Orio Vergani: man, journalist, Academician
The mark he left is still strong in today’s Academy.
6 February 2018 will be the 120th anniversary of the birth of Orio Vergani. We should like to recall him first and foremost in the words of Eugenio Montale: “Insatiable in his fervour to accomplish ever more and ever better, he lived with his face to the future”.
In turn, Indro Montanelli wrote about him: “... he knew everything about the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, except who had won the day’s leg, because he would have stopped along the way at some restaurant famous for its roasts or its baccalà, and his article would feature its delights”.
“A bad student, a stammering boy, a timid eighteen-year-old liable to pass from hot flashes of blushing to trembling pallors”, is how Orio (Vittorio, on his birth certificate) Vergani describes himself, recalling, years later, his first steps in the world of journalism. He presented himself to the Idea Nazionale newspaper, accepting a post as a shorthand typist: it was a stratagem, for he knew nothing about the art of abbreviating words. Nonetheless, he managed to do the job very well: he took notes, at the telephone, of what the correspondents told him, and then he wrote the articles. “Those twenty lines became a column, or a column and a half. The correspondents - who were then paid by the line - did not protest; in fact they were very happy. When the trick was found out they didn’t tell me off. They moved me to the Messaggero Verde as junior sub-editor”. At grips with the first stages of a profession he would then bestride grandly for a lifetime, he even turned himself into a postboy when, at the suggestion of Pirandello, the éminence grise of the Messaggero della Domenica, he had to go to Giovanni Gentile’s house to get him to cut a hundred lines from an article.
While certainly flippant in writing about himself in irreverent fashion, our founder was also a serious, tireless and many-faceted professional. After he joined the Corriere della Sera, his byline appeared uninterruptedly on thousands and thousands of articles (twenty thousand, apparently), but he was also a playwright and author of books and essays. He wrote about everything: lifestyle, sport, theatre, war and travel, figurative art, applied arts, advertising - everything of whatever was alive and mirrored the times, in that indecipherable handwriting of his, with the lines forming an inverted pyramid.
His interest in promoting Italian cooking, together with our culture, developed early. For instance, his niece Vera recalled at one Academy congress the “literary/gastronomical experience” of the birth, in November 1926 (when Orio was 28), of the “Bagutta” prize, of which Vergani was one of the co-founders. It was a literary prize born under the sign of good eating: a permanent congress of literati, journalists and writers, in a restaurant elevated to the role played in the past by the salon or the literary cafè. Vergani was the first to intuit the cultural value of food in the human sphere, in open contrast with the conceptual positions of the times, when, with the sole exception of the futurist Marinetti, everyone regarded food as merely a means of guaranteeing survival, or at best of satisfying hedonistic pleasure.
Perhaps with the Bagutta, Vergani was at least starting to vaguely glimpse the idea of what was later to become the Academy, but later, when for the Corriere della Sera he was following twenty-five years of the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, from the times of Binda and Guerra to those of Bartali and Coppi, he himself wrote that the Academy was “born of an observation by a wandering journalist who was amazed, in the civilised Veneto, to find waiters offering him Milanese breaded cutlets and being almost astounded that he was keen to try the luganega sausages of Treviso, while the host, who was from Conegliano, offhandedly offered him Tuscan wines and not the wines of the Piave”. Consequently, on 29 July 1953, at the hotel Diana in Milan, Orio Vergani, together with Dino Villani and other prominent figures from the worlds of culture, business and publishing, founded the Italian Academy of Cuisine.
And so our story began.
President of the Academy