Martino da Como actually came from Blenio, and was the world’s first celebrity chef. Illustration by Marco Heer.
Martino da Como actually came from Blenio, and was the world’s first celebrity chef. Illustration by Marco Heer.

The world’s first celebrity chef

Maestro Martino left his Ticino mountain village, and became the first celebrity chef in history. He built his reputation in the kitchens of the powerful and rich in the 15th century, and is one of the co-founders of Italian cuisine!

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

Once upon a time, there was a boy who was incredibly good at cooking. In his village in a sparsely populated mountain valley, nobody cared about his culinary skill. People were poor and had other worries. So the boy decided to leave. On his travels he came to a big city, and he looked for a job there. Soon he came to the attention of the man who ruled the city. And so the poor boy became the prince’s personal chef. This is perhaps how Maestro Martino’s story would sound as a fairy tale. Except it’s not a fairy tale, it’s a true story...
Aerial view of Grumo, 1954.
Aerial view of Grumo, 1954. Photo: thepictures4you.ch
Martino de Rubeis, as the Ticino boy was called, was born in around 1415 in Weiler Grumo, in the Blenio Valley of Ticino. He started cooking in the hospice of the oratorio of “Santa Maria del Monastero”, where travellers making their way between north and south were offered accommodation and various meals. In this hospice, the Ticino boy developed his passion for pots and pans and perfected his dishes, which were often influenced by the hospice’s guests – pilgrims, travelling merchants, noblemen. In the mid-15th century, Martino moved to Milan. The opportunities for a better life were greater in the city than in a remote mountain valley. Much greater, as it soon turned out. Martino found work in the court kitchens of the ducal Sforza family, which ruled Milan. The Sforzas quickly acquired a taste for Martino’s dishes, and made him their head chef. But the talents of the culinary expert from Ticino didn’t go unnoticed by others. Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan was especially taken with him. The pontifical adviser was one of the most powerful men in the Vatican, and he took Martino with him to Rome.
Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan in a portrait painted by Andrea Mategna, c. 1459.
Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan in a portrait painted by Andrea Mategna, c. 1459. Wikimedia
Not only Trevisan, but also Popes Paul II and Sixtus IV enjoyed the fruits of Maestro Martino’s culinary artistry. His services to the Holy See were unofficial, but they had far-reaching consequences. In the corridors of the Vatican, the Ticino chef met a man named Bartholomeus Sacchi, known as Platinà. This Sacchi was the papal librarian, and a scholar with wide-ranging interests. Platinà was impressed with Martino and his recipes, and included around 240 of them in his work “De honesta voluptate et valetudine”. The world’s first printed cookbook was published in 1468, and made Maestro Martino famous throughout Europe. He might also have become known for his own cookbook, “Libro de arte coquinaria”, which was written around the same time. His fame wouldn’t have been on such a scale, however, because his own book was written not in Latin but in the “vulgar” colloquial language. So Platinà und Martino complemented one another perfectly. The one a scholar with a theoretical bent, the other a practical-minded culinary expert with a hands-on approach.
Platinà kneeling before Pope Sixtus IV. The painting was created by Melozzo da Forlì around 1477.
Platinà kneeling before Pope Sixtus IV. The painting was created by Melozzo da Forlì around 1477. Wikimedia
A glimpse into the world’s first cookbook: “De honesta voluptate et valetudine”.
A glimpse into the world’s first cookbook: “De honesta voluptate et valetudine”. Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek
After many years in the kitchens of Rome, Martino returned to Milan in the autumn of his life. His last position was with Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, a powerful Italian-French army commander. Not much is known about Martino’s death. Exactly when he died, and whether he ever returned to the Blenio Valley, cannot be said with certainty. What is certain, however, is that Maestro Martino didn’t come from Como, as is sometimes claimed even now. This error probably came from the pen of his friend Platinà, who had described him as “Comense”, a person from Como. Perhaps in order to avoid overstraining his readers, who would scarcely have heard of the Blenio Valley. Perhaps also because he had himself confused Grumo and Como. Once released into the world, this particular “myth” was almost impossible to eliminate. All the same, Europe’s first top chef came from Ticino. From Grumo in the Blenio Valley!

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