You knew I would soon veer to art, didn’t you?

Oranges and Italian art:

Because of a combination of new artistic techniques and some apparently reasonable, but mistaken, assumptions about the history of citrus, oranges appeared frequently in paintings by any number of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance.

In making the break from Byzantine scholasticism to the new humanism of the Renaissance, artists began setting their religious figures against naturalistic backgrounds. Not having seen the Holy Land, they glibly set their Annunciations and Resurrections in Italian villas and on Italian hills.

Crusaders, among others, had long since reported that orange trees flourished in Palestine, so, as a kind of hallmark of authenticity, the painters slipped orange trees into masterpiece after masterpiece, remaining ignorant to their deaths that in the time of Christ there were no orange trees in or near the Holy Land.

In his “Maestà,” the Sienese painter Duccio di Buoninsegna showed Jesus entering Jerusalem through the streets of Siena, past orange trees in full fruit.

Fra Angelico painted Jesus resting under an orange tree.

It was almost unthinkable for a great master to do a “Flight into Egypt” without lining the route with orange trees.

A “Last Supper” was incomplete without oranges on the table, although there is no mention of oranges in the Bible.

Titian’s “Last Supper,” which hangs in the Escorial, shows oranges with fish.

A Domenico Ghirlandaio “Last Supper” goes further: a mature orange grove is depicted in murals behind the Disciples.

The deterioration of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” has been too extensive for any oranges in it to be identified, but in all likelihood, according to Tolkowsky, they were there.

Most painters thought of the Annunciation as occurring indoors, and Paolo Veronese, for one, moved orange trees indoors to authenticate the scene, setting the plants in trapezoidal pots, of the type in which orange trees were grown in his time in northern Italy.

Fra Angelico also used orange trees to give a sense of the Holy Land to his “Descent from the Cross,” which was otherwise set against the walls of Florence, and, like many of his contemporaries, when he painted the Garden of Eden he gave it the appearance of a citrus grove.

Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in a family chapel of the Medici show Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar looking less like three wise kings from the East than three well-fed Medici, descending a hill that is identifiable as one near Fiesole, dressed as an Italian hunting party, and passing through stands of orange trees bright with fruit.

Actually, Gozzoli’s models for the magi were Lorenzo de’ Medici; Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople; and John Palaeologus, Emperor of the East.



The orange tree was more than a misplaced landmark. It was also a symbol of the Virgin, erroneously derived from an earlier association that medieval theologians had established between Mary and the tall cedars of Lebanon.

Thus, countless paintings of the Madonna or of the Madonna and Child were garlanded with orange blossoms, decorated with oranges, or placed in a setting of orange trees.

Mantegna, Verrochio, Ghirlandaio, Correggio, and Fra Angelico all complemented their Madonnas with oranges.

Sandro Botticelli, in his “Madonna with Child and Angels,” set his scene under a tentlike canopy thickly overhung with the branches of orange trees full of oranges.

In the Neo-Latin of the Renaissance, oranges were sometimes called medici— an etymological development that had begun with the Greek word for citron, or Median apple.

It is no wonder, therefore, that in art and interior decoration the Medici themselves went in heavily for oranges. In Florence, oranges are painted all over the ceilings of the Medici’s Pitti Palace.

The Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici was one of the world’s earliest collectors of citrus trees, and in Tolkowsky’s view the five red spheres on the Medici coat of arms were almost certainly meant to represent oranges.

When Botticelli painted his “Primavera,” under a commission from the family, he shamelessly included Giuliano de’ Medici as the god Mercury, picking oranges.

Botticelli also painted his “Birth of Venus” for the Medici.

It was Venus, and not the Hesperides, according to a legend current at the time, who had brought oranges to Italy.

Botticelli’s model was Simonetta dei Cattanei, wife of Marco Vespucci and Giuliano de’ Medici’s Platonic love. Simonetta came from Porto Venere, where Venus was alleged to have landed with the original oranges, so Botticelli painted her in the celebrated scallop shell bobbing on the gentle swells off Porto Venere, and lined the coast behind her with orange trees.

Giuliano’s son, Giulio de’ Medici, who became Pope Clement VII, commissioned Raphael to design a villa for him with a great double stairway leading to a sunken garden full of orange trees.

