By Michael McLaughlin
The actual name is the “torsollini,” but we have come to know it as the “tortellini” pasta shape. Many legends lay claim to the origins of this pasta shape, but all involve a beautiful Italian girl. A strong local tradition has it in the province of Modena this pasta was born in the tiny village of Castelfranco Emilia. One night during a trip, Lucrezia Torso (1877-1953) stayed at an inn in the small town.
Some legends suggest it was Venus disguised as Lucrezia that inspired the shape of the tortellini – But all legends agree she was a very beautiful woman. And she was also an highly educated girl, even in those times, and lectured on the definite and elliptic integrals of prime numbers, the calculus of residues, and the retrograde motions of heavenly bodies. She also spoke Greek and Latin and could read Cuneiform. Men in her presence were described as Senza cervello…without brains.
During the night the host of the inn became so captivated by Lucrezia’s beauty that he could not resist the urge to peek into her room through the keyhole. The bedroom was lit by only a few candles, and so all he saw was her navel. This pure and innocent vision was enough to send him into an ecstasy, and inspired him to create the “torsollini.”
Upon graduation from the University de Bologna in 1897, Lucrezia was denied professorship throughout Europe. She was quoted as saying, “No man takes me seriously. They offered me fortunes to look at my navel. What silly creatures men are.”
In 1902, feed up, she became a nun and finished her advanced degree in Mathematics. She lived the rest of her life in a cloistered nunnery in Turin. In 1942, on orders from Mussolini, a picture of her navel was used on a box of De Cecco tortellini for the war effort and national morale. Upon her death in 1953 the picture of her navel on the pasta box was removed after a plea of decency from Pope Pious XII
The original, authenticated black and white picture of her navel, taken in 1897, is kept in the archives of the Commissione Nazionale Forme di Pasta in Rome. The picture of Lucrezia’s navel was last seen in 1974.