The riotous theater of the kitchen, with recipes handed down, jotted onto cards, or clipped from forgotten newspapers, is perhaps the only remaining arena in which the manuscript tradition can still be savored. Adaptation, corruption, suppression, and uncorrected misattribution are all essential ingredients in the living culture of the recipe. Eclectic manuscript collections – the precursors of printed cookbooks – provided the only systematic record of culinary technique before printing was introduced into Europe. An exemplary work in this genre, contemporary with Gutenberg and situated on the cutting edge of the New Gastronomy, is the manuscript Libro de Arte Coquinaria (Book on the Art of Cookery) by Maestro Martino, cook to popes and
princes. Martino’s recipes cover meat, broths, vegetables, pasta,
sauces, tarts, fritters, eggs, and fish. In addition to providing a delectable glimpse into the Italian Renaissance kitchen, Martino’s work has a particular importance, as it is the major source for the recipes in the first epicure’s handbook to be published in Europe, De honesta voluptate (On Decent Pleasure), ca. 1470, by the Vatican librarian known as “Il Platina.” Platina’s printed book appeared in numerous editions and exerted wide influence; Martino’s work survives only in a handful of manuscripts. The Martino manuscript in the Library of Congress, with its wonderfully legible humanist hand, is reproduced in delicious detail in this Octavo Edition, along with a new English translation and glossary by cookery historian Gillian Riley, bringing the cultured savor of this Renaissance masterpiece into a useful modern idiom.
The original book imaged for this digital edition:
9 x 5 3/4 inches (229 x 146 mm)
From Lombardy to Rome, and possibly as far as Naples, Martino, as an illustrious cook, encountered a wide range of different food preferences that it was his job to satisfy. In the courts of popes, princes, and cardinals, he worked for demanding gastronomes who, in the course of their travels, would have discovered new flavors and new dishes. It is no wonder then that compared with works of the previous century, the last gasp of a dying tradition, Martinos Libro de arte coquinaria was seen as avant-garde gastronomy. Here one finds the eggplant from the Kingdom of Naples just beginning to find a place in the kitchen gardens of Italy, and a decided taste for the gourd family, particularly melons. As a worthy servant of Paul II, he could hardly leave out the recipe for a Menestra di melloni which may even have precipitated his masters sudden death, attributed by contemporaries to acute indigestion after eating the melons he was addicted to. In addition the work provides marvelous evidence for the growing taste for pasta, which was soon to become a major feature of Italys gastronomic identity.
One of the Martino manuscripts owners, Joseph Vehling, engraved his own bookplate in 1924, a copy of which is affixed to the front pastedown (view 2). “EX LIBRIS COQVINARIIS” indicates that this bookplate was reserved for his cookery collection. The skull is a common motif in bookplates of the period, especially German, perhaps under the influence of Holbein and Dürer, with special reference to the transitory nature of possession. “Death the Cook” is an established variant on the theme, echoing such proverbial phrases as “Death in the Pot” and “A Skeleton at the Feast.” The owl that also appears on the bookplate is the emblem of the Greek goddess Athena, protectress of Wisdom.
“Sometimes when you encounter a sympathetic artifact of the historical past it will resonate in your mind on the same wavelength as your own private memories, and you may feel a sudden involuntary surge of identification across the centuries. Thats what happened to me when I first saw the mesmerizing manuscript pages of Maestro Martinos 550-year-old treatise on cooking. The first thing that struck me was the white space framing the dense rectangles of compact legible text – margins like symmetrical formal courtyards, blank except for the initial letters of first lines of paragraphs protruding like cornices. The consistent blocks of strictly lined, efficient tan-and-sepia calligraphy and the easy-on-the-eye layout exemplify the very classical principles of book design and calligraphy that, as it happens, I was being taught at the same time I was learning to cook.”
– Alice Waters, proprietor, Chez Panisse