In the “Regimen Sanitatis” of the Codex Atlanticus (F 213v), Leonardo da Vinci registers the hygienic precepts and advice for healthy living, followed by the rules of simplicity and pleasure, based on the principle thanks to which good health is obtained and maintained, most of all, through a healthy diet.
Nature, divided into the four elements: earth, water, air and fire, has an ascending/descending hierarchical order, where each animal or plant is nobler than the one placed below and less noble than the one above.
In light of this, at the bottom are the underground bulbs (onion, garlic, shallot, etc.), followed by the roots (carrots, turnips), then by the herbaceous plants (spinach and cabbage), and lastly by the fruit, including the noblest one growing on trees.
Eating according to the people’s qualities means choosing foods suitable for the social status of all individuals, their hierarchical position, the wealth and power they hold. It is an immutable, almost inescapable condition of the person.
The social class difference during the Middle Ages, founded mainly on the quantity of food available, changes in the Renaissance, above all, when the more or less noble quality of food marks such distance.
The diet of the mighty consists, in particular, of meat, a symbol of social privilege, while the lower classes’ diet, especially peasants, is essentially vegetarian.
The Libro de Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) (1456), by Maestro Martino de Rossi from Como (1440/late 15th century), the most famous European cook of the 1400s, represents a fascinating testimony of the passage from the High Middle Ages cuisine to the Renaissance one.
This text is considered a foundation of Italian gastronomic literature. (1)
Maestro Martino wrote in the vernacular one of the most copied texts of the Renaissance. He transposes his vast culture and his interregional experience into new recipes, revamped cooking techniques, modern hygienic and dietary principles, and directions for a healthy life, contributing unquestionably to the definition of Italian gastronomy.
By welcoming the tastiest vegetables in his kitchen and creating soups based on pumpkins, lettuce, chard, fennel, spelt, and chickpeas, he thus partially overcame the division between foods for the rich and those for the lower class.
Maestro Martino defines the different dry pasta, such as macaroni and vermicelli, generally reserved for the sick, cooked in almond milk and seasoned with sugar. He serves them snapped in smaller pieces, cooked in broth and flavoured with cheese and spices.
Along with spices, the use of rose and almond water makes him an heir to medieval cuisine.
He serves cakes after the roasts, uses eggs in many recipes, even as thickeners. He describes numerous and original fish recipes, generally present at the meals of the wealthy people or cooked in a pie at large parties.
For example, he keeps using natural colourings, such as saffron for yellow and grapes for red; he retains the sour flavours of the medieval age but mitigates them with must and sugar.
Ultimately, he introduces in his recipes a novelty that anticipates modern Mediterranean cuisine: he seldom replaces spices with wild herbs and vegetable garden herbs, including bay leaves, fennel, rosemary, parsley, mint and marjoram.
The teachings and recipes of Maestro Martino spread with the printing of De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine – On Honest Indulgence and Good Health (1474) by Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Platina, Prefect of the Vatican Library under Sixtus IV, who takes the moves from the Liber de Coquinaria.
Where Mastro Martino writes an actual manual, with recipes, the definition of the duties of the cook and the description of the kitchen setting, Platina exalts, instead, mainly the philosophical-sanitary concept of the honest pleasure of food, whose fundamental purpose is to preserve good health.
Platina also claims he wrote to “help a virtuous man who aspires to good health and a sober diet”.
He affirms that to benefit from food and good health, “we must nourish ourselves according to our bodily fluids and choose what we like best and suits ourselves”.
He takes up the medieval opinion of the four bodily fluids of the human body: blood, red bile, black bile and phlegm.
When they are in the right proportion to each other, both in quality and quantity, and their mixture is perfect, one is healthy.
Conversely, the lack of proportion between these fluids causes illness. The very characters of men result from these combinations, which, if proportioned – although differently for each period of the year – they guarantee excellent health.
Thus, the foods, which condition the associations of humours, must vary according to the seasons: from May to July, it is worthwhile to eat fresh foods and white meats; from August to October, spicy and acidic foods; from November to January, bread, boiled meats and a few vegetables; from February to April, vegetables and roast meats.
They entrust the cook with correcting the natural humours of the food through the cooking process to improve digestion and taste.
Martino de Rossi and Platina begin timidly to outline a new gastronomic philosophy that promotes the intensification of each ingredient, in contrast with the medieval philosophical-gastronomic vision that considered essential to balance and mix as many flavours as possible in a single dish. (2) (3)
We are here at the beginning of the history of Italian gastronomy.
(1) Maestro Martino – Libro de Arte Coquinaria,Curatori: Luigi Ballerini e Jeremy Parzen, Cum Grano Salis, 2001.
(2) Sabban, Françoise – Serventi, Silvano, A tavola nel Rinascimento con 90 ricette della cucina italiana, Laterza, Roma- Bari, 2005.
(3) Tocci, Augusto – Revelli, Alex – Cutini, Susanna, Tacuinum rinascimentale: itinerario di trionfi gastronomici, Ali&No, Perugia, 2005.