Bartolomeo Scappi, the Renaissance’s most innovative chef, revolutionized the culinary arts.
Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.
Daniele da Volterra’s most lasting mark on the world was a commission of dubious honor: retouching—or defacing, depending on one’s point of view—a fresco inside the Sistine Chapel created by his late mentor, Michelangelo. Artists had hailed The Last Judgment on its unveiling in 1541, but its depictions of a beardless Christ and wingless angels, all of them nude, outraged papal officials, who ordered that Biblical modesty be upheld by the addition of loincloths. Daniele was in his late fifties, with an illustrious career behind him; it would surely have pained him to know that four and a half centuries later he would still be known as Il Braghettone—“the trouser-maker”—the man whose job it had been to splodge moralizing graffiti over his friend’s masterpiece.
It was a sign of the times. In recent years, censoriousness had crept into Roman public life. Formerly, the spirit of the Renaissance had reigned inside the Holy See; the papacy regarded its task as celebrating the delight of God’s creation, and many of Rome’s highest clerics had taken that notion to an extreme degree. Now, assailed by Protestant criticisms of clerical wantonness, the Vatican curled its lip at anything that appeared playful or unchaste.
In a way, Michelangelo was lucky: his works were embellished, not destroyed, and he didn’t live to see the revision of The Last Judgment. Others faced the prospect of looking on as their lifetime’s work was erased from collective memory. One such unfortunate was Bartolomeo Scappi. As head chef for popes and cardinals throughout the middle decades of the sixteenth century, he prepared unashamedly decadent banquets for the most powerful men on earth. For thirty years, his art embodied the thrilling, brief moment when the papal court was one of the world’s leading patrons of artistic expression and intellectual enquiry. But no sooner had he hit his peak than he was forced to lay down his ladle: reform had gripped the Vatican.
Realizing that his life’s work would soon be only a memory lingering on the taste buds of a chosen few, in the last years of his life he recorded his genius in Opera dell’arte del cucinare. Published in 1570, the year of Scappi’s seventieth birthday, it was the world’s first illustrated cookbook, a colossal nine-hundred-page tome that includes a thousand recipes and serves as a treatise on cooking as an art form, a courtly pursuit, and a domestic science. It’s virtually the only record of Scappi’s existence; a fragmentary account of his lifelong enchantment with food, and a veiled lamentation that the old sensibility of sensory delight was being mashed to tasteless pulp under the weight of puritanism.
Scappi was born to modest circumstances around the turn of the sixteenth century, probably in Dumenza, a tiny town about forty miles north of Milan. At the time, medieval tastes still dominated elite dinner tables. In the Ancient world, the cuisine of the Mediterranean, based on bread, oil, and wine, was held up as a marker of its innate superiority over the Germanic peoples, with their supposedly barbaric fare of meat, milk, and beer. After the fall of Rome, the two traditions slowly merged until, in the late Middle Ages, the food served on the tables of the mighty across Europe was broadly similar: heavily spiced sweet-and-sour combinations, given layers of earthy complexity with great heaps of garden herbs. Many of the dishes Scappi chose to record in his magnum opus retain that sensibility, such as his recipe for an omelette made with pig’s blood goat cheese, spring onion, cinnamon, clover, nutmeg, marjoram, and mint—the kind of concoction that would nowadays be considered inedible just about anywhere on earth. Yet, among these forbidding relics of the medieval world, the Opera abounds with innovation that put cooking—perhaps for the first time—on a plinth next to the other creative arts.
We know nothing of Scappi’s childhood, or his private life; there are few facts about him of which we can be certain beyond that he was obsessed with food, and ordered his adult existence around it. By his midthirties, he was running the kitchen of Cardinal Campeggio of Bologna, preparing meals for him and his guests, including, on one occasion, the Holy Roman Emperor. It was here that his reputation as a great pioneer began to take shape.
Stimulated by discovery and innovation, the young cook developed a culinary identity that embraced the whole of the Italian Peninsula at a time when the notion of an Italian cuisine was as distant as the notion of an Italian nation. The Opera overflows with references to a Bolognese sauce for this, a Genoese garnish for that, or a delicious dessert known and loved by the people of Padua but virtually secret from anyone else. It suggests he traveled a lot with the express intention of trawling markets, speaking to traders, and experimenting with every new ingredient that came his way. Though he hardly ever refers to something as “Italian,” in a rudimentary way Scappi’s recipes inadvertently assemble the nation that had yet to be made, sitting side by side dishes from the Veneto to the Kingdom of Naples in a single, sumptuous meal. This roving palate also encompassed the New World, the flavors of which are on every page of the Opera—especially sugar, which features in something like 90 percent of its recipes, including as a pizza topping, along with pine nuts and rosewater.
