History at Leicester

New world plants in Italy, from observation to assimilation (1500-1850)

Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship (£112,364)

October 2007 - September 2010

Dr David Gentilcore

Prior to the research project, there had been little systematic study of the impact that plants from the New World had on early modern and modern Italy. Yet the experience of the arrival and reception of maize, tomatoes, potatoes (to name but the most important), within a space of fifty years, was unique, from a historical point of view. Their assimilation, from exotic curiosity to foodstuff, was by no means a foregone conclusion; and indeed each plant followed a distinct historical trajectory. New World plants thus offer us something of a test-case in food history: the factors determining which plants entered the diet, when, where in Italy, and in what ways, can tell us much about changing scholarly discourses during the period, as well as the broader socio-cultural context for changing dietary and agricultural practices.

Professor Gentilcore has completed two books of an envisioned ‘New World Trilogy’. The first is Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010; with an Italian translation by Garzanti, Milan, 2010), and the second is Potatoes, Always Potatoes: the Unknown History of an Italian Staple, currently under consideration by a UK academic publisher, with an Italian translation in press (Il Mulino, Bologna). Professor Gentilcore is presently preparing the third book, a medical history of pellagra in Italy (1750-1950), a terrible disease resulting from a subsistence on maize.

Back to top