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The (bittersweet) tastes of the archive


A Baroque chocolate recipe; a monument to slavery in the port of Livorno; a miniaturized Medici galleon: three "documents" less transparent than one could expect. I propose here a brief excursion on the paradoxes and contradictions that are the 'materia prima' —the bittersweet tastes— of any archive.

Written —and, even more, handwritten—recipes always treasure both a secret and a promise. They place the readers in the threshold of different times. They record and open up some secrets of the past and they give the keys to translate these secrets in the future tense, or at least in the present. Alchemic, enigmatic, even in the most telegraphic form recipes make us dream of perfect results. Deceptions do not matter. The recipe always keeps its aura, even when an ingredient or a measure was forgotten and the promise not completely kept. We will try next time to discover what it is missing.

To unexpectedly discover a handwritten recipe in an archive found me unprepared. Among the hundreds of documents detailing diplomatic duties, chronicles, inventories and wills, I was surprised to come across a folio entitled “Per fare della cioccolata perfettissima” or “To make a very perfect chocolate” in the archives of the Marquis Ferdinando Cospi (1606-1686), the Bolognese collector whose public museum gathered the most spectacular objects and species from different spaces and times1. The document is undated, but must have been written in the mid seventeenth century.

The recipe lists four ingredients to make that perfect chocolate:

  • Black cocoa of Caracca of the freshest sort available
  • Fresh and odorous vanilla
  • Cinnamon Regina
  • White sugar of Lisbon

The author notes that in the port of Livorno, all these ingredients can be easily found (e il tutto si potrà provvedere in Livorno). He then gives the quantities for each ingredient, in “Bologna units of measurements”. I have not found out yet precisely what these were. But this afternoon, I tried to mix what I had in the kitchen (the cacao amaro my grandmother used when I was a child, now bought on Arthur Avenue, in the Bronx; sugar, an extract of vanilla and cinnamon in powder from the supermarket around the corner) with water and I am drinking this version of the ricetta del Seicento right now. I am not very convinced. Perhaps with that fresh cocoa grains of Caracca, fresh and odorous vanilla, cinnamon Regina and white sugar of Lisbon, and finding out the exact quantities, not to mention the fact that the original recipe indicates that all the ingredients must be strictly mashed in a mortar, my chocolate today would taste different…

Yet, the aura is not completely gone. I found other flavors in this archival document —other tastes, as the French historian Arlette Farge would say2. Here are these unexpected tastes:

~ The recipe details the provenance of the four elements and their availability on the Italian market: in spite of the scattered origins of the ingredients, and the impeccable and pricy quality required3, to make a perfect chocolate in Bologna in the mid-Seventeenth century was possible if one had the good contacts in Livorno —which Ferdinando Cospi had, through the Medici. In the port of Livorno, one could easily acquire the merchandise coming from all around the world:

  • cocoa of Caracca —literally, “from Caracas” (today known as Venezuelan Cocoa, or criollo, or porcelana cocoa)
  • vanilla —from New Spain (or vanilla planifolia, also known in Náhuatl, as tlilxuchitl, or tlilxochitl)
  • cinnamon Regina (Queen) —from Ceylon (Cinnamomum verum or Cinnamomum zeylanicum, today  known as Ceylon cinnamon)
  • sugar of Lisbon — most probably arrived in Lisbon from Africa’s Gold Coast or Brazilian sugar cane plantations.

Caracas, New Spain, Ceylon, Africa, Brazil: a chocolate drink tasted in the Bologna palace of the Marquis Ferdinando Cospi or in his museum —perhaps in the company of its custodian, Sebastiano Biavati— contained and mixed four continents: America, Asia, Africa and Europe, if we add the water that was gathered from a local source, most probably even from the very home spring.

~ The recipe points to the new species observed and described by naturalists all around the world 4. But, even though more indirectly, the recipe also points to the labor which was implied in the cultivation and world-scale circulation of these very four elements —sugar, cacao5, cinnamon and vanilla6 — in Asia, Africa and Americas. Above all, forced labor: in the encomiendas7, and in sugar plantations.

~ Forced labor, and slavery in particular was not only a reality of the overseas plantations looked to from afar. Slavery was also visible in the very port of Livorno where slaves were sold but also represented. Still today, tourists in the Italian city can see in the Piazza Micheli a sinister  “monument of the four moors”, also  known as Slaves, in chains, completed in 1624 by the Italian sculptor Pietro Tacca. Sinister and yet a masterpiece, artistically speaking. Apparently, Tacca portrayed actual individuals, which shows in the expressions. Even if the artist staged the scene, there is something real that exceeds any fiction.

~ To buy the four ingredients for a “cioccolata perfettissima” in the port of Livorno meant inevitably to be reminded of the interdependence between global economy, goods circulation and forced labor. The project for the monument had been initiated by the Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici and will be brought to completion by his son, Cosimo II de’ Medici. The monument celebrated in particular the campaigns of the Order of the Knights of of Saint Stephen8 in North Africa and against the Ottoman Empire where “moors” were enslaved. The Grand Duke Ferdinando I is represented in Carrara marble on the pedestal wearing the uniform of the Order. The statue (sculpted by Giovanni Bandini, already in 15959) was erected in 1617 by his son Cosimo II, who commissioned to Pietro Tacca the bronze figures of the slaves that will be later incorporated to the monument.

Not surprisingly, in 1616 (one year before the display of the marble statue of Grand Duke Ferdinando I), the Bolognese Ferdinando Cospi was also made knight of the Order of Saint Stephen, at the age of ten; that same year, to avoid future direct military involvement (servizio sulle galere —galley service), Ferdinando became page of Cosimo II de’ Medici10. Later in life, Cospi will receive from his friend and protector a scale model of a Medici galleon that recalls from one side the hard reality Cospi escaped, but also the story of circulation, labor, and goods told in different ways by the chocolate recipe and by daily activities in the market of Livorno itself11.

From a chocolate recipe to a monument oddly celebrating, but also reminding slavery, and then to a miniaturized galleon which could contain and transport the four elements for a perfect chocolate, but which also recalls the real life of captains and slaves, and even stands as the symbol of a subtraction: Cospi’s, being a knight of the Order of Saint Stephen without having to travel and fight on that galley… I find this brief excursion, inspired by the ricetta per fare una cioccolata perfettissima, somewhat paradigmatic of the (bittersweet) tastes of the archive: sweet and dreamy as an old recipe promises, but also bitter and somewhat unheimlich

Aren’t these the different and even contradictory ingredients of any material with which the historian needs to be able to deal, in order to think and create?

Last Updated 4 years ago


Alessandra Russo, « The (bittersweet) tastes of the archive », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on November 20, 2014. Full URL for this article

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