By Liliana Leopardi
|Botticelli's Madonna della Melagrana boasts a luscious pomegranate (melagrana).|
A riot of fruit in luscious colors beckons you with their soft plumpness. The apples are redder than Snow White's, the oranges so vivid that Florida's orange juice manufacturers wish they could print them on their cartons, and the grapes so translucent and full that they reawaken the taste of that delightful Vernaccia you drank with your lunch. You are tempted to pluck and taste them, and to let those promising juices run down your chin. Alas, you may not pluck, touch, taste, nor even buy! All this bounty is merely painted adornment for countless paintings of Madonna and Child hanging in the museums and churches of Florence, Rome, and Venice.
Adornment is the wrong word, though. In Renaissance painting fruit has an important iconography. It can be symbolic of a theological concept such as fall, incarnation, passion, redemption etc.... Apples, for example, figure prominently in paintings and are quite common. Since the word for apple in Latin is "malum," and since this was the same word for evil, the apple became symbolic of the fall of man. You probably have seen it in the hands of Adam or Eve; but it also appears sometimes (surprisingly!) in the hands of the infant Christ to symbolize that He is the new Adam come to redeem man from Adam's sin, or in the hands of the Madonna to symbolize and that She is the new Eve.
Oranges, peaches and figs were also used symbolize philosophical ideas or theological concepts. Oranges signify chastity and purity, and their flowers were usually associated with brides. Peaches were often used to symbolize the trinity, as they could be divided up into flesh, shell and pit. Pears stood in for the sweetness of virtue of Mary and Christ because of their sweet taste. Since Christ was considered the true vine, grapes were often used identify him as the savior. Grapes also symbolize his holy blood or his passion, and thus grapes can stand for the Eucharist. Purple plums, cherries and pomegranates could also be used to refer to Christ's blood and by extension the Passion because of their red-colored juices. Pomegranates could also mean immortality and resurrection as since ancient times it has been associated with the return of spring. Since Cherries, along with strawberries, appear also in spring, they were considered appropriate to symbolize the Annunciation and Incarnation. Finally, strawberries symbolize Paradise, which is exactly what you shall find at the market near St. Lorenzo if you are fortunate enough to be in Florence when the delicately flavored fragoline di bosco (wild strawberries) are in season. Buon Appetito!
A quick guide to some of the best symbolic fruit in Florence:
- The Uffizi has some great examples of fruit. Two of my favorites are Bellini's Allegory of the Tree of Life (notice the apple tree standing in for the tree of life) and Botticelli's Madonna della Melagrana, which boasts one of the most luscious pomegranates (melagrana) in all of western art.
- Look for the beautiful orange trees in Domenico Ghirlandaio's Last Supper at the church of Ognissanti. Also, a good place for plums and cherries.
- Masolino's Fall of Man in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine has very good evil apple.
- But my favorite, perhaps due to the season, has to be the little strawberries littering the foreground of Botticelli's Madonna and Child and Four Angels at the Pitti Palace. They make me hungry!
When Liliana Leopardi is not busy writing her dissertation on the 15th century painter Carlo Crivelli for the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, she works as a docent for Context Florence. She is the recipient of the 2003-4 Metropolitan Museum Theodore Rousseau Fellowship.