The Chef’s Secret
CHAPTER 1 Giovanni
Roma, April 14, 1577
Word traveled fast at the Vaticano, even during the darkness of night. Within an hour of Bartolomeo Scappi’s passing, serving women from all over the palazzo had come to the chef’s bedside, crying for the man they had loved and respected. They keened and wept, tearing at their hair, their skin, and clothing, their wails filling the gilded halls. Francesco Reinoso, the Vaticano scalco, ordered the staff to bring candles, and soon they filled the room with their glow, lighting up the shadows and illuminating the faces of the mourners. As papal steward, Francesco always kept things in order, even when his best friend was before him on the bier.
I sat in the corner and watched, lost and helpless, as two of the kitchen servants helped my mother, Caterina, and her maid bathe and dress my late uncle Bartolomeo. Of course, these women needed not take on this macabre task—the servants who reported to Francesco were more than capable, but they insisted, such was their love for my uncle. The heavy odor of rosewater hung in the air as they perfumed Bartolomeo’s skin. It broke my heart to breathe in the scent. It was a smell he had loved, using the floral essence to flavor thousands of dishes in his kitchen.
For the last eleven of my thirty years, I had worked as an apprentice to Bartolomeo, a lion of a man who spent his days fussing over pots of boiling meats, scribbling elaborate seating arrangements on thin parchment, directing kitchen servants on which pies to bake and how many ducks to cook. Being related to Bartolomeo Scappi was a great honor. As the celebrated private chef to several popes, he was lauded in circles all over Italy, and countless cardinali, nobles, kings, and queens had fallen under the spell of his cuisine as I had. I always thought him invincible. And he had been, until five days past when sickness broke his spirit and laid him low. During his illness, I eschewed my duties in the kitchen and remained by his side, ever my uncle’s braccio destro, his right hand, as he often referred to me. He was more to me than my maestro; he was also the father I never had, my own having died of plague before I was born. To see him stretched out before me, his eyes closed, his skin so pale and cold, seemed inconceivable.
“Giovanni,” Francesco said, laying a hand on my shoulder. “We are ready to move him.”
I nodded my assent and watched with a heavy heart as eight men lifted Bartolomeo’s body onto a stretcher to carry him to the nearby Cappella Sistina, where the vigil would continue. I followed. As I entered the chapel adorned with breathtaking frescoes of the pagan sibyls and figures of the Old Testament, I thought how fitting it was for my uncle to lie beneath the magnificent paintings of Michelangelo, a man he once called friend.
Throughout the night and into the early morning, everyone the chef knew came to the chapel to pay their respects, light a candle, and share their condolences.
Relief flooded through me when Valentino arrived. He was my dearest friend and knew me better than any other. When I was nine and my mother had decided she was tired of Tivoli and moved us to Roma, I came to know Valentino Pio da Carpi and we became friends
despite our difference in station. One of Valentino’s great-uncles was Agostino Chigi, the famously wealthy Roman banker. Between the Chigi wealth on his mother’s side and the riches of the Carpi family on his father’s, Valentino was a man who would want for nothing in his life. But the money had never mattered to Valentino. He loved me like a brother. And I him.
I caught his eye as he entered the chapel, which was full of flickering candlelight that illuminated the frescoes covering the walls and ceiling. I had been in the cappella dozens of times, but always during the day. At night it held a strange magic that was difficult to explain. The paintings seemed larger, the saints even more beautiful and imposing. I was glad Pope Gregory had allowed special dispensation for the chapel’s use. How Francesco had managed it I did not know and did not ask.
My best friend lived in a magnificent palazzo not far from the Vaticano. His mother, Serafina, accompanied him, the shadow of her cloak masking most of her face. Valentino led her through the ornate gilded door in the marble screen at the end of the chapel and across the black and white circles of tile. I stood to greet him.
