In Off Menu, Edward White serves up lesser-told stories of chefs cooking in interesting times.
During a life of astonishing incident and variety, Gabriele D’Annunzio inhabited many guises. In the twenty years before World War I he established himself as a giant of Italian culture: an epochal writer often known simply as “the Poet” in Italy, a nationalist proselytizer, a storied lothario, and a daring aviator of spellbinding charisma. When the war came, D’Annunzio transformed himself into a soldier and a statesman who presaged the rise of Mussolini and the aesthetics of Fascism. A “poet, seducer and prophet of war” is how his biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett describes him, “an urbane socialite and man of letters,” as well as “a frenzied demagogue” who was “as ruthless and selfish as a baby.”
His life intersected with many famous and infamous people, such as his sometime lover and muse Eleonora Duse, one of the most acclaimed actors of her day. But away from the excitement, scandal, and infamy that defined D’Annunzio’s public existence, one curious relationship ran like a steel girder through the last twenty-three years of his life: that with his cook, a much younger woman named Albina Becevello, about whom little is known other than her cooking. At a time when certain thinkers—inspired, to some degree, by D’Annunzio’s ideas about aestheticism, technology, and national identity—were advocating a complete revolution in Italian cuisine, Becevello nourished and indulged her employer with recipes that would have been familiar to the people of the Italian Peninsula even before the unification of Italy in the late nineteenth century.
Becevello was not a pioneering chef, but one who catered perfectly to her audience. As the authors Maddalena Santeroni and Donatella Miliani detail in their book about Becevello, D’Annunzio’s mania for eggs—he would routinely eat five a day—meant his cook became a brilliant exponent of frittata, the Italian variant of the omelet. Often Becevello could send him into raptures with an even more simple creation, such as her re-creation of the egg-and-anchovy dish he remembered from his childhood. “Albina, be praised forever and ever,” he once wrote her, “shine forever in the Constellation of the Egg and the Nebula of the Anchovy! Amen.” Santeroni and Miliani suggest that the relationship between Becevello and D’Annunzio gives the lie to the Poet’s reputation for misogyny. That seems a stretch, to put it kindly. But they’re surely correct in saying that through Becevello and her traditional cooking—her risotto alla Milanese and her spaghetti alla chitarra—a real human emerges beneath the layers of obnoxious and grandiloquent mythmaking in which D’Annunzio swaddled himself for the half-century that he occupied a central place in Italian public life.
Albina Becevello was in her early twenties when she first cooked for D’Annunzio. From 1910 the Poet lived as a sybaritic celebrity in Paris but returned to his homeland to support its entry into World War I, a conflict he saw as an unprecedented national opportunity. To him, the carnage wrought by modern warfare was a chance to destroy, cleanse, and rejuvenate. Only in slaughter, he believed, could Italy claim its glorious destiny.
D’Annunzio settled in Venice, where he rented the Casetta Rossa, a property belonging to Prince Fritz Hohenlohe of Austria. With the house came a small domestic staff, including the young woman who ran the kitchen. Where Becevello had learned her craft is unknown, but she would surely have picked up the rudiments of the local cuisine—characterized by risotto, polenta, and radicchio—from the sharecropping family who raised her from the age of eight in the countryside surrounding Treviso, not far from Venice. Considering how dedicated D’Annunzio was to the indulgence of the senses, he was surprisingly ambivalent about food. Immaculate in dress and manners, he found the physical process of eating messy; he considered it “humiliating to fill the sad sack,” he said, though he had no qualms about sating his other bodily appetites. Often, he would forego meals, and claimed to prefer dining alone, though that may have been due to pain or embarrassment caused by his appalling teeth. Yet food—its flavors, colors, and aromas—could excite him as much as any artwork. The event of dining could likewise stimulate him, if only because it gave him a captive audience, and Becevello became a vital element in D’Annunzio’s political and personal life, catering for the guests who flowed through the Casetta Rossa.
During the war years D’Annunzio crafted a distinct public reputation as a warrior-poet, and found ever more exhibitionist ways to champion the nationalist cause, culminating in a highly publicized flight over Vienna in 1918, when he dropped thousands of leaflets urging the Viennese to surrender. Because D’Annunzio had seen the war as a chance for national glory, he was enraged when Italy—despite being among the victorious Allied powers—was prevented from acquiring the city of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia) by the terms drawn up at the Paris Peace Conference. In September 1919, D’Annunzio defied the Paris settlement by leading two thousand soldiers into Fiume, seizing control of the city, and setting himself up as its dictator. For fourteen months Fiume was like nowhere else on earth, a place that attracted artists, radicals, and outsiders of all sorts. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti—the founder of the futurist movement of artists and thinkers, heavily influenced by D’Annunzio’s veneration of speed and violence—was thrilled by Fiume, as was a young Mussolini; many of D’Annunzio’s political ideas and his flamboyant, theatrical style of leadership, complete with Roman salutes, black uniforms, and rabble-rousing oratory, laid the groundwork for the Fascist surge that was soon to come.
