Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Hot and the Dead – Giacomo Castelvetro

Written by

Isn’t it nice, sitting there, reading things on the internet, maybe eating a biscuit, not being terribly concerned about somebody breaking down your front door and dragging you away because you’re not Catholic enough.

Now spare a thought for all those poor sods in the 16th Century Italy who weren’t so lucky. The people without internet. The people without biscuits. The people questioned, harassed and punished by the Roman Inquisition. Now concentrate your thoughts on the good-looking ones with lovely hands and beautifully starched ruffs. See the one with the ebony hair and soul-mining eyes? That’s Giacomo Castelvetro.

It’s fair to say that Catholicism was fairly popular in Italy when Castelvetro was born in Modena in 1546. Around that time, Protestantism was a bit like instant coffee – if people had it in their houses, they wouldn’t say so in public. So when Giacomo’s uncle Lodovico was declared a heretic in 1557 for translating Protestant texts, the Castelvetro family began entertaining the idea of moving somewhere else. The eighteen-year-old Giacomo and his brother were smuggled to their uncle’s home in Geneva in 1564.

After travelling around the more accommodating parts of northern Europe for a few years, the now decidedly-Protestant Giacomo returned to Italy in 1578 when his father died. By this time, the Holy See was even less tolerant of non-Catholics, and Giacomo knew he risked his life by hanging around in his homeland. He sold his stuff and moved to England.

Ever the traveller, Castelvetro spent the next couple of decades writing, translating and tutoring in English and Italian, befriending many European rulers and courtiers, marrying the much-older Isotta de Canonici (widow of physician and theologian Thomas Erastus) in Switzerland, teaching Italian language and culture to King James VI of Scotland, visiting Denmark and Sweden and then settling down in Venice in 1598. That’s when things started getting a little bit uncomfortable.

The Roman Inquisition was well and truly up-and-running by the beginning of the 17th century. Practising sorcery, witchcraft, blasphemy, Judaism or Protestantism would get you slapped with a heresy charge, which was a big deal. It was a bit like getting a big red frowny-face stamp from the Pope, but with a lot more dungeons and burning pants.

Giacomo’s brother was burned at the stake in 1609. Two years later, Giacomo himself was imprisoned by the Inquisition, but because he was officially in the service of King James I at the time, he was able to be rescued by the Ambassador to the Venetian Republic, Sir Dudley Carleton. He returned to England with his pants intact and had a nice cup of tea.

Now Giacomo turned to writing, and decided upon a topic that had troubled him greatly since he first set foot on England’s shores. It wasn’t the dreadful weather. It wasn’t the threat of the Spanish Armada. It wasn’t the smallpox. It was the vegetables. There were no salads.

Castelvetro noticed lots of meat and pudding on English plates, but not much else. Elsewhere in Europe, people were tucking into spinach and asaparagus, figs and truffles, and Giacomo wanted to bring the colours, flavours and digestive assistance of plants to the kitchens of his adopted home. So in 1614 he published The Fruit, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy, which gave descriptions of the garden-grown foods he had enjoyed on the continent, interspersed with anecdotes about country life. It’s just as well he’d been liberated from the clutches of the Inquisition, or the British might never have learned how to cook beans, or that northern Italian children learned to swim using old pumpkins as floaties.

Two years after the publication of his book, Giacomo Castelvetro died after a long illness, aged 69. Author, tutor, religious refugee and one of the reasons you know about broccoli.

Giacomo Castelvetro


Shelley Stocken

Shelley Stocken is a freelance writer when she’s not feeding, clothing and wiping family members.

Follow her on twitter @shellity
More in this category: « 67 Women My 40th job application »