Mirabilia

Margaret Visser

Reading this plethora of recent translations of Piero Camporesi’s work is rather like getting a book out of a library and being forced to read only the passages heavily underlined by a previous borrower, together with all the angry or thrilled exclamations peppering the margins. Camporesi is professor of Italian literature at the University of Bologna. He gleans quotations from many (justly) obscure Italian works from the past and sorts them into subjects: food, blood, hell, insanity, mutilations and mortifications of the body, carnival customs, the way beggars used their calamities – real or fake – to cause people ‘with bad consciences’ to give them money. Out of this matter he puts together his collections of essays, listing examples and quoting relentlessly, both in snippets and at length. A typical result is this litany from The Land of Hunger:

The faker of illness, the boaster of the putrid sore or deformed organ, put on a show in which the centre of attention was the verminous gangrene, the pus-filled wound, the infected abscess, the missing or withered limb; or perhaps, in a technically different but related area, a ‘professional hysteria’, a sudden fall, an unexpected crisis, a lightning convulsion. The repertory of the great virtuosi, the epileptic fit, the dance of the tarantula, the howl of the rabid.

In principle we should all feel deep gratitude to Professor Camporesi for going where no one else has cared to go, in search of new light to cast on the mentalités of the past. Italy must be at, or near, the top of most lists of countries that we would want to hear from in the area of culinary history. In addition to food, Camporesi is interested in the peasantry: the huge, ancient majority of the population of Italy, the people who have had no voice to tell their story, people whom we, too, have learned only fairly recently to be interested in. It is bitterly disappointing, therefore, to find that he is an unreliable guide to the literature he has combed with such zeal. His own sources are wide-ranging: sermons, sonnets, forgotten plays, scientific and medical treatises, pleas from Church figures for the amelioration of the lot of the poor. But none of these are discussed in their entirety or put in any sort of context. The horrifying and the repulsive are pored over with adolescent relish; the prose becomes overwrought, at times incomprehensible. There is often no discernible structure to the essays: they merely present undigested quotations in no particular order, and then stop. Camporesi sweeps through huge spans of time, looking for ‘blood’ or ‘bread’ or ‘the hatred of town people for country people’. His main focus may be the 16th and 17th centuries, but he will turn back into the Middle Ages or project forward into the 19th century with no sense of incongruity if there’s any chance of enlisting material.

Contemptuous of the pettifogging exactitudes of the historian (‘Let us leave to historians the exercise of dating and differentiating between the various seasons from’ – I suspect the text should read ‘reasons for’ – ‘the long, interminable post-Renaissance crises in Italy and later distinctions between urban and rural crises’), he prefers displays of verbal fireworks: indeed, his style is infected by the baroque effusions from which he quotes. The titles of his essays are in the mode made popular by the Annales school of historians, bizarre and attention-getting, and usually taken from one of his sources: ‘Mad and Startling Names’, ‘The Strange New Adoptions of Listless Gluttony’, ‘A Blissful and Drinkable Eternity’.

The essays are undisciplined and self-indulgent, both in spite and because of the arcane references and scores of footnotes:

The mirabilia of the charlatans, the ‘secrets of deception’ (‘they make people appear without heads or with asses’ heads,’ noted Pietro Passi, author of Della magic’arte overo della magia naturale [Of the magic art or natural magic], Venice, G. Violati, 1614, p. 99), are clothed in demonic fascination in certain ‘exotic’ and oriental romances such as Il magno Vitei [The great Vitei] (1597) by Lodovico Arrivabene, almost vying with the spells and ‘conjuror’s tricks’ which fill the pages of books on magic, like the circulator [charlatan] or praestigiator [sic] magicus [magic conjurer] who ‘... can be seen rising up into the air with a small horse’.

and so forth, for page after page.

So many quotations from obscure writers stun the reader into acceptance: after all, I have not read Galeotto Marzio da Narni or Simeon Zuccolo di Cologna, or many others from his array of sources. Furthermore, nothing Camporesi reproduces gives me the least desire to read them or even to check whether his choices are representative or fair – few readers could say for sure. Camporesi has his field pretty well to himself. It is a dreadful waste that he gives us no purchase on it.