When D’Annunzio was driven out of Fiume, on Christmas of 1920, he returned to Italy and looked on as Mussolini—whom D’Annunzio apparently considered to be an ill-educated vulgarian—established himself as Italy’s dominant political force. After suffering serious injury from being pushed out of a window—possibly by one of Mussolini’s supporters—the Poet withdrew to the banks of Lake Garda, where he created the Vittoriale degli italiani, a vast estate that was to be his home for the rest of his life. Here, D’Annunzio built a magical kingdom all his own, insulated from the daily realities of Mussolini’s Italy, where he could further his mythology and leave future generations of Italians with a physical monument to himself.
Albina Becevello was integral to the project; she cooked not only for D’Annunzio but for all twenty-five people who lived on the estate. As with every other inch of the Vittoriale, Becevello’s kitchen was carefully designed, with the contemporary abutting the traditional: modern refrigeration devices were placed next to tools for making pasta native to the Abruzzo region, D’Annunzio’s childhood home. Much of the food that Becevello prepared in this space evoked the Abruzzo—pecorino cheese, cured meats, and many cakes and desserts—but she refrained from making the region’s famous meatballs, which D’Annunzio dismissed as “Abruzzo bullets.”
When D’Annunzio was entertaining, Becevello’s creations were served in the “Cheli Room,” a lavish dining room of gold and red, named after his pet tortoise. When Cheli died from overindulging in tube roses, D’Annunzio had a bronze cast of him made and fixed to the end of the dining table—a warning to guests about the perils of gluttony. However, much of Becevello’s work was not designed to impress guests but to salve and fuel D’Annunzio as he wrote, made new plans for the Vittoriale, and conducted his sexual adventures. Frequently, Becevello would be called upon at short notice late at night or early in the morning to make a plate of eggs for D’Annunzio and something for a woman he had shared his bed with.
In 2015, Maddalena Santeroni and Donatella Miliani published a book about the tranche of notes and letters that D’Annunzio sent to Becevello during the course of their long association. What emerges is a fascinating insight into the domestic routines of a highly unusual man, and a portrait of a unique, peculiarly intimate relationship. As Santeroni and Miliani note, despite D’Annunzio being nearly twenty years Becevello’s senior, the relationship between them sometimes appeared more like son and mother than boss and employee, something the authors put down to D’Annunzio’s endless search for a mother figure and his associating food with maternal love. He would sprinkle his messages to her with words and phrases from their native dialects (Venetian and Abruzzese), and had numerous pet names for her that were both jocular and respectful: “Sister Gluttony,” “Sister Sauce,” “Sister of the Plenary Indulgences.” Santeroni and Miliani agree with Giordano Bruno Guerri, president of the foundation that now looks after Vittoriale, that Becevello was one of the few women in D’Annunzio’s life with whom he didn’t try to have sex. Indeed, it seems that she was granted a great deal more respect than other women on his domestic staff, whom he harassed and mistreated. As Lucy Hughes-Hallett reveals in her biography, D’Annunzio said that he considered a maid who brought him the meals that Becevello cooked to be no more to him than “a piece of furniture, a cupboard on feet.”
As Santeroni and Miliani show, D’Annunzio often issued Becevello strangely specific instructions. Sometimes he wanted ribs beaten “thinner than a banana peel” with a stone pestle. Out of the blue, he once insisted that “from now on, every day, between three and four in the afternoon, you must be ready to prepare me cold veal with or without sauce.” If fresh meat proved hard to come by on any given day, he instructed Becevello to buy a live calf, slaughter and butcher it herself, and freeze whatever wasn’t used. This is the D’Annunzio that’s familiar to us: impulsive, demanding, egocentric. But Santeroni and Miliani’s study offers a glimpse of a much less recognizable man who was capable of empathy, compassion, and thoughtfulness. According to the notes he sent Becevello, he sometimes insisted that she prolong her vacations because she seemed tired, and very frequently he gave her cash bonuses, as well as substantial sums of money to send to her disabled brother. Perhaps it was gratitude for service, and her ability to coat him in nostalgia and home comforts; perhaps, in his solipsistic way, he saw in her creative talent and hard-earned skill something that he recognized as true artistry, and therefore deserving of a respect he withheld from other servants.