All this was bound to engage the envy of royalty in the north, and at the end of the fifteenth century, in an expedition often said to mark the dividing point between medieval and modern history, Charles VIII of France went to Italy intending to subdue the peninsula by force of arms. Instead, he fell in love with Italian art, architecture, and oranges. When he returned to France, every other man in his retinue was an Italian gardener, an Italian artist, or an Italian architect. Charles was going to transform the castles and gardens of France.

McPhee, John (2011-04-01). Oranges. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.



Pardon me, I’m still not finished…

on oranges:

It is only in comparatively recent centuries that oranges, in Western countries, have actually been eaten as a food. Their earliest popularity in Europe seems to have been based on the ornamental appearance of the trees and the inspiring aroma of the peel and the blossoms.

At the table, they were used as a seasoning for meat and fish and seldom consumed in any other way. Before 1500, European orange growers mainly grew Bitter Oranges, because they were more aromatic, better as seasoning, and hence more valuable.

Dinner guests could measure their importance in the regard of their hosts by the number of oranges that came to the table. One fourteenth-century cookbook, describing a dinner given by an abbott of Langy for his superior, the Bishop of Paris, indicates how impressive a meal it was by noting that the roast fish was seasoned with powdered sugar and Sour Oranges.

In 1529, the Archbishop of Milan gave a sixteen-course dinner that included caviar and oranges fried with sugar and cinnamon, brill and sardines with slices of orange and lemon, one thousand oysters with pepper and oranges, lobster salad with citrons, sturgeon in aspic covered with orange juice, fried sparrows with oranges, individual salads containing citrons into which the coat of arms of the diner had been carved, orange fritters, a soufflé full of raisins and pine nuts and covered with sugar and orange juice, five hundred fried oysters with lemon slices, and candied peels of citrons and oranges.

At about that time, Portuguese ships returned home from India with sweet orange trees, and a new type spread through Europe. It became known as the Portugal Orange, and it quickly replaced the Bitter Orange in popularity throughout the continent. The word “Portugal” became synonymous with good sweet oranges in numerous countries, and, in fact, sweet oranges are still called Portugals in Greece, Albania, Rumania, parts of the Middle East, and some parts of Italy.

In most of Western Europe, the favor held by the Portugal Orange was less enduring. Within a century after the first trees had come from India, Portuguese missionary monks sent word back from China that Chinese oranges were sweeter than sugar itself. One Portuguese Jesuit wrote that “the oranges of Canton might well be muscat grapes disguised.”

In 1635, a Chinese orange tree reached Lisbon, and before long the China Orange— a term still used in many countries to denote a fine sweet orange— was in demand all over Europe. The botanical name of the modern sweet orange, in fact, is Citrus sinensis.

McPhee, John (2011-04-01). Oranges (p. 70). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Where did “oranges” come from, anyway?

The word “orange” evolved from Sanskrit. The Chinese word for orange, in ancient as well as modern Chinese, is jyu, but it did not migrate with the fruit.

India was the first major stop in the westward travels of citrus, and the first mention of oranges in Sanskrit literature is found in a medical book called the Charaka-Sambita, which was compiled approximately two thousand years ago.

The Hindus called an orange a naranga, the first syllable of which, according to Tolkowsky, was a prefix meaning fragrance.

This became the Persian naranj, a word the Muslims carried through the Mediterranean. In Byzantium, an orange was a nerantzion.

This, in Neo-Latin, became variously styled as arangium, arantium, and aurantium— eventually producing naranja in Spain, laranja in Portugal, arancia in Italy, and orange in France.




Meanwhile, the Roman city of Arausio, in the South of France, had become, in the Provençal language, Aurenja— a name almost identical in sound and spelling to auranja, the Provençal word for orange. Gradually, the names of the city and the fruit evolved in the Provençal tongue to Orenge, and then to Orange.

In the early sixteenth century, Philibert of Orange, prince of the city, was awarded a good part of the Netherlands for his political and military services to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

The Prince had no immediate heir, and his possessions and titles eventually passed to a German nephew. This was William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, who founded the Dutch Republic and the House of Orange.

In honor of William’s descendants, Dutch explorers named the Orange River, in South Africa, and Cape Orange, in northern Brazil.