He also ensures his own safety by means of his ‘option’, as the Catholic Church would put it, for the poor. The poor are invariably beyond criticism. Again, who are we to object? They starve, they labour, they suffer horrific diseases, they are put upon, cheated, despised, misunderstood and silenced. Camporesi sets himself up as the champion of the downtrodden – of the past, of course, which he describes as ‘the long, interminable age of imprecision’ and ‘the unfathomable spaces of pre-cultural non-time’. The combination of highly specific quotations and footnotes with broad, impressionistic and accusatory railing is tiresome and unattractive; so is the constant claiming of the moral high ground.

Camporesi hates Christianity, Roman Catholicism in particular. Jesuits especially are portrayed as hideously criminal, pursuing ‘their wholehearted belief in a Catholic ethic of sin and redemption, which itself assumed inequality among men and an unfair and unnatural distribution of goods and wealth’. Camporesi’s peasants never converted to Christianity. When they made signs of the Cross over their bread, it was really ‘the pre-Christian solar symbol associated with the magic number four’. The feast of John the Baptist was always only that of the summer solstice ‘and of pagan baptism’. Christianity, Camporesi claims, was forced on the countryside by the town, through the vicious ministries of the town’s minions, the Church hierarchy. But the brave peasants resisted, keeping their ‘timeless religion’ intact. Again, Camporesi, face to face with his trove of material, comes up with little beyond crass and self-righteous prejudice.

In among the avalanche of quotations there are nuggets to be found. Camporesi makes the intriguing comment that it was the Jesuits who spread chocolate from the New World into and across Europe: they were its ‘emissaries, eulogists, pioneers and importers’. He also mentions in passing that potatoes were imported into Italy at the turn of the 17th century ‘by barefoot Carmelite monks’ – although here, there is no footnote. He tells us that ‘especially among artisans in the towns, occupations and trades played a significant role in their diet: rag-and-bone merchants, for example, had a culinary tradition that was not the same as that of the blacksmiths or masons, and the cookery of each community or group expressed a tribal tendency or tradition with its own norms, conventions, rites and taboos.’ Where and how did Camporesi discover this? We are not told, and we long to hear more, but the subject is not pursued.

In The Land of Hunger, which appeared in Italian in 1978, he gives us an entire document: an anonymous, probably early 17th-century ‘Will and Testament’ of the embodiment of Carnival. It had not been published before; and it is witty, bawdy, intricately revealing, a delight. For once we do not have to rely on authorial choice so narrow that it feels like censorship. Camporesi does very little with the work beyond some simple footnoting (for which we are grateful). His main point is that the document makes no Christian references, but any competent anthropologist could make short shrift even of this assertion.

Exotic Brew (Il Brodo Indiano) does not delve into the despicable 17th century, but into the 18th, about which Camporesi has fewer strong feelings. It is a better book for it. The 18th century is subjected to an equally dreary set of responses and resembles nothing so much as a mythical projection of today. People in those days, Camporesi claims, loved all that was light, thin, image-oriented, female, comfortable, licentious. They revelled in exoticism, craved variety. But having made these predictable points, he offers previously unnoticed material about the new foods, especially the arrival of chocolate, and about dining-rooms, iced drinks, enemas, cider, pears (he adores pears), pineapples and, of course, coffee and tea. We also learn some interesting facts about the 18th-century vogue for viper meat.

In The Magic Harvest, a collection of earlier essays originally put together in 1989, we have Camporesi’s claim (subsequently repeated by several other writers discussing the anthropology of food) that ‘Christmas sweets ... tend to have vertical shapes, while those of Easter generally expand on a horizontal plane in swollen and dilated forms,’ signifying ‘fecundity and “new” life’. We are also briefly delighted to be introduced to Santorio, the chronicler of the fluctuations of weight due to sweat (De statica medicina, 1614), who lived in a weighing machine. But the most substantial essay is Camporesi’s on Pellegrino Artusi.

