‘Italian history on the table’

Eva Del Soldato of Romance Languages teaches cultural history through food.

An old book is displays poultry butchering on one side; Italian text on the other
Attributed to Apicus, De re coquinaria is an Italian manuscript dating to the late fifteenth century. (Image: Kislak Center)

“Think about the pig,” says Eva Del Soldato, associate professor of Romance languages in the School of Arts & Sciences. Pork is abundant in Italian cuisine, which is why Del Soldato chose to focus on the animal for one session of Italian History on the Table. Courses on food culture are a staple of Italian studies; the next offering will be in the spring of 2021, Del Soldato says. “We associate Italy with food and never-ending abundance,” she says, but in fact Italy has a long history of famine. “People needed to rethink their way of cooking and interacting with food precisely because of social necessities. And then you understand why the pig became important. You understand why they became so good at preserving prosciutto and salami because the year was long and you needed food in storage to survive the year.”

With a syllabus that includes wine, cheese, pasta, pizza, and Nutella as subjects, Del Soldato uses ingredients to explore Italian history and language. “Food is a way to access the cultural history of Italy,” Del Soldato says, “Through the history of the ingredients, we investigate Italian history and culture in the past, present, and potentially the future.”

A historic cookbook with illustrations of food and a chef, with the words "il mio libra cucina famiglia e pasticceria"
Dustjacket to the 13th edition of Il mio libro cucina di famiglia e pasticceria (Rome 1950-1), from the Nick Malgieri Culinary Archive and Library. The Libraries at Penn contain “extensive culinary collections,” says curator John Pollack. (Image: Kislak Center)

Common misconceptions include the prevalence of the tomato, a New World crop, which is a relatively recent ingredient in the Italian cuisine. Although pizza has been around since the 10th century, “we had to wait until the 18th century for the pasta al Pomodoro and the red pizza that we have today,” Del Soldato says.

While students often arrive with the idea that “everything was born within Italy,” Del Soldato challenges that conception. It was not until the 19th century that Italy became a unified country, so the cultural “Italian” bloc didn’t exist, she says. Instead, the cuisine—and food-related language—varied widely by region and was subject to intercultural exchange. “Italy was at the center of the Mediterranean and was not a closed culture,” she says. “It was fascinating to my students to discover the Arabic influence [through coffee], the Jewish influence [eggplant].”

In Italian culture, festivals and feast days showcase an abundant of rich, meat- and cream-based foods. “They show to us the conception we have about food is extremely volatile and changes over the centuries,” says Del Soldato. “The problem is that many times when you think about history, you think about kings and queens and beautiful banquets. When instead, there is this underground history, these less glamourous sides about Italian culture and food.”

Del Soldato is from Tuscany, which is famous for its soups. “These are made so that you don’t trash leftovers but use as much as possible, precisely because Tuscany has a peasant culture,” she says. “Today they are served to tourists as refined food, but when these recipes were invented they were borne out of necessity.”

To reveal these “less glamourous sides” of Italian cuisine, Del Soldato collaborates with curator John Pollack to bring history to life in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, where Penn houses the Gondi-Medici collection. This is a “large collection of Renaissance account books, like ledger books for households, for a number of very important households in Italy,” Pollack says.

“When you think about old books, you think about beautiful books, but these are very ugly documents,” says Del Soldato. “At the same time, they provide you with great information about this rich important family in Tuscany. You can see what they were eating on different days of the week. You can see if there was a famine. You can see how much things cost, what was considered a luxury product, and what was considered easy to buy.”

Smiling woman in Venice, Italy
Eva Del Soldato is associate professor of Romance Languages, graduate chair of Italian Studies, and graduate group member, Program in Comparative Literature & Literary Theory. (Image: Eva Del Soldato)  

Del Soldato and Pollack read the accounts together with the students, working through the barriers of language and time. “It was a very satisfying experience,” Del Soldato says, “because students could say, ‘I learned new skills while learning about a topic that is important to my main field of research.’”

“We have really extensive culinary collections, books of recipes, food, and culture in lots of different sources,” Pollack says. Del Soldato’s “course is such a great fit because of the collections we’ve been building. There’s quite a global reach.”

For many students, the course was their first introduction to handling rare books. “We want to present these things not just for the most scholarly of scholars but bring them to students and allow them to make discoveries,” Pollack says. “It’s often someone who is totally new who asks the most insightful question about an old document. We put these primary sources in front of students, allow them to look at them, to read them, to learn from them. Even in a world where students can’t be in front of the documents physically, we can put them in front of them digitally.”

Pollack and the Kislak Center are busy preparing for the upcoming semester. Most of the Gondi-Medici archive has been digitized through ongoing, grant-funded initiatives, Pollack says. This fall, the Kislak Center will do “what we always do, which is to support the faculty, support the students, support the investigative process of research. We’re here to not just take care of materials but to make the process interesting and exciting. We can still do that digitally and make the process fun and new.

“My thinking now is that there’s a lot we can do to tailor individual research projects to students,” Pollack says. “Whether you can already read Latin, or if you’re encountering Renaissance documents for the first time, we can help you.”

A narrow old book displays a list in Italian
The ledger of miscellaneous accounts of Caterina Gondi, Florence, 1711-1713. “When you think about old books, you think about beautiful books, but these are very ugly documents,” Del Soldato says. (Image: Kislak Center)

Del Soldato is looking forward to continuing to engage with students in Italian studies, where she particularly enjoys teaching 500-level courses, which foster collaboration between graduate and undergraduate students. She is planning for a 500-level course on Plato and Aristotle in the Renaissance in the spring. “With this kind of course, which mixes graduate and undergraduate students, the great thing is that, no pun intended, everyone brings something to the table,” Del Soldato says.