renaissance,

The author

Even though some scholars maintain that Scappi (early 16th century – after 1570) was from Bologna and others assert he was from Venice, it seems certain that he was born in Dumenza, in the province of Varese, as confirmed by a plaque in the Church of San Giorgio, which refers to a bequest for perpetual masses, a type of donation that was always made to a church in one’s place of origin.

After serving at the court of different cardinals, Scappi worked for the Pope: first for Pius IV and, finally, as personal chef to Pius V.

At the peak of his career, he published the greatest sixteenth-century treatise on cooking, which includes over one thousand recipes and covers all the topics that a top-level Renaissance chef was supposed to know.

The work

Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi, cuoco secreto di Papa Pio V. Divisa in sei libri (The work of M. Bartolomeo Scappi, private chef of Pope Pius V. Divided into six books) was published in Rome in 1570 by the publisher Michele Tramezzino, and the regular reprints until 1643 show that it met with a well-deserved success.

It is, by far, the most complete and methodical treatise on cooking of its century, as well as the most detailed and precise one in providing instructions about food preparation and cooking methods.

However, it is more than just an encyclopedia of gastronomic knowledge. It is a summa, a comprehensive system of information from which the master of ceremonies or any other kitchen official can draw the practical rules for operating profitably, together with the reasons inherent to the practice. A knowledge, then, that comes from know-how combined with awareness.

The manuals covers foods and its conservation, the organization of banquets, the kitchen environment – which must be clean and tidy -, the cook’s utensils and equipment, diets for the sick and convalescent, recipes, and the jobs of the master of ceremonies, server at the table and carver.

It needs to be pointed out that in the cookery books of the mid-16th century the figure of the chef “disappeared” and was replaced by three new professional figures from the prince’s dining hall, to whom dedicated a series of specific books: the scalco, who was the master of ceremonies, the trinciante, in charge of carving food, especially meats, on the fly, holding them in mid-air in a spectacular way in the banquet hall itself, right in front of the dining table, and the bottigliere, the man who chose the wines (the current sommelier).

Scappi’s work is enriched by a great number of illustrations that are not merely decorative, but serve to complement the text with further information, so as to provide a picture of a whole world and of the rules that governed it.

Scappi did not cover wines in his treatise. This gap was adequately filled, in the same period, by Lancerio, Taegio and Bacci.

Of the three works, the liveliest and most colourful one is the letter On the quality of wines addressed to Cardinal Guido Ascanio Sforza by Sante Lancerio (16th century), cellar master to Pope Paul III Farnese, who turned a long and thoughtful experience at the Papal Court into a memoir of gustatory impressions that can rightly be considered the incunabulum of Italian oenological literature. The letter was published in Rome by Giuseppe Ferraro only much later, in 1876.

Why read it?

Scappi’s work is a foundational text because it create a taxonomy of cuisine.

There are many factors that make it a culinary classic whose value is not limited to the Renaissance period. For instance, it includes the first known picture of a fork, it introduces new preparation methods, and provides technical and practical solutions that are still popular among modern restaurant operators. An example? Flouring, breading and sealing white and red meats before cooking them.

Furthermore, the treatise recommends the use of the first ingredients imported from the Americas to make original dishes that enhance them, and anticipates many features of modern Italian cuisine. Such as? By including numerous pasta recipes – many of which enriched with Parmigiano cheese, which Scappi declared to be “the best cheese in the world” -, cakes, tarts, and desserts made with puff pastry and shortcrust pastry, as well as many cold dishes, such as savoury pie stuffed with sausage.

Opera established the famous chef as a pioneer in several respects. He did not limit himself to simply stews and boiled meats, but applied more sophisticated techniques such as marinating, stuffed savoury pies with artichokes, peas and other vegetables and legumes, and filled sweets with ricotta or soft cheese. Many of his dishes are from Lombardy, Tuscany or Bologna, and he did not disdain foreign cuisines.

What are the innovative features of your cuisine? Have you ever been a forerunner, from a gastronomic point of view?