Artusi was the Italian Mrs Beeton, or Irma and Marion Rombauer. Born in Forlimpopoli (Forlì) in 1820, he studied classics and lived at home till the age of 30, gently reading and, presumably, eating well. On 25 January 1851, a band of robbers led by the infamous Stefano Pelloni (known as ‘the Ferryman’) attacked the village of Forlimpopoli, sacking houses, stealing, killing, raping. One of Artusi’s sisters was wounded; another became crazed as a result of the terror. The family abandoned Emilia-Romagna for Tuscany, a move that would have an incalculable effect on Italian language and culture. For 18 years Artusi worked as a businessman, eventually founding a discount bank in Florence. He retired in comfort at 50, and began to collect recipes. He worked extremely hard at this, repeatedly trying out every single recipe that interested him. ‘A rich bachelor with enormous side-whiskers’, who wore old-fashioned frock-coats and top-hats, Artusi was one of the many 19th-century bachelor gourmets whom Alberto Capatti writes about in Le Goût du nouveau: Origines de la modernité alimentaire (1989), as preparing and prefiguring 20th-century European culinary taste.

At the age of 71, Artusi published his magisterial work on Italian cooking, not without difficulty: his low, culinary interests had already made him an object of ridicule. The Introduction he wrote to La Scienza in cucina e l’arte dimangiar bene (1891) is significantly entitled ‘A Book whose Story Resembles that of Cinderella’. But the work gradually made its way beyond fame and fortune to become one of the classics of the Italian language. Pellegrino Artusi died in 1911 aged 91.

La Scienza in cucina is refined, simply and magnificently written, and demonstrates not only broad culinary and historical understanding but exquisite taste. The writing is overwhelmingly preferable to Camporesi’s. Like all great cookbooks it is an intensely personal work, filled with proverbs, anecdotes and stimulating observations. The domestic and the simply doable are everywhere preferred over the fantastic, the excessively expensive, the difficult, the masculinely ‘professional’. The book fore-shadows modern gastronomical sensibilities with a prescience that is extraordinary. In 1991, its centenary re-edition went on sale in the supermarkets of Italy. It was an abridged version, containing a mere 475 recipes from the 13th edition’s 790.

In 1970, the publishing house Einaudi invited Camporesi to write an introduction to a new printing of Artusi. This is the article included in The Magic Harvest. Writing for a wide and non-academic audience, Camporesi clarified and disciplined his style to give us the first grounded assessment of Artusi’s place in Italian literature and culture. Camporesi claims that La Scienza in cucina is not only the cornerstone of the Italian culinary tradition but that it played a role in the unification of Italy. It ‘did more for national unification than Manzoni’s great national novel I promessi sposi’, for ‘while not everyone reads, everyone eats.’ In his opinion the only works of literature that can contend with it as ‘one of the greatest expressions of Italian society in the second half of the 19th century’ are Cuore, the de Amicis novel of 1886, and Pinocchio.

Artusi was, as Camporesi points out, a quintessentially bourgeois writer. He is taken to task for never mentioning the terrible malnutrition that plagued many people of his day in Italy. (How many cookbooks remind their readers of the starving?) Artusi, who ‘never dreamed of reciting the mea culpa, in the traditional spirit of his class’, could callously joke that poverty might mean health: ‘It is clear that in this book I am speaking to the better-off classes, for those disinherited by fortune are forced willy-nilly to make a virtue of necessity and to console themselves by reflecting that an active and frugal life aids the robustness of the body and the preservation of health.’ He did, however, advocate a simple, healthy diet to his middle-class readers, exhorting them to thrift, and to eat ‘according to necessity’.

