The Untold Story of Leonardo da Vinci and the Creation of Panettone
A sweet bread, baked with a variety of ingredients and bestowed with love
Panettone is the Christmas dessert par excellence. Or is it? An opposing faction may argue that pandoro is the real king of the Season, instead. Be that as it may, the story behind the two cakes remains obscure even to most Italians.
It is universally acknowledged that panettone was created in Milan, but very few know that its history goes back to the 13th century. Among the many, romantic legends about panettone, a couple of episodes seem more likely to have happened.
One has it that in the 15th century, when Milan was under the rule of Duke Ludovico “the Moor” Sforza, the young falconer Ughetto, son of Captain Giacometto Atellani, fell in love with Adalgisa, the beautiful daughter of a baker. Aiming to impress her, Ughetto tried to pass as a baker himself. He prepared a sweet bread loaf by adding to bits of dried fruit, sugar, eggs, yeast and butter to the dough, and dedicating it to his beloved Adalgisa. Ludovico’s wife Beatrice was delighted by the taste of Ughetto’s creation and after witnessing his passion for Adalgisa, she asked a Dominican monk and Leonardo da Vinci to help her persuade Giacometto Atellani to let his son marry the baker’s daughter. The sweet bread was named “Pan del Ton”.
According to a more widely known story, panettone was invented by accident on a Christmas Eve. While preparing a banquet for Ludovico Sforza and his entourage, a cook accidentally burnt a sweet bread loaf. Upon hearing the cursing, a servant named Toni rushed to the kitchen and suggested serving the burnt loaf as it was, presenting it as a newly-created cake. Later at the banquet, every guest was so smitten with its taste, the cake was popularised with that very burnt-crust recipe, by the name of “Pan del Ton”.
A common Milanese idiom to express one’s appreciation for food is “as good as panettone”. Panettone became part of the Milanese food culture a long time ago, but its distinctive cupola shape is likely to have been conceived only in the early 20th century.
To this day, the origin of the name panettone remains an object of dispute. Some regard it as an augmentative of panett, that could be the Milanese for “loaf of bread” or the Tuscan for “superfine bread”, referring to the double leavening that makes the bread soft and delicate. Others claim that panettone, in the original form pan del Ton, has its namesake in the above-mentioned legendary character of servant Toni. Ultimately, another school of thought has it that pan de ton could mean “outstanding bread”. One way or another, panettone made some impression, no question about it.