Fort Orange was the name of a Dutch settlement that eventually developed into Albany, New York.

After a Protestant prince of the House of Orange had served as King William III of England, a movement known as Orangeism was founded by Irish Protestants, who established the Orange Society, and even called their part of Ireland “The Orange.”

Commemorating their cause on the landscape of the New World, emigrant Orangemen gave the name “Orange” to towns, cities, and bodies of water, from Lake Orange, Maine, to Orangeburg, South Carolina.

Orangemen changed the name of Newark Mountains, New Jersey, to Orange Dale, which eventually became simply Orange, New Jersey, with its satellite towns of West Orange, South Orange, and East Orange— all as the result of a similarity of sound between the name of a transalpine Roman city and the name of a citrus fruit.




Nominal confusion also resulted from a tendency among Romans and Greeks to call any kind of fruit an apple.

When the Romans discovered the pomegranate in Punic Mauretania— now Morocco and Algeria— they called it the malum punicum.

When they came upon the peach, in Persia, they called it the malum persicum.

Centuries earlier, in Media and in Persia, botanists traveling with the conquering armies of Alexander the Great had found the citron and had named it, variously, the Median apple and the Persian apple.

Working later with material left by Alexander’s scientists in the archives of Babylon, Theophrastus, the greatest of Greek botanists, also described citrons as Persian and Median apples, and his work disseminated the terms throughout the ancient world.

It was a “golden apple” that Paris gave to Aphrodite, thus opening his way to the heart of Helen. In Antiphanes’ The Boeotian Girl, written in the fourth century B.C., a young man presents a citron to his mistress, and she says, “I thought it came from the Hesperides, For there they say the golden apples grow.”

Other Greeks, it appears, thought that the golden apples were quinces. Tolkowsky points out that a frieze in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia shows Herakles holding a handful of quinces.

In Rome, however, universal agreement seems to have been reached that the golden apples were citrus. According to Father Ferrari, the Romans thought that citrons, oranges, lemons, and other citrus fruits came to Italy in the arms of the Hesperides— the daughters of Hesperis and Atlas— who crossed the Mediterranean from Africa in a giant shell. Oranges actually reached the Italian peninsula from India.

In the first and second centuries A.D., it was only a seventy-day trip across the Indian Ocean from the Malabar Coast to the western shore of the Red Sea, twelve more days from Berenice by camel to the Nile, and another twelve down the river to waiting galleys at Alexandria. (Orange groves were established at Berenice and elsewhere on this route, which eventually branched into the Levant.)

Toward the end of the Roman Empire, oranges were flourishing on the Italian peninsula.

After the fall of Rome, oranges played a part in the great Lombard invasion. A Byzantine governor of Rome, enraged at being summarily called back to Byzantium, sent an embassy with a selected display of Italian oranges to Alboin, King of theLombards, inviting him to overrun Italy, which Alboin did.

In the sixth and seventh centuries, the forces of Islam conquered a wide corridor across the world from India to Spain, and orange, tangerine, and lemon trees today mark the track of the Muslim armies.

After Moorish capitals had been established in Andalusia, desert artisans and architects, delirious in the presence of water, filled and surrounded their buildings with pools, cascades, and fountains, planting a small grove of oranges in the Great Mosque of Cordova and oranges and lemons in the interior courts of the Alhambra in Granada.

One curious footnote to the rise of Islam developed in Italy in the eleventh century. A group of Norman pilgrims, on their way home from the Holy Land, came upon a band of warrior Muslims who were about to destroy the person and possessions of a Christian prince of Salerno. The Normans saved the prince and drove the Muslims away. Fearful of further attacks, the prince, like the Byzantine governor of Rome nearly five hundred years before him, sent an embassy with the pilgrims to the Duke of Normandy, accompanied by a mountainous gift of beautiful oranges, frankly tempting the Duke to conquer southern Italy— which he did, taking Sicily, too. The Norman conquest of Sicily turned into something of a scandal. Norman minds dissolved in the vapors of Muslim culture.

Austere knights of Honfleur and Bayeux suddenly appeared in the streets of Palermo wearing flowing desert robes, and attracted to themselves harems of staggering diversity, while the Church raged.