“Gio, oh, Gio. We came as soon as we heard.” Valentino shook his head as he neared, his long dark hair falling into his eyes. “Your sorrow is my sorrow.” He pulled me close in a strong hug.
“Thank you for coming,” I said. “Francesco sent for you?”
“Yes, God bless that man. Always making sure the world is running, even when his own heart must be breaking.” Serafina pushed past her son and enveloped me in an embrace, her frail arms full of surprising strength. She smelled like lavender. “I loved your uncle,” she whispered in my ear. “He never failed to make me smile.” Her tears wet the collar of my vest.
As she pulled away, her hood slid back to reveal her soft, elegant features, which still held a hint of the beauty she must have been. I was thankful for her compassion. A boy of Valentino’s standing should
not have befriended an apprentice like me, but Serafina never blinked an eye, accepting me graciously into their home and their lives. It was part of what made me love her so much—she was generous almost to a fault, caring for her servants as though they were family, never minding what the rest of the aristocracy thought.
Valentino glanced over to where Bartolomeo lay. “How is your mother doing?”
My mother sat next to her brother, staring at his silent form, her fingers rubbing her rosary beads. She had been close to Bartolomeo, and if my grief felt like weights upon me, I could not imagine how much heavier was the burden she bore.
“As well as can be,” I said. “You know how close they were.”
Valentino put a hand on his mother’s shoulder. “Go to her, Mamma. She told me once how much she admired you. Perhaps you can give her comfort.”
Serafina nodded and walked away, wiping her eye with the back of her glove just before she put a hand on my mother’s shoulder. The two women held each other and sobbed.
Valentino smiled a little. “Women are always adept with tears, are they not?”
“Agreed. But so am I today.”
“They are honorable tears, for an honorable man. But what happened? How could he have become so sick?”
I shivered. “The doctor said Bartolomeo was no force against la polmonite. His lungs would not clear.”
Valentino lowered his head. “Today is a dark day. You’ll bury him at alla Regola?”
“Yes, of course!” a gravelly voice answered him from behind.
Virgilio Bossi, one of Bartolomeo’s dearest friends, the man who first helped him find work in Roma. The chiesa of Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio alla Regola was the guild church of the Company of Cooks and Bakers, of which Virgilio had been maestro since before I was old
enough to walk. His personality was bold, a match to Bartolomeo’s, and his hair and beard always appeared wild and slightly unkempt.
The burly man clasped me on the shoulder. “There could be no other resting place for someone as celebrated as Bartolomeo Scappi! Your uncle’s service to the guild will be greatly missed. We will honor his legacy as befitting.”
Virgilio’s wife, Simona, dabbed at her red and puffy eyes with a fringed handkerchief. When she saw Bartolomeo’s body, she let out a cry, rushed to his side, and threw herself upon his supine form. Her sobs came in gulping gasps. My mother and Serafina moved to comfort her.
“Dio mio!” Virgilio swore. He leaned in to me and Valentino, lowering his voice. “Forgive her dramatics. She has been distraught since she heard the news. Your uncle, may he rest in peace, he could charm the ladies, could he not?”
I could not help but chuckle, especially when Valentino made his own snort of laughter. More than one noblewoman had mooned after the charismatic cook. “That he did.” I swallowed hard. “Tell me, Virgilio, what needs to be done for the procession and the funeral? I am at a loss.”
Virgilio grew serious. “Do not worry about a thing. It’s all taken care of. I arranged it with Bartolomeo years ago. Even the marble has been inscribed.”
My mind reeled with the thought of my uncle so prepared that the marble of his headstone was already engraved. I shut my open mouth, working to regain my composure. “What do you mean?”
Virgilio unfastened the button of his cloak and a servant appeared at his elbow to take it from him. “Gio, your uncle is one of the most important men in our entire company. He deserves a fine procession and a grand funeral. The guild is honored to send him off to God like the king of cooks he was.”