It was never enough for Scappi to please diners: he set out to amuse, astonish, and confuse them with vast menus of pungent flavors and retina-searing colors, presented in displays more akin to a performance art piece than a dinner party. His banquets were the talk of royal and ecclesiastical courts throughout Christendom; one of them comprised hundreds of dishes, including seventy-seven different desserts and edible statues of weird beasts from the Orient, Greek gods, and cavorting nymphs. Once their bellies had been filled, guests were presented with posies of silk flowers attached to stems of pure gold. Scappi specialized in elaborate visual jokes, such as salmon sculpted into the form of a glazed ham or a goat’s head, and everything was served on highly polished tableware of silver, gold, and exquisite Maiolica. Decorous restraint was not to be found in his kitchen.
The tone for his service in the Catholic church had been set early in the sixteenth century by Pope Leo X, the aesthete son of the Medici patriarch, Lorenzo the Magnificent. Leo measured up to every stereotype of the Medici and the Renaissance papacy; even the Catholic Encyclopedia admits that he “looked upon the papal court as a center of amusement.” He inherited a strong treasury, stocked with a cash surplus of seven hundred thousand ducats; within two years every penny had gone. He blew a hundred thousand ducats on his first day, celebrating his investiture with a spectacular fireworks display and an indulgent feast before retiring for the night with his lover Alfonso Petrucci, whom Leo soon appointed Cardinal of Siena. His reign was an eight-year whirl of spending and sensuousness, during which he also sponsored dozens of artists and inquiring minds.
It was in Leo’s banquets that these dual turbines of his persona—debauched spendthrift and sophisticated patron—most powerfully coalesced. Cardinals arrived with courtesans in tow; young naked men emerged from giant puddings; nobody rose the following morning without a sore head. To his supporters, these banquets were an example of the best of the new papacy, celebrating the glory of God in all his forms. To his critics—and there were vast numbers of them—the bacchanalia showed that the Protestants had a point. A Venetian ambassador recorded a sixty-course meal that featured monkey brains, parrot tongues, Turkish fish and wines and fruits from all across the Mediterranean. More astonishing was Leo’s supposed rock-star insistence that all the empty silverware be tossed out the window at the end of each course. An official more sensitive to his Holiness’s mounting debts apparently arranged to have nets fixed beneath the windows to save them platters from the Tiber.
Scappi never mentions Leo in Opera, but he would’ve likely considered him a kindred spirit. Leo seems to have viewed his giddy ostentation as his central spiritual duty; frivolity was the only thing he ever took seriously—and Scappi knew just how much effort that took. Opera essentially tells a tale of a cook’s life from two perspectives. On the surface, there’s the performance laid on for the diners as outlined in the recipes. But Scappi also lets us peek behind the curtain to see the arduous graft. The book is packed with dozens of illustrations of the perfect layout of a kitchen, the range of pots, pans, knives, and other utensils needed to run a high-quality kitchen. A good cook and a good courtier are synonymous in Scappi’s scheme; “he should place his patron’s honor, along with his own, above all else.” At the same time, a good cook must be a serious creative talent, and always obey his instincts, in the style of “a wise Architect who, following his careful design, lays out a firm foundation and on it presents to the world useful and marvelous buildings.”
This is no incidental metaphor; in Renaissance Italy, there was no higher art than architecture. It was, after all, the remnants of ancient buildings that gave Roman artists and thinkers a constant reminder of the classical civilization that they strained to revive. Way ahead of his time, Scappi made the point that food is just as much a material of artistic creation as marble, and those who work with it are true artists. On the off chance that the point eludes anyone, he included a portrait of himself at the front of the Opera, one that—as John Varriano has spotted—looks eerily like the self-portrait that Giorgio Vasari included in the first edition of his Lives of the Artists a few years earlier.