Norman pashas built their own alhambras. The Normans went Muslim with such remarkable style that even Muslim poets were soon praising the new Norman Xanadus. Of one such place, which included nine brooks and a small lake with an island covered with lemon and orange trees, the poet Abd ur-Rahman Ibn Mohammed Ibn Omar wrote: The oranges of the Island are like blazing fire Amongst the emerald boughs And the lemons are like the paleness of a lover Who has spent the night crying …


McPhee, John (2011-04-01). Oranges. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.


Visit Sicily!

I love Sicily.  I saw Greek ruins that rival any in Greece, for starters.  Then there is the Roman and Italian culture and history and the food!  And Mt. Etna. OMG.   Visit Sicily!


8 things I love about Santa Felicita in Florence

Among my favorite churches in Florence is Santa Felicita. I love this church for many, many reasons.  Let me count them.


1. Size: It is not too large and not too small.  It feels just right. You can walk in and not feel overwhelmed by the size and scale of architecture, altar, chapels and more.



2. Location, location, location: Just steps from the world-famous Ponte Vecchio

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3. Little known and under appreciated.  Which means that it is never swarmed with tourists despite its premier location.  At all times of day and every season of the year the Ponte Vecchio seems to be covered with tourists from around the globe, and yet, Santa Felicita is rarely visited by the hordes.  It is an oasis within a sea of chaos.  Which is exactly what churches are meant to be, I think.

Santa Felicita is a jewel, awaiting a visit by cogniscenti. Tourists pass by, thinking the edifice is just a backdrop for their frenzied nearby shopping extravaganza.



4. Design: The cherry on top it is that the design is as fine as the church is petite.


But oh, the loveliness that awaits those who enter.


The serene gray hue of Tuscan pietra serena architectural details against the cool white plaster walls work together to create a calm, harmonized interior. The unadorned vaulted ceilings and the black and white marble floors and  provide just the right amount of understated elegance to finish the setting. The interior is flooded with ambient light from the high windows during daytime hours.

5. Another thing that sets this pretty church apart from all the others in town is that it probably the oldest in the city, right after San Lorenzo.  The first church on this site was probably built in the late 4th century and was dedicated to Saint Felicity of Rome. A new church was built in the 11th century and the current church largely dates from 1736–1739, under design by Ferdinando Ruggieri, who turned it into a one nave edifice.  Oh, the history!



6. The Vasari Corridor passes through the façade of this church and on the inside there is large window, covered by a thick gate, where the Grand Dukes of the Medici family used to listen to the mass without being seen by the people staying at ground level.



The picture above is of the nave shot from the Vasari Corridor.


7. Masterpieces of Mannerist style paintings by Pontormo.  Pontormo is one of my favorite artists but I will admit that, like Campari, Pontormo is an acquired taste.  I love his work so much that I plan to devote a post to him soon.



8.  The entry Vestibule is one of my favorite indoor/outdoor spaces in Florence.  It is simple and feels very Tuscan.  Here are some shots of what I love about the vestibule.


The wrought iron separates the church from the hoi polloi in the the street and piazza outside.


Ever wonder what the walls would look like without a fresco adorning them?  Here’s the answer:





The muse of painting takes a nap while the muse of music plays a soothing tune.


Santa Felicita, a Florentine jewel.

Vancouver, B.C.. One of the prettiest North American cities.

Crossing the border from Washington state into British Columbia.  Peerless skies, lovely weather!




Into Vancouver, a city on the move.



I love Vancouver, B.C.  It looks like the city’s planner chose one architect to lay out the modern structures, because they all seem to match.  Glass the color of a turquoise sea and steel beams.





You know you are in Canada because the bank is Royal!



What’s this I see?  The Roman Coliseum?



More skyscrapers.  Beautifully done.







Hot art, wet city.



“O Canada!” Your anthem and your premiere B.C. city are both very pretty!


Rhubarb fool

I should have posted this yesterday.  But, it isn’t an April fool’s joke, so I guess it doesn’t really matter.

Many years ago my mother and I went to England.  I had art historical research to conduct and she had a daughter to keep company and London and surrounding areas were the perfect place for both of our activities.