Virgilio was right: Bartolomeo would have wanted a grand show. He was the master of spectacle. To imagine less for him at the end
seemed unthinkable. “Thank you,” I managed, choking back another bout of tears.
We discussed the arrangements. Virgilio suggested that members of the guild with the closest relationship to Bartolomeo should carry the bier in the procession. He had already sent men to the chiesa to cut the marble floor where my uncle would be buried. Virgilio had only to ask the priest to arrange the requiem mass and eulogy.
I was relieved that I could rely on Virgilio and glad he had already set many of the wheels in motion.
Finally, he gathered up his wife and made to leave. “We will come for him late morning. Try to get some rest, my boy.”
A hand tapped me on the shoulder. Cardinale Gambara’s elegant red and gold cape rumpled around his shoulders, and there was a crease on his cheek as though he had fallen asleep in his clothes and was roughly awakened. The look in his eyes showed a mixture of sympathy and sadness.
“Your uncle was the best kind of man, Giovanni. He made many people happy with his food and his friendship. We are fortunate to have known him. Now he will know God, so be comforted.”
I didn’t trust myself to speak.
Valentino nudged me, and when I looked away from the cardinale, I found Pope Gregory in front of me. Instinctively, I dropped to my knee and bowed my head. The pope held out his hand for me to kiss his ring. The embossed gold was cold and hard against my lips. It made me think of the headstone that would soon mark the legacy of Bartolomeo’s life. Pope Gregory said a blessing over me and gestured for me to rise, then kissed me on both cheeks.
“May the Lord shine his face upon you, Giovanni, and may you shine your light on the world in his name.”
“Thank you, Your Eminence.”
“Your uncle was a man of admirable service to the papacy. We know you will continue his good work as our cuoco segreto.”
“Yes, Your Holiness, it would be my honor.”
“Excellent.” Pope Gregory gave me a weak smile, then turned his attention to the cardinale.
I sat down, shaking. I had not had many audiences with Gregory, and although I myself did not adhere much to religion, the aged pope always made me nervous. He was a stern man, given to little excess. He had ruled the church and much of Italy with an iron fist for the past five years, implementing drastic reforms to rout out Protestant heretics and designating a committee to update the Index of Forbidden Books, those banned for being anticlerical or lascivious. Bartolomeo had often told me in confidence how little he cared for this pontiff, who was only slightly better than his forbearer, Pope Pius V. Both men subsisted on bread, gruel, a little meat, apples, and water, and the dearth of elaborate banquets that had made Bartolomeo famous—replete with pies packed with birds, peacocks dressed to look alive, statues made of sugar and marzipan, and the intricate, delicate molded gelatins filled with cherries and other fruits, common in the times of Pope Julius III and previous princes in the cardinalate—had left my uncle despondent. Only on rare occasion did the pope let Bartolomeo and me work for other nobles, as we did at the Easter banquet held by the Colonna family a few weeks back.
Instead we cooked bland daily meals, meals uninspiring to a chef of such genius. Still, the pope held a strong liking for my uncle and his work for the church over the years, respecting his knightly title of count palatine and the civic and honorific position of mace bearer, both bestowed upon him by Pius V. These positions elevated him beyond mere chef and guaranteed him specific entitlements as a respected member of the pope’s cabinet. After the banquets of the past disappeared, Bartolomeo and his staff, including me, were left with little to do, but for some reason I had never discerned—money or perhaps security—Bartolomeo chose to remain loyal to the papacy.
Now it was my turn to swear loyalty to the pope, to be his cuoco
segreto, his secret chef, his private cook. An immediate future of barley soup and apples awaited me. I sighed.
Valentino and his mother left shortly afterward, placing kisses on both my cheeks before they departed. The remaining friends, servants, and wailing women trailed out after them. Soon only Caterina and I sat by Bartolomeo’s side.
The image of my uncle lying upon the pillow in death was one I would never forget. He wore a mask of peace, a slight smile turning the corner of his lips. My heart, my head, every part of me ached for the hole my uncle had left.
