DINING WITH DA VINCI
We are all familiar with the notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Not only was he fascinated with drawing plants, he may have preferred eating them.
For its time, to be a vegetarian was somewhat uncommon as well as controversial. It was said that Da Vinci was such a lover of animals that he often strolled through the bird markets, purchased the caged creatures, and promptly set them free. Da Vinci’s vegetarianism may have been the result of his contact with travelers like Greek humanists and painters from the East who came to Renaissance Florence and Milan.
There are records of what he consumed in the courts of popes and patrons. He ate greens, fruits, mushrooms, pasta and cereals, and all manner of vegetables. In particular, a hot chickpea minestrawas a favorite. This recipe is found in one of the first cookbooks of the Renaissance entitled Platina de honest volupatate (1475) written by Bartolomeo di Sacci (Batali in Fedele, The Artist’sPalate). Among Da Vinci’s library books was a 1487 copy. The authentic chickpea recipe follows:
La Minestra (Luis in Cecere Rubeo) from Platina
Wash a pound or more of chickpeas in hot water. After being washed they should be put in a pot to simmer without water. With your hands mix half an ounce of meal, a little oil and salt, and twenty grains of coarsely ground pepper and ground cinnamon, and then put this near the hearth with three measures of water, and add sage, rosemary, and chopped parsley roots. Let this boil so that it is reduced to eight saucers full. When it is nearly cooked, drop in a little oil; but if it is juice for sick persons, only add a little oil and spices. (Platina in DeWitt, Da Vinci’s Kitchen)
Who is to know what amount was contained in Platina’s saucer, or in a measure of water? And the meal required for mixing is unknown, though some scholars believe that Da Vinci was familiar with corn meal (maize) which had been introduced to Italy around 1494 by the brother of Ludivico Sforza, the great Duke of Milan and patron of Leonardo Da Vinci. Dave DeWitt, in his book Da Vinci’s Kitchen (2006) makes note of shopping lists Leonardo made (while working on The Last Supper) which include red and white maize– quite remarkable considering the recent return of Columbus from the New World. Some research suggests that corn was already being cultivated in Africa. Is there a connection here between Da Vinci and Lombardy’s polenta-centric diet?
While the great Leonardo invented a heat propelled spit for turning meat as well as a meat smoker and sausage grinder, he was a confirmed vegetarian, though he may not have been one in his early life. This rejection of meat in later life is referred to by a courtier in a letter to the Medici as somewhat heretical. Da Vinci was recognized as odd in his desire to avoid hurting any living thing let alone feast on anything that had blood coursing through its veins (DeWitt). In the true spirit of Renaissance humanism, his respect for life seems to have informed his diet– though one wonders if he simply lost his taste for flesh after all those cadavers he dissected.
In his notebooks, Leonardo delights in the vast and infinite variety of simple vegetarian foodstuffs and the endless manner in which they can be combined as shown in the recipes of Platina. There are recipes in Da Vinci’s notes for a bright and herby salad dressing with spearmint, parsley, and thyme as an excellent dressing over a salad of fennel and bitter greens. He makes reference to anise cookies and light suppers of egg tarts.
For his students, Leonardo advocated a well-ordered life and a diet of moderation. In a poem he summarizes his principles for culinary happiness:
If you be healthy, heed this advice,
Eat only when hungry, and let light fare suffice.
Chew all your food well, and this rule always follow.
Well-cooked and simple, be all that you swallow.
On leaving a table, a good posture keep,
And after you luncheon, do not yield to sleep.
Let little and often be your rule for wine,
But not between meals or when ready to dine. –L. Da Vinci
Stand up straight, don’t be a glutton, and remember– you are what you eat. Here, Da Vinci suggests all things in moderation, especially when it comes to food. Sounds like reasonable advice for feeding body and soul from the world’s ultimate Renaissance dude.
(For more information about Da Vinci and the diet of the Renaissance: What Did Leonardo Da Vinci Eat?)