Page spread from The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), a cookbook written by the private chef of Pope Pius V (all images courtesy Museo della Cucina)

If there’s one thing Italians are known for, it is zipping around on Vespas without a care in the world — but a close second would of course be the country’s long and delicious history of cuisine. The Museo della Cucina, opening in May, will be dedicated to exploring one of Italy’s great passions. The institution stands on the spot of Rome’s first legendary meal: Palatine Hill, where Romulus and Remus were breastfed by the she-wolf Lupa more than 2,700 years ago, according to Roman mythology, and subsequently returned to found the city.

Italian food has come a long way since then, and every twist and turn of the last 500 years is documented by the new museum and library, which features a collection of 120 cookbooks; displays of implements, pastry and chocolate molds, and utensils; and an array of artifacts that will offer visitors food for thought and thoughts on food.

A display containing centuries’ worth of chocolate molds

“Cooking as a way of reading contemporary history has often been underrated,” the museum’s director, Matteo Ghirighini, told the BBC. “Cooking is a product of its time and it can tell us a lot about customs, ways of thinking, specific economic and political situations. So, a cookbook is often much more than it seems.”

Highlights from the book collection include a copy of the oldest mass-printed cookbook, Bartolemeo Platina’s On Honourable Pleasure and Health (1474); The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), written by the titular private chef of Pope Pius V; and a valuable first edition of Casa Artusi’s 1891 book Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, which attempted to make Italian cuisine more widely accessible.

Bartolemeo Platina’s On Honourable Pleasure and Health (1474)
An exhibition of kitchen tools at the Museo della Cucina

“Artusi was like the first food blogger,” Laila Tentoni, president of Italy’s renowned Casa Artusi centre for gastronomy in Forlimpopoli, told the BBC. “Artusi suggests to be simple, to use local, seasonal and quality products.” (As the first food blogger, Artusi also included charming yet interminable stories about encounters with the food in question before letting the reader just get to the darn recipe.)

Books on confections from the Museo della Cucina’s collection

Though the library’s books are in Italian, Ghirighini promises that the text will be available in English once the digital collection is up and running — which means that soon, a wider audience will be able to enjoy crispy frog livers fit for a pope, or Artusi’s signature eel pie … or at least read about them. Other titles explore the influence of French cuisine, disseminated into Northern Italy through their shared border region, and deeply influential to the development of some of the country’s signature flavors.

A 19th century Charlotte mold

“The books in the museum contain the first printed recipes of all the most iconic dishes of the gastronomic culture of [Italy and France], from tomato sauce to supplì (rice croquettes) and panettone, from macarons to meringues,” Ghirighini told the BBC.

Certainly, visitors will welcome a new destination, even in a city already brimming with a wealth of historic wonders, odd institutions, and Berninis everywhere — because one needs a lot of walking to balance out the expert-recommended several servings of gelato a day. In fact, it was purportedly Apicius, the first-century Roman gourmand, who coined the phrase “We eat first with our eyes,” so it’s satisfying to know Rome has founded a new institution where visitors can do just that. Mangia! Mangia!

Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...