I won’t say that we loved all the food we encountered on our trip.  Far from it!  Grilled tomatoes and baked beans for breakfast seemed weird, but not nearly as strange as some of the meats we encountered.

High tea at Liberty was a huge success, as was high tea at Harrod’s.  I mean, what’s not to love?  Pour the clotted cream on anything and I will eat it all up!  Maybe even on grilled tomatoes.  Well, maybe not tomatoes.  But anything else.

But while I have a generalized happy memory of all the dainty sandwiches and biscuits served at high tea, there is only one dessert, or pudding, that I have never forgotten.  What made it more memorable was that I found it in a church basement cafeteria, somewhere in London.

My mom and I were visiting this particular church in order to see the 19th century neoclassical sculpture in the nave and when we were done it was lunch time and we were hungry.  We realized there was a cafeteria in the basement and made our way there.

I don’t remember what we had for lunch, but I do remember encountering something called rhubarb fool in the pudding section of the cafeteria buffet.  I had never heard of a fool, but I could tell it was made with cream and I was sold.




One bite of that rich combination of tart rhubarb compote mixed with whipped English cream and I was in heaven.  I’ve never looked back.


Enjoyed with a shortbread biscuit, life is never sweeter!

Here’s a recipe and a link.  The internet is full of rhubarb (and other fruit) fool information.

Serves 4

450g rhubarb, roughly chopped
5 tbsp golden caster sugar
300ml double cream
100ml Greek yoghurt
Small bunch of mint, leaves only

1. Put the rhubarb in a pan with 4 tbsp sugar and heat gently, covered, until tender. Uncover, turn up the heat slightly, and allow some of the juice to evaporate. Taste for sweetness, adding more sugar if necessary, then drain the rhubarb, reserving the juice. Allow to cool.

2. Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks, then stir in the yoghurt. Fold in the cooled rhubarb, and chill for at least an hour.

3. Serve in glasses with the reserved juice to pour over the top, and a few mint leaves on each portion.

Is fool the finest British summer dessert, both for ease and sheer, simple delight, and if so, what’s your favourite flavour? And what else do you like to do with rhubarb over the summer, now that crumble season’s finally on its way out?




Italian summertime, una bambina, and balloons

I spent last July living in Torino, Italy, getting to know the city, its monuments and museums and, of course, its shopping.







In the beautiful arcades that line the city center boulevards, I was delighted to follow this small girl, her balloons and her mother for a while.  These are just some random shots I took of the moment.  We were strolling up the Via Roma.







Ciao bambina!  Have fun with those balloons!


Red gold.

In recent posts I’ve discussed blue gold and black gold.

But, what is red gold?



Well, Cleopatra bathed in it.



And, Alexander the Great used it as shampoo.



It comes from a delicate flower grown from a bulb.



It is the most expensive spice in the world.



Of course, it is saffron.

I’ve you’ve ever eaten bouillabaisse or paella, you’ve no doubt had saffron. Or saffron couscous. Divine.

Saffron is the most expensive spice by weight in the world precisely because it is actually the dried  stigmas of a little purple perennial crocus flower that must be gathered by hand during a harvest that lasts just a couple of weeks in the fall.  There are only three stigmas per blossom.

It takes about 75,000 flowers to yield a pound of saffron.

Fortunately, a pinch (about 20 threads) is usually all it takes to impart saffron’s distinctive yellow color and vaguely metallic, dried alfalfa hay and bittersweet wildflower-honey flavor. Saffron is featured in Spanish and Indian cooking; it’s often a major component of curry powders; Iran, Greece, Morocco, and Italy also harvest and use saffron, too.



The best source I can suggest is a (another!) BBC documentary on saffron grown in Morocco and Spain.  I found it fabulous!



Here are a few pictures of the autumn saffron harvest in Morocco.  While you can see why it is so labor intensive to harvest these crocus stigma, the sad truth is that these Berber families reap only a small percentage of the prices paid.  It is the same old story that has haunted the spice trade since time immemorial: the middlemen take all the profit.





Next time you price saffron in your market, you’ll know why the price is high.

Update: April 9.  I just heard (on the BBC so you know it’s true!) that saffron reached England 2000 years ago when Phoenicians brought it to trade for tin.  Never mind the Medieval spice trade!