By and large, the fare that D’Annunzio required of Becevello was rooted in the nineteenth century in which he had been raised. “I have a sudden passion for can-nel-lo-ni,” he wrote Becevello one evening. “You must have cannelloni ready at any time of the day and night. cannelloni! cannelloni!” Not all of his contemporaries shared his passion for the traditional taste of Italy; at a time when Fascism threatened to transform Europe, certain of those in his circle wanted to turn Italian cuisine on its head. In the thirties, Marinetti, the leader of the futurist movement who had been so excited by D’Annunzio’s Fiume escapade, published his half-joking ideas for futurist cooking and eating, which advocated radical new flavor combinations and the use of poetry, music, colored lighting, and perfume in the dining experience. “Until now men have fed themselves like ants, rats, cats or oxen,” proclaimed Marinetti. “Now with the Futurists the first human way of eating is born.” He foresaw a time when most nutrition would be consumed in the form of pills and powders, freeing up time for people to study, create, and think. The few mealtimes that remained would be opportunities to stimulate the senses and inflame passions, by making them multisensory experiences. The interior of the Taverna del Santopalato (Tavern of the Holy Palate), a futurist restaurant that Marinetti helped to establish in Turin in 1931, was intended to resemble a submarine, but decorated with aluminum (then an excitingly futuristic material), bright columns of color, and large eyes painted on the walls. When the food came, diners received small portions of various strange-sounding dishes such as chicken stuffed with zabaglione (similar to eggnog) and topped with silver confetti, and an orange risotto named the Roar of Ascent.
Marinetti’s ideas, collated in The Futurist Cookbook, have been described by one scholar as “a serious joke” intended to rile and provoke. He certainly provoked a strong response to his call for the abolition of pasta, which he argued kept Italians trapped in a sluggish, premodern existence. Marinetti viewed gastronomy as a vehicle for making a new breed of Italians to inhabit what was still a young country. As he saw it, pasta was the coddling embrace of tradition in carbohydrate form. “Men think, dream and act according to what they eat and drink,” he averred. Replacing the thick beige ribbons of pappardelle with small mouthfuls of “Alaskan salmon in the rays of the sun with Mars sauce,“ or “Polyrhythmic Salad,” which diners would eat with one hand while simultaneously turning the crank on a music box with the other, would help to create lithe bodies and alert minds, all the better to pursue national glory.
Mussolini’s regime was no less committed to fashioning new Italians, but it drew a direct link between traditional cooking and national identity, a scheme supported by popular magazines such as La cucina Italiana, established in 1929 and still going to this day. One could see Becevello in her kitchen at the Vittoriale as a fusion of these two visions: a domestic cook working in the established Italian tradition for a novel, very modern cause, and the provider of comfort food to a Modernist aesthete who entertained in the louche splendor of the Cheli Room.
As Mussolini grew ever closer with Hitler in the early thirties, D’Annunzio wrote to the Duce expressing his disgust for the German chancellor. However, when Italy invaded Ethiopia, in 1935, D’Annunzio was so delighted that he sent Mussolini the gift of a sword adorned with a depiction of Fiume. Despite his misgivings about Nazi Germany, D’Annunzio still believed Italy’s rightful destiny lay in war, conquest, and imperial expansion. He died at the age of seventy-four in 1938, before these ideas reaped their bitter fruits. Marinetti, committed to the priapic madness of futurism and Fascism until the last, died in 1944, at the age of sixty-seven, having served a stint on the Eastern Front a couple of years earlier.
Following the Poet’s death, Becevello, then in her fifties, returned to the Veneto and her family. If she was hoping for a comfortable early retirement, she was to be cruelly disappointed. Santeroni and Milaini tell us that her brother had squandered all the money D’Annunzio sent him over the years, leaving Becevello with a great financial burden. Santeroni and Miliani don’t know quite how her final days played out, but she died in poverty in 1940, at the age of fifty-six.
At the Vittoriale—now open to the public as a museum to D’Annunzio’s life and work—traces of Becevello live on, though, as always, one must look through the lens of the Poet to glimpse them. The Cheli Room, with its bronze cast of D’Annunzio’s beloved tortoise, looks as it would have just before an epicurean evening ninety years ago, ready to receive some of D’Annunzio’s favorites: lean slices of cold partridge, perhaps, or a rose risotto, followed by budino al cioccolato, a delicious Italian chocolate pudding.
Many of the dishes she cooked are still with us, of course, but in restaurants across the world they share space with elements of Marinetti’s futurist food revolution. His prescriptions for treating cooking and eating as a multisensory art foreshadowed the nouvelle cuisine that developed after World War II. Heston Blumenthal is the best known of a generation of celebrity chefs who have brought Marinetti’s ideas about eating into the mainstream. His recipes for bacon-and-egg ice cream and snail porridge could have been taken from Marinetti’s manifesto, as could his dishes that come served with atomizers, dry ice, and soundscapes—but these are the lauded dishes that have earned him Michelin stars and great commercial success. Albina Becevello had neither of those. But she did add a unique texture to one of the most consequential lives of the twentieth century. Thanks to Maddalena Santeroni and Donatella Miliani, perhaps in time Becevello will be remembered not simply as the hidden woman who cooked for D’Annunzio, but as a culinary artist in her own right.
For further reading, the author recommends the following:
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. His latest book, The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense, was published earlier this year by W. W. Norton. Read earlier installments of Off Menu.
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