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 . 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.
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.