Southern Italian Cuisine Before Columbus

November 25, 2021 in Manuscript Studies, Uncategorized

The Research Group Speaks
Episode 2

Southern Italian Cuisine Before Columbus

Linda Civitello, Ph.D.

For our new Series, the food historian Linda Civitello talks about the early history of Italian cuisine, especially Cuoco Napolitano, and its ingredients, sources, and influences — for Southern Italian cuisine and beyond. Inspired by the 15th-century sources in manuscript and early printing, Linda describes approaches to the subject and gives a demonstration. In these ways,we might explore the traditions of southern Italian cuisine before the arrival of such New World ingredients as the tomato.

With an invited audience, we held the event on Saturday 18 September 2021 — the day before the Feast of San Gennaro. The martyred Saint Janurarius, first Bishop of Benevento (of unknown dates), is the patron saint of Naples.

Our Speaker

Linda Civitello is the author of the award-winning books:

  • Baking Powder Wars: The Cut-throat Food Fight That Revolutionized Cooking
  • Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People, which is used to teach food history in culinary schools throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Linda developed the curriculum, and taught history of food, at culinary schools in southern California. She also taught the History of Chocolate and the History of Food in California at UCLA Extension.

Linda speaks frequently on a wide range of food history topics. She has spoken at Harvard University, and appeared on television on Bizarre Foods and on the BBC. She also cooks professionally, making historic recipes using heirloom flour, and Italian pastries and gelati for a select clientele.

She is currently writing an article on food and racism, and a book on Food and Film from Prohibition to James Bond. Linda has a B.A. from Vassar College and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles.

(She and our Director met in freshman year at College, when we shared the same Medieval History Class.)

For further information about Linda‘s accomplishments and publications, see, for example, Linda Civitello and Linda Civitello.

The Sources

By request, Linda’s presentation includes a brief introduction by our Director, Mildred Budny, to the early modern textual sources, in manuscript and print.

Platina, De honesta voluptate et valetudine (Venice, 1494), Opening page. Image via Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura, via Public Domain.

Vernacular Italian sources for Cucoco Napolitano include:

The Morgan Manuscript: Cuoco Napolitano

New York, Morgan Library & Museum, Bühler MS 19 came to the Morgan in 1985 as part of the bequest of Curt F. Bühler (1905–1985). He had served as a rare book curator at the Pierpont Morgan Library (as it was then known) from 1934 to 1973. He bequeathed his collection of manuscripts and early printed books to that library.  The scribe and author of the text are unknown.

The Morgan website provides a selection of images from the pages in the manuscript which contain illustrations. As colored drawings placed in the margins below or beside the text, they depict creatures of several kinds — animals, birds, and vegetation — which appear to illustrate the recipes.

The Early-Printed Books (pre-1500)

Italian cookery served as subject in the course of expansion of printing in Western Europe. Among incunables, that is, early printed books before 1500 CE, there survive copies from various printings of the popular treatise composed in Latin by Bartholomeo Sacchi (1421–1481), known as Il Platina. That name derives from his place of origin, Piadena/Platina near Cremona in Lombardy, in northern Italy. By turns soldier, humanist, author, prisoner, and Librarian of the Vatican Apostolic Library, Platina produced writings on various subjects, including biographies, or Lives, of the Popes, and the gastronomical treatise which circulated widely.

His text De honesta voluptate et valitudine (“On honorable pleasure and health” or “On honest indulgence and good health”) appeared first in Latin, in several printings. Among them are issues from Venice (1475), Venice (1498), Bologna (1499), and elsewhere.

The text appeared soon in vernacular translation, in various languages, including Italian regional dialect but still with the same Latin title. Among incunables, that is, early printed books before 1500 CE, two different printed editions of this translation are known. Both were issued in Venice, but by different printers.

The ‘Competition’:  Maestro Martino and the Libro de Arte Coquinaria

The recipes in Platina’s popular treatise overlap with, and perhaps mostly derive from, a work by a renowned chef Martino da Como or Maestro Martino da Como (circa 1430 – end of the 15th century), the Libro de Arte Coquinaria, known in a single manuscript copy.

This manuscript, now at the Library of Congress (with full digital facsimile), was written perhaps between 1460 and 1480 by a known scribe, Antonio Toffio. An edition of the text is available online.

Resources in Print and Online

Studies about these sources and their context include:

  • Terence Scully with Rudolf Grewe, Cuoco Napoletano: The Neapolitan Recipe Collection (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000).


The recording of the episode is being edited for presentation and wider viewing as a podcast.  It includes, by request, a brief introduction to the sources (see above) in manuscript and early printing by our Director, Mildred Budny. It also reports feedback and suggestions by the invited audience both at the time and afterwards.

We thank Linda for her generous preparation and presentation.  We thank the participants for joining the online gathering, and for offering feedback and encouragement.


More Episodes are in hand and in preparation.  See The Research Group Speaks:  The Series.

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