Art and biodiversity

Pears, apples, round quinces and cracked pomegranates, clusters of grapes, berries from the strawberry tree and ripe figs, mulberries, baskets full of cherries and strawberries, gourds and pumpkins, cabbages and heats of lettuce, celery, white onions, and garlands of garlic: the produce that was grown in our ancestors’ orchards and served at their tables are celebrated in still lifes. Starting in the 17th century, when this art form reached its peak, this genre embodied more than any other the meeting between food and art, and documented the way our forefathers ate.

The relationship between food and painting is actually much older, coming from ancient Rome and Middle Ages. In the cathedrals, the cycles of the months depicted farm work and the fruit harvest, while illuminated manuscripts and tacuina sanitatis extolled the virtues of vegetables. Painting paid increasing attention to the “gifts of the land”, tied symbolically to Christian virtues: nature became allegory. Fruits of all types intertwined with plants in the festoons of Villa Farnesina, or caught the viewer’s eye in Arcimboldo’s bizarre portraits. This ushered in scientific interest in plants and vegetables, culminating in the illustrations by Ligozzi and Ulisse Aldrovandi, which were meant for botanists but were renowned among painters as well.

During the Baroque era, vegetables vied with figures for primacy in the paintings that depicted the opulence of private banquets, celebrating their buyers’ prestige while paying tribute to their properties. Artists paid close attention to food, a symbol of social status, and depicted it in a way that would seduce the viewer, by evoking tactile and olfactory emotions. Soon enough, geographical exploration introduced new crops to the West: tomatoes and peppers brightened up the dinner table; pumpkins and beans arrived from the Americas, and artichokes from the Far East. A hierarchy soon emerged among edible plants: the tubers that grew underground were food for peasants, while the fruit that grew on trees, closer to the sky, was reserved for the elite, and lettuce for the most demanding of palates.

Vegetables are still highly popular today, and play a central role in Italian cuisine. Will we still be eating the varieties depicted in the paintings in the future? Azeroles, strawberry trees, mulberries, quinces, rowans, cornels, and summer squash are still being cultivated today, but to a lesser extent than in the past. The reason their consumption has dropped may have to do with changing tastes, with sweeter foods becoming more popular, or it may reflect the fact that they are harder to cultivate intensively.

Works of art from the past can certainly help us remember long-forgotten fruits, which are now being re-discovered and brought back to life: a potential answer to the nutritional challenges of the future.