I pulled up a chair next to my mother. She gave me a grateful smile and leaned her head against me. We sat together in silence, looking through bleary eyes at the no-longer imposing figure on the bed before us.
My mother spoke first. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so quiet. His voice was always booming. He always talked so fast.”
“He was forever excited about something,” I agreed.
“Even the small things. He was always so enthusiastic. He had a way of making you want to believe everything he said, even if you knew it was outrageous.”
I squeezed her shoulder playfully. “Didn’t you?”
“Didn’t I what?”
“Believe everything he said.”
“Mostly,” she said. Then quieter, “Mostly.”
* * *
At some point, Francesco returned for us. He must have been as tired and saddened as we were, but there was no evidence on the man’s fine-lined face. He was, as always, expertly coiffed, his flat black hat flopped in perfect array atop a head of silvered hair.
“I arranged for a room for you tonight, Signora Brioschi,” he
said. My mother lived a short distance away, across the Tevere, not far from the ancient Pantheon, but to return so late was perilous. It had not occurred to me she would need a place to sleep, but of course Francesco had thought of everything.
“Grazie, Francesco. You are too kind.” Caterina kissed us both and departed with one of the maids.
I was grateful for Francesco. He always had everything in order, even when things felt like chaos. We had been colleagues for over a decade, first serving together under Cardinale Michele Ghislieri, he as a steward and me as an apprentice chef. When the cardinale took on the mantle of Pope Pius V, Francesco and I followed him to the Vaticano, where my uncle was working as maestro della cucina. I became Bartolomeo’s apprentice and secondo, and Francesco took on the prestigious duties of papal scalco.
I thanked Francesco for his help that week. He had assisted with some of my supervisory duties while I attended to Bartolomeo in his illness. The other chef who had reported to Bartolomeo, Antonio, was responsible for the main Vaticano kitchen, which serviced the staff and the various clergy living in the palazzo, but he often lacked confidence and needed supervision, a role that now fell to me. As cuoco segreto, I would also oversee the pope’s private kitchen.
Francesco waved a hand at me. “Of course, Giovanni. It is the least I could do for you and Bartolomeo. We are lucky Easter celebrations are past.”
I nodded. “Lucky indeed. Everything depended upon him during those meals. He was a true master. I feel like I hardly learned a tenth of what he knew.”
Francesco shook his head at me. “Do not underestimate yourself, Giovanni. I saw all those sugar sculptures. Few could have orchestrated such a spectacle!”
I thought back to the dinner, and as I recalled the various dishes going out to the table, I realized I was pulling at my hair, fingering
the curls. It was a nervous habit for which Bartolomeo always scolded me. “Stop that, boy! You’ll get hair in the food!” To him I was always boy, although I was already nineteen by the time I became his apprentice.
“Your uncle gave me something meant for you.”
Francesco drew a cord out from the pouch tied to his belt. He handed it to me. Two bronze keys were attached.
“Keys to the strongboxes in his studiolo. He was failing when we talked, but I am under the impression he did not want you to read the documents under those locks, just to burn them. He lamented he hadn’t yet done it himself.”
I was puzzled. I knew the small strongbox on the desk in his studiolo well, but I could not picture a second one. Nor could I imagine what could be so terrible that Bartolomeo would want it burned.
“I know what you are thinking, Gio. I won’t tell you what to do, but Bartolomeo was extraordinarily concerned about those documents falling into the wrong hands.” He raised an eyebrow at me. “He said there were lives at stake.”
“Lives at stake?” I was incredulous.
He nodded. “That’s what he said.”
“I don’t understand. He could have asked you to do this for him.”
Francesco looked to the ground. “He did. At least at first I thought he did. He was not himself, Gio. He thought I was you.”
He hugged and kissed me, and departed, leaving me with the two keys, heavy and cold in my hand.