Lost in Translation – a critical review of the Scully translation of Scappis ‘Opera’.

The good

If you are at all interested in presenting a true Italian Renaissance feast, as opposed to something perioid cobbled together from both modern and medieval sources then buy this book.  There are over 1000 recipes plus variations at a current cost between $75 and $90 (dependent upon supplier).  It is an incredibly well valued book.
The other texts most often used by re-enactors for “Italian” feasts include Martino [1, 2] and Platina [3] that are really late medieval rather than truly renaissance.  The best renaissance cook books are those by Messisbugo [4] and Scappi [5, 6].
That said the re-enactment cook faces several issues both minor and major in recreating recipes from this text, all of which stem from problems with the translation.  I have been working with Scappi and other 16th century Italian sources for over 8 years, I have a familiarity with the food, the culture and have spent the last three months going through the book recipe by recipe to spot the areas where I and Scully disagree.  This is the result.

The bad

Book 1 recipe 4 – strutto – translated as good rendered fat is given in the recipe as fresh kidney fat melted with water and clarified is functionally lard, i.e. good leaf lard.

Book 1 recipe 6 – lardo – translated as lard, the recipe describes a salted pork back fat, which when melted is not lard, it is bacon grease.  This is defined throughout the work as pork fat, when really it should be salted pork fat, it brings a completely different flavor profile to the dish, not to mention salt.

Book 2, recipe 8 – melangole – translated as orange juice.  Scully defines this juice as that from sour oranges in the footnotes, but each subsequent use it is simply given as orange juice.  The majority of orange use in Scappi is sour orange.  Specific instances of half sweet oranges and sweet oranges are specifically defined in the text as melangole de mezo sapore or melangole dolce.  Again a huge difference in flavor profile.

Book 2, recipe 15- coscia – the meat cut is defined as beef shank, given other dictionaries and the recipe itself it is more likely to be round steak.

Book 2, recipe 19 – cipollette – translated by Scully as spring onions, which will be interpreted by most to mean green onions, when in effect this literally translated means small onions, equivalent to a shallot.  These onions are often stewed or fried and served with various foods, which would render green onions slimy, best to use sweet onions or shallots not green onions.

Book 2, recipe 169 – giuncata – translated as curdled milk, best translated as junket or rennet set milk.

Book 2 recipe 185 – formentone – in 2006 following a lead from Italian Cuisine [7] I decided to try and determine if this was maize or not.  An Italian work on the subject [8] indicated that formentone was one of the many names given to maize in the early days as well as biade, formento indiano, formento turco, fromento giallo, gran turco, and biava.  At that time and still I agree with Capatti that this is a recipe for new world maize and I disagree with Scully that this is einkorn.  For a full description of the sources and other information on maize and other new world foods see: http://www.geocities.com/helewyse/newworld.pdf

Book 2, recipe 198 – cavoli cappucci – headed cabbages, a smooth leaved pointed head cabbage, similar to plain green cabbage, not a savoy or crinkly type.

Book 2, recipe 215 –  - identified through the description in Castelvetro [9, 10] as the St. Georges mushroom, Scully gives two potential mushrooms as equivalent, including Tricholoma georgii which is the old latin name for Calocybe gambosum.  But the mushroom certainly isn’t an agaric.

Book 2, recipe 218 – zucche nostrale – identification of lagnaria squash as crook neck squash without making separation from new world squash apparent.

Book 2, recipe 233 – sottostare – translated as braise which under certain circumstances is correct but others is inaccurate.  It is a cooking method which can be described as ‘to cook under’ generally under a lid or closed pot under coals.  A braise is a moist heat cooking method but not all dishes put ‘sottostare’ have liquid and so can not be considered a braise.

Book 2, recipe 255 pignocatti – translated as pinenut paste, given recipes from other sources it would best be described as a pine nut candy, similar to praline.

Book 2, recipe 270 – limoncelli – translated as lime by Scully, literal translation is little lemon.  At no point in Opera does Scappi call for a lemon (limone), which makes me wonder.  Digging through various agricultural and dietetic texts of the same time period has led to descriptions of the fruits grown in the region at the time as citron, pumello, sour orange and lemon, with no mention anywhere else of limes.  To this date little of the citrus crop in Italy is limes, in fact limes are grown in more tropical locations.  No other cook books before or after use limes, all use lemons.  I wonder if the use of limoncelli by Scappi is a reference to a particular small lemon rather than a large Amalfi lemon.

Book 3, recipe 238 – cavolo nero – translated as dark crispy cabbage, known in the US and purchasable as either black kale or dinosaur kale.