Born in Romagna but having adopted Tuscany, Artusi could combine two culinary styles (he showed a very summary interest in the cooking of the South, which is represented by little more than paste asciutte and Neapolitan ragù). Camporesi points out that Artusi’s cook, Marietta, was a Tuscan, which ‘may explain many things’. It ensured, for example, that panettone (which Camporesi elsewhere calls ‘the best example of the metamorphosis of a food from a product of municipal folklore to a supra-regional symbol and a national emblem’) is given in its Tuscan rather than its Milanese version in La Scienza. And throughout, Artusi’s preferences are for home cooking, women’s cooking. Italian cuisine has remained essentially homely rather than professional.

Camporesi shows how modern and revolutionary Artusi was in his recognition of tomato sauce: he rigorously distinguished tomato purée from tomato sauce, and his authority ‘definitively fixed the composition of the latter’. He gave ‘definitive sanction’ at last to the potato, breaking a linguistic taboo by finally speaking of potato gnocchi, and not hiding behind fancy phrases like ‘gnocchi alia marchigiana’ or ‘alla lombarda’. Artusi’s manual, ‘laced with anecdotes, jokes, sketches, hyperbolic remarks, little stories and other delights’, is called ‘a sort of culinary novel’ as well as a reference book, historical document and a milestone in the modernisation of the Italian language. He espoused the Tuscan-Florentine version of Italian, as he ‘strove obsessively to extirpate the linguistic barbarities of Romagna, which clung to him like original sin’. He opted for Italian words over the traditional Frenchified terms, and Camporesi’s insistence on Artusi’s importance for the history of the language has spawned several studies of Artusian vocabulary.

In more recent years – since the early Eighties – Camporesi has turned to the modern scene, particularly in the area of food. It is ironic, given his earlier critique of the past, that he rages about the debasing of the culinary tradition. ‘Industrial civilisation has destroyed the peasant culture in this country,’ he complains, although elsewhere he blames the Catholic Church for ‘destroying and obliterating what still remained of peasant culture in the second half of the 16th century’. He reviles the ‘eternal whitish or greyish’ soups that peasants used to be condemned to eat; yet when writing of today he sees us as wantonly forgetting the varied and delicious dishes of the past, as we opt for our ‘grey, uniform, insipid, standardised and controlled’ diet. He loathes the ‘corrosions’ of the supermarkets, their stereotyped repertories of food, the merchandise ‘spread before us in a lifeless, alien panorama of dead things, protected, untouchable, odourless’. He mourns the passing of the myth and folklore of olive oil, as ‘other “popular” products, in this Italy of motorways and mass communications, have overflowed their own regions, dialects and class boundaries to enter a wider circuit.’ Any change in a recipe merely creates ‘pretentious hybrid adulterated dishes far from the authentic cookery of the past’. ‘A complete novelty is the listing on the menu of mineral water,’ he complains, and draws the morose inference: ‘Pollution has made its mark.’

Perhaps it is best to see Piero Camporesi as a rough and pedantic modern Juvenal, one of the latest in a long succession of angry, satirical Italian writers who loathe the present and always prefer the past. Whatever period Camporesi is dealing with, it represents a falling-off from the immediate past: the 17th century destroyed the 16th, the 20th has trampled on the 19th. Juvenalian sourness also leads Camporesi into misogynist rantings both quaint and repulsive, where the failings of Italian women turn out to be laziness, unavailability, and an obsession with remaining thin. He seems to attribute much of this to the malign influence of mozzarella: ‘Woman has been transformed from an angel of the hearth to an angel of the low-caloric banquet,’ he sighs. Her ‘refusal of fertility’ offers only ‘a body made to be seen rather than touched, penetrated, enjoyed’. ‘Mozzarella and other low-fat cheese, imposed by female dietology, are cardinal elements of this cuisine, which is not merely cold but frozen, cellophane wrapped, aseptic outside and profoundly polluted inside.’ Youth in general today is hideously uneducated about food, while ‘girls have huge appetites but know nothing of cookery except perhaps for mozzarella; when groups eat together it is the boys who do the cooking.’ One plunges into Camporesi like a diver hoping to find small treasures in the murk. It is a relief when you come up for air.