The art on Scappi’s plates also mirrors the paintings appearing on canvasses and chapel walls throughout Rome during the same period; the gaudy elaborations of mannerism. Where the early Renaissance artists had attempted to imitate nature, the Mannerists of the sixteenth century sought to perfect it. It was the prog-rock of Renaissance culture, the stuff of connoisseurship that, as the art historian Diane Bodart explains, “praised studied difficulty rendered with apparent facility or ease.” Nothing could better explain the gastronomic designs of Bartolomeo Scappi. When Scappi presented a peacock stuffed, seasoned and cooked, but luxuriant in its feathers and reconstructed with metal rods as though still alive, he was offering an impudent improvement upon nature, a ready-to-eat bird that had never died. Explicit proof of Scappi’s link to the Mannerist moment can be found in Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s bizarre depictions of people made from plants, animals and inanimate objects. Some of them—especially Vertumnus, a portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor as a collage of fruit and veg—could have been lifted straight from the pages of Opera.
By 1564, his spit-roast goslings and smoked pike with cinnamon and saffron had hauled Scappi all the way to the top: he was master of the Vatican kitchen and personal cook for Pope Pius IV. He savored the role. Pius IV adopted the coat of arms of the Florentine Medici and shared some of their appreciation for the arts and for self-indulgence.
But even had Pius been a debauchee on the scale of Leo X, it was simply not possible to re-create those distant days of excess. In the middle of his reign, the Council of Trent—the ecumenical body convened to consider the church’s response to the rise of Protestantism—issued a list of measures to stamp out corruption and license, and to set the faithful back on the path of sober righteousness. Among these included strict rules on religious art. Subtlety, playfulness, and experimentation were no longer welcome in the house of God; art’s only purpose should be as visual catechism, inspiring moral decorum through clear and obvious imagery that would assist salvation. Just a week before his death in 1563, Michelangelo learned that the prelates had decided that they could improve on The Last Judgment, a work that Giorgio Vasari described as “that great painting which God has sent to men on earth.”
As Daniele da Volterra neared the end of his work on the fresco in December 1565, he was forced to stop: Pius IV had died and Daniele’s scaffolding was urgently needed for the grand ceremonies surrounding the election of the new Pope, Pius V, a man renowned for a strictness of doctrine and practice that hadn’t been seen in a pontiff for more than a century.
At first, Scappi perhaps thought it was business as usual. His banquet to celebrate the new pope’s investiture was in the tradition of those he had staged for decades; it proved to be a rare moment of jollity before the flogging of whores and adulterers began. As the one-year anniversary of Pius’s pontificate crept up, Scappi began planning the celebratory banquet. It would be one of his finest creations, featuring miniature castles containing live birds and an effigy of the pope made from gelatin in the red and yellow colors of his heraldic insignia. At the last minute, Pius canceled the whole event; there would be no pagan pleasures in the Vatican while the red slippers covered the toes of this pontiff. Thereafter, Scappi was often required to produce nothing more lavish than a boiled egg for the pope’s supper. It was like asking Michelangelo to paint all four walls of the Sistine Chapel in a single coat of magnolia.
Bereft of any other creative outlet, Scappi began work on his Opera. The world had never seen anything like it, and it was a sensational success. Between 1570 and 1646, the book went through eight print runs, an exceptional number for the time, and versions of his recipes were borrowed for other publications in England, France, Germany, and Spain. Yet, despite its popularity, Scappi’s book doesn’t appear to have had a lasting impact. In the seventeenth century plenty of books were published with detailed technical illustrations similar to those of Scappi’s utensils—but none of them were cookbooks. Neither, until the eighteenth century, did other cookery authors present themselves as artistic figures, rather than compilers of recipes. His restlessly cosmopolitan attitude toward food wouldn’t reappear until the twentieth century, when his enthusiasm for blending regional cuisines become commonplace.
Just as every Scappi banquet had jokes woven into each course, so the Opera contains one bitterly ironic gag: this gourmandizing epic was dedicated to Pius V, nemesis of the mouthwatering. Never before—and rarely since—has there been a cookbook in which so much of its author’s personality and worldview have shone through. Although Scappi professed to be a humble courtier at the service of his master’s tastes and whims, maybe that was just rhetoric. As he advised those who hoped to follow in his footsteps, a cook’s ultimate criterion of success is whether he is satisfied that “he has done the best that he can.” As with any great artist, Scappi only ever worked to please himself.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.