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Turbulent life of an Italian food taster during the Renaissance

By Gery de Pierpont

Heritage and literature dialogue: Peter Elbling

There are some texts which describe atmospheres and historical settings so realistically that they can almost bring old stones back to life. When words, musical cadences and poetry bring scenes alive, describing personalities, passionate encounters and tragedies, we are inescapably drawn back in time. Particularly if these are read in the actual settings they describe …

The “Heritage and literature dialogues” will give you a little flavour of this timeless alchemy, a sample of imaginary delights to be discovered when you stay in history, after a quick trip to your local bookshop! 

Food_Taster

Small glimpse of the impressive Sforza Castle in Milano © Magro_kr

 

The perfect book to read in an Italian Renaissance castle

Food TasterThe Food Taster: the Story of my Incredible Life”, is a great novel of screenwriter Peter Elbling (2003). A poor peasant escapes death by becoming the food taster of a tyrant in Renaissance Italy. But nothing is simple in the life of Ugo DiFonte, because the Duke has a lot of enemies. So many people want to poison him, it is a miracle he is still alive … A jubilant story, full of culinary discoveries, intricate love stories, poison recipes and political plots, narrated by a smart servant well versed in the little foibles of princes. Well documented, imaginative, hilarious and entertaining…

A perfect book to read when you stay in an Italian town, not far from a Renaissance castle. Peter Elbling has a fantastic talent to bring old walls back to life, with very concrete, realistic (and sometimes crude) details about daily rituals, seasonal feasts and historical events. Political rivalry, gastronomy, Antique philosophy, arts, carnival, plague, inquisition, witchcraft, … are among the many ingredients of this wonderful best seller (which could make a unique film series). The pretty trivial style of the author (typical earthy old language, fitting with 15c Italy) will not appeal to all readers. Note that the book has been printed in very small font size.

Excerpt: an invitation to the Sforza Castle in Milano

“I must say something in praise of Milano. If a finer city exists then they must invent new words to describe it. To begin with, the roads in the center of the city are not only as straight as gun barrels but also paved too, so that the carriages, of which there are many, may have a smoother ride! Is that not a miracle? And the castle! If a more magnificent one exists I have not seen it. It is almost as big as Corsoli itself and has an enormous moat around it. They told me the pig-swilling French stole many of its treasures, but everywhere I looked I saw the most beautiful paintings and the most exquisite sculptures! I remember a painting of Mary Magdalen by Il Giampietrino, which was so beautiful and tender it was no wonder Our Lord had reached out to her. By now I could write well enough to record things like this.

“One staircase, designed by Leonardo da Vinci, was so magnificent I walked up and down it several times because it made me feel like a prince. Bold, colorful carpets of Oriental designs lined the hallways. A hundred scenes were painted on the ceilings and from the center of each room hung a chandelier with a thousand candles. Servants scurried to and fro, beautiful women entertained themselves, and from every room came the sound of laughter and music. If one is going to die in the service of a prince, I said to myself, then let it be for Duke Sforza.

“Then I found the kitchen! Oh, what better sanctuary is there for a weary traveler than the hiss of boiling pots, the sight of steam curling up from the fire, and the warm smell of pies cooking? And what a kitchen! Compared to this, the kitchen in Corsoli was like a mousehole. There were three times as many fires, five times the number of cauldrons, and more knives than in the Turkish army. I ate quickly because I wanted to visit the servant’s quarters, for I was sure that such a magnificent prince would have extended his generosity to those who worked for him. I should have known better.

“Just as in Corsoli, the servants’ rooms were smaller and uncared for. Since French and Swiss soldiers had recently lived here, the stench was almost unbearable. As I wandered the hallways, my disappointment increasing with each step, the sound of voices pulled me to an open door. I peered in.

“Six or seven men sat drinking and playing cards. One, a dandy with a careless attitude, wore a large feather in his hat and lounged with one leg over the arm of his chair. Another was a man with a bulbous onion-like face whose right eyelid was half closed from a knife wound. He was arguing with a fat man who looked as if he might have been a monk. ‘But if he sides with Venezia, then what?’ the onion-faced man said fiercely.
The Fat One shrugged. ‘It depends on the pope.’
The onion-faced man spat. ‘The pope changes sides more often than the weather.’
‘Who does not?’ said the Fat One. ‘Besides I heard –‘ He saw me in the doorway. ‘What do you want?’ he said brusquely.
‘I have just arrived with Duke Frederico Basillione DiVincelli’, I said. ‘I am his food taster.’ ”

 

Exerpt from “The Food Taster: the Story of my Incredible Life”, by Peter Elbling (2003), chapter 20.

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