Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911) is the author of what is known as the ‘Bible of Italian cuisine’: La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene.
Pellegrino Artusi was born Forlimpopoli, Romagna, which at that time was part of the Papal States. His father was a middle class merchant and a grocer by profession.
On 25 January 1851, together with his family, Pellegrino was the victim of a famous episode of kidnapping by the Passator Cortese. All the richest people of the town were at the theatre following a comic opera but at the beginning of II Act. a large group of bandits appeared on the stage pointing their weapons to the spectators, demanding all their money and gold. Stefano Pelloni, known as il Passator in Romagna, was at their head. In Romagna he is famous in popular lore as a sort of Robin Hood but he was not more than a violent murderer.
The sister of Pellegrino was raped during the two hours and half stand off and went mad afterward, dyeing in a mental asylum.
It was then the Artusi family decided to move to Florence where they felt safer.
Pellegrino in in 1865 Florence decided to quit the trade of his father and pursue his main passions: gastronomy and literature. He authored a biography of Ugo Foscolo and then a critique of some letters written by Giuseppe Giusti, at that time very popular in Tuscany.
His two self-published books did not sell well.
In 1891 he published a book on cuisine, which after a difficult start became a best seller. It is a collection of recipes and it is a written in good Italian, which is full of Artusi’s typical dry wit and bonhomie.
When Pellegrino passed away in 1911 his book had gone through 14 editions and it is still in print today in several countries where it is known simply as The Artusi having been translated in English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian.
Here is what Artusi tell us about the publication of his book, in the introduction of his work. It is a story which would sound familiar – and hopefully offer some consolation – to thousand of frustrated would be authors.
I had just completed my book, when a learned friend came to visit me in Florence, nonetheless than Francesco Trevisan, a teacher of Italian Literature at the Scipione Maffei Institute in Verona.
He is a learned doctor for studies on Ugo Foscolo and had been elected a member of the committee formed to erect a monument to the poet of the “Sepolcri.’
I had the pleasure to have him as my guest in our house and I just though proper ask him an opinion about my culinary book. But, poor me, after having examined the fruits of my labour for so many years, he passed this sentence: ‘This is a book which will sell very little.’
I was stunned but not fully convinced of his opinion, and in fact it rekindled my desire to let the public judge it. I then asked to a famous publisher in Florence, hoping that remembering that I had spent a large amount of personal money to print some other publications and having very friendly relations with them, they would cast a benign eye on my work. To encourage them I propose to them that I would participated to the expenses of the publication and, to demonstrate my culinary abilities, after sending my manuscript, I invited them for supper at my home.
Vain hopes, because one of them, after having meditated a long time on my proposal came back to say that: “If you work had been written by Doney, then, yes we could speak about it with some concreteness.”
I answered him that “If really this was a work of Doney, probably no one would understand a thing, like for his large opus ‘The King of the Cooks’ while with my practical manual if one know how to held a ladle in his hand, he would manage something out of kitchen.”
We should remember that an editor doesn’t care if a book is good or bad, useful or obnoxious, to them it is only important that it sell well and to this end they look for a famous name on the cover hoping that, under his wings, it will fly very far.
Knowing another important publisher in Milan I wrote to them, since they were publishing every kind of stuff. I had hopes that in their farrago of titles they would find also a sub-section for my modest book. You will understand how humiliating was to receive their dry answer: “We don’t trouble ourselves with kitchen books.”
“Let’s end this story!” I told to myself “I don’t want to beg their help and let’s go on and publish it all at my risk.”
Soon I went to the typography of Salvatore Landi but while I was discussing the conditions I had the idea of offering it to a larger publisher. And being more suited to such kind of publications, I found him more well disposed than the others, they offered me 200 lire to give away my copyrights. This I mention just to show how low in estimation books on cuisine had fallen in Italy! On receiving such miserable proposal I lost my temper and decided to go back to Landi and had it printed at my risk. I was afraid of a fiasco so I decided to publish only 1.000 copies. Soon after publication there was a fund-raising fair in Forlimpopoli, my native town, and a friend wrote to ask if I could send two copies of my book on Ugo Foscolo but since I had exhausted all copies I sent two copies of my ‘Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.’
What a mistake! They told me that those who won those two copies were so displeased that went right away to sell them to a tobacco shop. That was not the last upsetting news because, having sent a copy to a magazine in Rome – I was a subscriber – asking them to review it but instead of my review I found it only in the list of the books received with the title misspelled.
After so many cudgel blows on my head finally a man genius came forward and he took up my cause: Paolo Mantegazza. He found with his typical great intuition that my work had some merit and could be useful in the kitchen of several Italian families, for he wrote me saying: “Giving us this book you have done a great service and therefore I wish 100 editions of it.”
“Too many!” I answered “Two editions will be more than enough for me!” and then he spoke about my book in two of his conferences, praising it to sky.
I then took courage and because copies were selling I wrote a stern letter to my friend in Forlimpopoli complaining about the two people who had resold it to the tobacconist. The first edition slowly sold and then, but always hesitantly, since I was not myself convinced, I reprinted again only 1000 copies. It sold faster and then a bit emboldened I ordered a third edition of 3000 copies and then a fourth and fifth again, always of 3000 copies. Then on a short distance of time six more editions of 4.000 each. With the passing of time my manual was becoming popular so I decided to print the next 3 editions to a level of 6.000 copies each, having reached the number 52.000 copies sold. When I discovered new recipes I inserted them right away (since the culinary art knows no end). This sales were greatly comforting because I saw even important professors buying a copy of it. Happy about the results I wanted to offer to the public some editions which were more and more elegant and having received the impression from my printer that he did not care much about it, one day I told him: “It seems that also to you my work taste bad, and now I tell you with a aching heart, with the tendency of our century to move more and more towards hedonism, I can tell that there will be a day, not so far, when books like mine – which are light to the mind and nourishing to the body – will be sought after and read more than the work of great scientists.”
Blind those who can’t see it coming! The world of the anchorites and of the seducing ideals is at the end; the world is rushing towards – indeed more than it should – to the springs of pleasure, but if one could temper this mad rush with some moral temperance he will be the winner.
I end it here my jabbering thanking the publishers Bemporad of Florence which are now in charge of publishing and distributing my manual.