The ugly

The one problem that eclipses all others is simply one of weights and measures.  Opera and other late renaissance cookbooks are unique in SCA period books in that the actual amounts of ingredients are specified in the recipes by weight and volume.  However, if you get these wrong it will throw off everything.

The best source for understanding the complicated weights and measures in use in the varying city states of the Italian peninsula (which wasn’t a unified country at that time) is Italian weights and measures by Zupko [11].  Sadly this invaluable book is not referenced by Scully in his translation of Scappi.  Consequently on page 84 Scully assumes (his word) a pound of sixteen ounces.  However, Zupko indicates that the Italian ‘libra’ was almost universally twelve ounces except for certain cities which had a ‘libra grossa’ which could be 18-24 ounce.  However, the libra grossa existed along side the standard libra and was always identified as such in texts.  No libra grossa existed for Rome during Scappis time and no Italian pound (even a libra grossa) was ever 16oz.

The problem is that this compounds itself throughout the book.  Scappi himself indicates that a liquid volume, the ‘foglietta’ is a libra and a half in weight and that a boccale is four foglietta.
Thus if we compare the various weights and measures we find this:
Zupko (researched)
Scully (assumped)
Libra (pound)
12 oz; 317 -325g
16 oz; 454g
1 cup; 0.2-0.24L
2 cups; 0.5L
1 pint; 450ml
1.5 pint; 667 ml (2/3 L)
4 pints; 1.82L
6 pints; 2.7 L

Be careful then when using Scullys measurements, when he gives 2/3 liter that is a foglietta and should be less than 1/2 liter and so on.
The Italian version of Scappi is available for free online at:
So the original recipes can be checked for the original term.
If you have any questions about a recipe and you think that there is something odd about the instructions then I am more than happy to look it up and let you know what I think.

Why this matters:

Book 5, recipe 45 is a recipe for a French cream pie.  A filling is made of flour, milk and eggs (very much like a crème patisserie).

Ingredient Zupko measurements Scully measurements
Milk (cow or goat 1.5 pints 2 pints
Sugar 4 oz 4 oz
Butter little little
Rosewater little little
Salt little little
Flour 4 oz 4 oz
Eggs 6 6

Book 7 recipe 142 for biscotti, the basic proportions are essentially those of a sponge cake as shown below.

Ingredient Zupko Scully Sponge
Eggs 15 15 1
Sugar 2.5 libra 30 oz (2:1) 42 oz (2.8:1) 2 oz (2:1)
Flour 2.5 libra 30 oz (2:1) 42 oz (2.8:1) 2 oz (2:1)
Aniseed ½ oz ½ oz n/a


1.    Martino, M., Ricettario di Maestro Martino, in Urbinate Latino 1203. Mid 15th century: Vatican.
2.    Martino, M., Ricettario di Maestro martino, in Riva del Garda. Mid 15th century.
3.    Platina and M.E. Milham, Platina, on right pleasure and good health : a critical edition and translation of De honesta voluptate et valetudine. 1998, Tempe, Ariz.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies. ix, 511 p.
4.    Messisbugo, C., Libro Novo Nel Qual S'insegna a' far d'ogni Sorte de Vivanda. 1557, Venetia.
5.    Scappi, B., Opera : (dell' arte del cucinare).  Reprint. First published: Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi. Venice, 1570. 1981, Bologna: Arnaldo Forni. [20], 436 leaves [ca. 888 p.], [28] p. of plates.
6.    Scappi, B. and T. Scully, The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) : l'arte et prudenza d'un maestro cuoco. 2008, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
7.    Capatti, A. and M. Montanari, Italian cuisine : a cultural history. Arts and traditions of the table. 2003, New York: Columbia University Press. xx, 348 p.
8.    Gasparini, D., Polenta e formenton: Il mais nelle campagne venete tra XVI e XX secolo. 2002, Verona: Cierre edizioni.
9.    Castelvetro, G., Brieve racconto di tutte le radici, di tutte l'erbe e di tutti i frutti che crudi o cotti in Italia si mangiano. 1614, In Londra, M.DC.XIV.
10.    Castelvetro, G. and G. Riley, The fruit, herbs & vegetables of Italy : an offering to Lucy, Countess of Bedford. 1989, London, England New York, N.Y., USA
11.    Zupko, R.E., Italian weights and measures from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, v. 145. 1981, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Copyright – this is the work of Mistress Helewyse de Birkestad (Louise Smithson), translations etc  done in March 2009.  Permission is given to use this work and translations provided that the author is given credit.  Please also let me know if you are using my stuff, I find it interesting to know what people are doing with my translations, feasts and class notes.  My email is helewyse at yahoo dot com.