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The Archaeobotanist Searching Art for Lost Fruit

by Alice Riddell on March 16th, 02020

KC5AE3 Madonna and Child (Madonna of the Pear) by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), oil on panel, 1526

As Vittoria Traverso writes for Atlas Obscura, Isabella Dalla Ragione brings art and nature together in her search for the forgotten fruits of Northern Italy. By combing through clues in ancient paintings and manuscripts, Ragione has revealed the extensive biodiversity of Renaissance Italy, having identified hundreds of bygone plants. From apples and pears of old monastic orchards to abandoned fields of harvest, Ragione has illuminated the plethora of knowledge hidden beautifully in plain sight. 

‘Take “Madonna and Child with the Pear,” an oil-on-wood painting completed in 1526 by German master Albrecht Dürer, currently preserved at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. “You can find so many texts detailing the symbolic meaning of pears in this painting,” Dalla Ragione says. However, the distinctive shape of the top of the fruit in Durer’s painting made Dalla Ragione realize that it was actually a “mouth of the ox” apple, an ancient variety that Dalla Ragione had found years ago in an abandoned field near Perugia and now grows on her farmstead.

She personally takes care of her 600 plants year-round. Between September and October, she picks up most of her pears and apples and preserves them inside an abandoned chapel next to her farmstead. Standing against the chapel’s frescoes, these baskets of fruit symbolize Archeologia Arborea’s mission statement: that plants are an essential element of cultural heritage.’

Vittoria Traverso, Atlas Obscura