ROME – This Tuesday will mark the 546th anniversary of the foundation of the Vatican Library on June 15, 1475, by Pope Sixtus IV, the pontiff who helped usher in the Italian renaissance through his patronage of learning and the arts. That makes it an apt moment to recall a figure who plays a key role in the institution’s story, even if he’s all but forgotten today.
Bartolomeo Sacchi, better known by his Latin nom de plume Platina, was selected as the first Prefect of the Vatican Library by Pope Sixtus in 1478. Today, a celebrated fresco by artist Melozzo da Forlì captures the moment of the appointment, showing Sacchi kneeling before the pope pointing to a book recording his cultural accomplishments, which is now preserved in the Vatican Museums.
Two things make Sacchi’s story especially, well, appetizing.
First, just a decade before his appointment he was accused of being part of a cabal plotting to kill the previous pope, Paul II, and was imprisoned and tortured for more than a year in the Castel Sant’Angelo, in the process losing sensation in one of his arms. His reversal of fortune under Paul’s successor illustrates just how quickly things can change in the Catholic Church when there’s a change of administration.
Second, Sacchi, under his pen name “Platina,” was also the author of the bestselling cookbook of his age, a wildly popular tract entitled De honesta voluptate et valetudine (“On Respectable Pleasure and Good Health”). As a matter of historical record, it’s the first cookbook ever reproduced using a mechanical printing press.
In a sense, Sacchi was the Gordon Ramsay of his age. The personality revealed in the book is catty, snobby, and irascible, all overlaid with a strong veneer of showmanship. Among other things, the fact Sacchi’s legacy includes both ecclesiastical history and gastronomy captures how intertwined altar and table always have been, and remain today, in Italy.
To begin with the 1468 plot, historians still debate today whether, and to what extent, it was ever real. What we know is that in February of that year, Rome’s annual winter carnival was drawing to a close, featuring a special race for Jews through the city center during which Romans were encouraged to throw mud and stones at the competitors. Paul II was informed by one of his aides that an informant had leaked details of a plan to murder him on March 2, which was Ash Wednesday that year.
Pope Paul knew Rome’s recent history of such affairs well, and took no chances, ordering all the alleged participants arrested. Embarrassingly, Sacchi, who was in papal service at the time as a sort of tax official, had to be taken into custody in the home of his patron, Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga, who had been placed in charge of organizing a crusade against the Turks. Eventually, the alleged conspirators were charged with not only wanting to kill the pope but being pagans who denied God, Christ and the Church.
The prisoners hotly denied the charges, attempting to shift blame onto one of their friends who had managed to escape arrest. Whatever the explanation – whether it was the influence of senior clerics such as Gonzaga, or Paul II changing his mind, or something else – Sacchi was eventually released.
(Sacchi would eventually take his revenge by writing a history of popes from his perch in the Vatican Library, in which he had a truckload of unflattering things to say about Paul II.)
For all those who think it’s odd that figures considered on the outs under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have undergone a rehabilitation under Pope Francis – think Cardinals Walter Kasper, for example, or Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga – Sacchi is a permanent reminder that there’s nothing new under the sun.
As for his cookbook, it would go down as Sachhi’s most important literary contribution, if only because of the insight it provides into the dietary habits of Italians at the time. For one thing, it marks a fascinating stage in the evolution of the dish that is undoubtedly Italy’s best-loved and most widely imitated contribution to global food culture: Pasta with sauce.
Contrary to popular opinion, pasta was not introduced into Italy by Marco Polo after his journeys to China. There are references to various forms of pasta, both fresh and dry, being consumed by Italians as early as the ninth century, well before Polo lived and died, which means by the time Sachhi wrote his cookbook, it was already a staple of the Italian diet. Indeed, the reason the fork was adopted in Italy centuries ahead of the rest of Europe is precisely because of the need for an easy way to consume cooked pasta.
Yet the format outsiders most associate with Italian cuisine, pasta with tomato sauce, was unknown in his time, since the tomato is a product of the New World and wouldn’t be introduced into Italy, beginning in Naples, until the 17th century.
Typically, pasta dishes of earlier eras would feature pasta boiled in broth (usually chicken broth), not water, and served with grated cheese, usually parmesan. In Boccaccio’s Decameron, there’s a scene of an imaginary land featuring a mountain of grated parmesan from which pasta boiled in broth is constantly being tossed down to the ecstatic people below.
By Sacchi’s time, the revolution in pasta recipes was driven by spices, which were flowing into Italian city-states thanks to sea-based trade routes with the Middle East and Asia. One typical recipe features pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and saffron, along with sugar. You’d boil your maccheroni (the term at the time used for what we’d call today spaghetti), ravioli, or vermicelli in broth, heat the spices, mix the two, and then add the grated cheese with a little bit of broth to provide liquidity.
Sachhi also records other menus for fine ecclesiastical dining of the time, including peacock, roast goat, and even an entire bear. It’s a precious window onto life behind closed doors for the Church’s VIPs of the era.
In other words, Sacchi was the product of a culture that regarded faith and food as two sides of the same coin – indeed, one was unthinkable without the other. Come to think of it, though, that’s pretty much Italy today as well.
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