Bartolomeno Scappi—the world’s first celebrity chef (maybe)—has stretched his fame beyond the usual 15 minutes. Dead since 1571, fascination with his career shows no sign of going away. His cookbook/life story Opera dell’arte del cucinare was a best seller for 70 years after publication; it continues to find readers in the original Italian and in translation, new English and Dutch versions appearing within the past 10 years. A biography and account of Renaissance cookery entitled Il Segreto cuoco dei papi: Bartolomeo Scappi e la Confraternita dei cuochi e dei pasticcieri appeared more recently. And now finally the story has taken new form in fiction in 2019 with the publication of Crystal King’s novel, The Chef’s Secret.
Scappi’s life is first documented in 1536, when he was about 36, and by the 1550s he was private chef to a series of popes, a position he kept until the end of his life. He took time to compile his book at the end of this life during the pontificate of Pius V, who’s lifestyle didn’t include the banqueteering of his predecessors. Throughout his career he was a flamboyant and fun-loving cook and banquet artist who created an enormous variety of dishes finding influence from all over Italy. To him, all cooking on the peninsula is regional, but he gathers recipes together to develop an idea of Italian cooking.
His conception of Italian cooking includes acknowledgment of influences from afar. He describes new foods coming from the Americas, he describes the influence of Greek immigrants and the presence in Italy of flakey pastry for sweet and savory dishes, and he includes a recipe for cuscus alla moresca, couscous in the style of the Moors, which presumably was found in Sicily.
There are other reasons to look for him. The Rome he experienced has disappeared. Maybe by looking for him, we’ll find something of that city.
Scappi’s superstar status was unusual for cooks. He was a member of confraternity of cooks and pastry makers, which were humble professions at this time. Confraternities were lay groups, usually organized by profession, that were founded for spiritual and social goals. Here Scappi rubbed shoulders with more anonymous peers to take sacraments, to engage in charitable works and to provide mutual support to fellow members. Scappi died in 1577 and was buried in Santi Vincenzi ed Anastasio dei cuoci, the home church of the confraternity of cooks and bakers in Rome.
The church was located near the Tiber and is first heard of in existing documents in the year 1186, though it’s likely a far older foundation. Like many churches, it was known by different names at different times, such as Santi Vincenzo ed Anastasio della Arenula for the sandy river banks it overlooked, and della Regola, which is the name of rione or region of the city in which the church stood.
Two other churches were dedicated to Vincenzo and Anastasio in Rome. Both still exist, one standing across from the Trevi fountain and the other near EUR at Greek Orthodox monastic compound at Tre Fontane (a must visit). Both churches date from much earlier than 1186, so it seems likely that the Vincenzo and Anastasio by the river is of similar age.
Santi Vincenzo ed Anastasio was demolished in 1885, 700 years since that papal bull that first mentioned the church. Since the unification of Italy with Rome as its capital in 1871, the historical landscape of the city has experienced a number of well-planned calamities. In the case of this church, the demolition was done for the construction of the river embankments today called the Lungotevere dei Vallati. Part of the site of the church was used to construct Ministero della Giustizia, or Ministry of Justice.
During a recent walk, I set out to find the site of this missing church. Finding it was a bit tricky. Some old street names have been reassigned in this new pattern, so caution is necessary. The church stood on the eastern side a large piazza that sloped to the Tiber, giving direct access to the river that is now lost. Like the church, the piazza is gone, having been covered buildings new streets. Stand at the corner of the modern via delle Zoccolette and via degli Strengari and you will be inside the old church of Vincenzo ed Anastasio.
The confraternity outlived the church and moved a few streets away to San Salvator in Onda on via dei Pettinari, the street that runs into Ponte Sisto. That church remains there, but the confraternity of cooks and bakers I’m not too sure. And what about Bartolomeo Scappi? Nowhere. His bones were tossed away like the furniture and the bricks of the building, and the voices and the memories of the old cooks who gave Vincenzo ed Anastasio life.