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The 'juicy' tale of the Renaissance citron

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

‘Still Life with Bowl of Citrons’, late 1640's by Italian artist, Giovanna Garzoni

This month I'm stepping out of my comfort zone of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, to look at an intriguing subject I came across some years ago while studying the Renaissance period during my garden history course: a work by an Italian botanist on citrus fruit. Doesn't sound particularly enthralling perhaps, but it has been described as “one of the most splendid and scientifically precise botanical works of 17th century Europe” and, with its beautiful botanical plates said to be of “unprecedented precision and attentiveness to detail”, it really caught my attention. Even more so when, during a garden tour to Italy a couple of years later, I came across the very kind of citrus fruits that were illustrated in the book - including citrons, which I had never seen before. But there they were, happily growing both in pots and on trees in some of the most famous of Italy's Renaissance gardens. And citrons, in case, like me, you didn't know, look like lumpy somewhat unappetising lemons with more pith than fruit.

It turns out that citrus fruits are fascinating from both a botanical and a garden history point of view, and often feature in Renaissance art. As a lover of botanical art, I’ve seen the paintings of citrus by Italian artist Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) – one of my favourites being the one above, but I hadn’t realised it depicted citrons. I'd thought they were just odd looking lemons - and that the word 'citron' just mean lemon!


Citrus: A brief history

So, before I proceed, here's some background on citrus. Citrus fruits have been around for a long, long time. Fossils discovered in China suggest that they existed some 7 million years ago, and an article in the National Geographic Magazine in 2017, which discussed the citrus family tree, pointed out that all the oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruits we’ve ever eaten are descended from just a few ancient species. The article also included an informative graphic (below) which shows the five ancestral species from which all our citrus fruit is descended.

These five are:

  • Kumquat (Fortunella spp.) (although scientists still argue whether this is in the citrus family);

  • small-flowered papeda (Citrus micrantha);

  • citron (Citrus medica);

  • pomelo (Citrus maxima); and

  • mandarin (Citrus reticulata)

The Citrus Family Tree. David Karp, University of California,

National Geographic Magazine, 2017

The citrus family is somewhat unusual in that species can easily and successfully cross-pollinate, producing many hybrids as well as mutations, so most of our citrus today are hybrids. Nature managed this all quite happily on its own of course, until human interventions increased the amount of new hybrids produced, making the citrus family complicated and somewhat frustrating for those who study it.

Initially citrus fruits were valued and cultivated for their healing and medicinal properties, their intense fragrance, and their ornamental flowers. In the 4th century BC, the citron was recorded as being cultivated in Persia and the Middle East, while the first lemons appeared in Rome around the 1st century AD (the citron being known during ancient Roman times as the Persian Pomo). Although, it's known that lemons were grown at Pompeii earlier, as they feature in one of its famous wall frescoes dating to 79 BC. However, the first of the truly sweet citrus – oranges, only arrived in Italy from China in the mid-17th century.

'Casa del Frutteto or House of the Fruit Orchard' - wall painting no 8 at Pompeii, 'Depiction of a Lemon Tree' (detail)

Citrus in Italy

Anyone who has visited Italian gardens will probably have seen big terracotta pots containing lemon or orange trees, but it was members of the powerful (and infamous) Medici family who first set this trend in the 1500's. These exotic plants quickly became highly prized ornamental items in formal villa gardens, when displaying rare plants was a matter of prestige between Europe’s competing noble families – and one of the first 'show-off' plants was probably the citron. To survive the harsh European winters, the precious potted little trees were moved to a dedicated orangery or limonaia between December and April. The limonaia often being an annex to the villa itself overlooking the garden, and with large glass panels to protect the citrus trees from the cold while allowing them sufficient daylight.

The ‘limonaia’ today at Villa Catignano in Italy. The villa dates back to the 17th century. Note the plinth that each pot stands on.

However, as I wrote at the beginning, I’m particularly interested in citrus in the Italian Renaissance (and its connection to the Medici dynasty who held power in Florence and Tuscany from the 15th century into the 18th) when attempts were made to resolve the confusion surrounding this family of plants amongst the great citrus collections of 17th century Italy. The work on citrus I mentioned was undertaken by Italian botanist, Giovanni Battista Ferrari in his great book on the subject, Hesperides sive de Malorum Aureorum cultura et usu. Libri Quatuor - the title taken from the mythical garden of the Hesperides, the nymphs who, in Greek mythology, guarded the garden of the goddess, Hera. Ferrari (1583-1655), was a Jesuit scholar and scientist, as well as a botanist, and had devoted himself to the study of ornamental plants. This passion for botany led him to becoming chief curator of the Horti Barberini, Cardinal Francesco Barberini’s private botanical garden just outside Rome. While there he wrote his first book, De florum cultura published in Rome in 1633 and translated into Italian 5 years later. The book not only depicted the exotic plants in the famous Barberini garden, but provided an in-depth analysis of the various aspects of plant cultivation, ranging “from garden design to the history of botany, techniques of cultivation and floral aesthetics.”

‘Narcissus indicus, the Belladonna lily’, engraving, in Ferrari’s ‘De florum cultura’, 1633. Courtesy The Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering and Technology

However, Ferrari later became more interested in citrus fruits – publishing Hesperides in 1646, acknowledged to be the first scholarly work on the orange, lime, lemon and their varieties and also described today as “the greatest and most compendious citrological treatises ever written”. It's considered by many to be of greater cultural and scientific value than De florum cultura, and even thought by some to still be relevant and not completely superseded by the later plant classification devised by Linnaeus.

The publication of Ferrari's book also coincided with the growing interest in and structural sophistication of 17th century orangeries – forerunners of greenhouses, needed to keep the delicate trees protected from the cold of Northern Europe.

'Hesperides' by Giovanni Battista Ferrari published in Rome,1646. Its full title meaning 'Hesperides, or, On the cultivation and use of the golden apple' (golden apples referring to citrus fruit)

Ferrari, in these pre-Linnaean times, sought to classify the entire citrus family - a huge undertaking, whilst determining the best scientific name to replace the many vernacular names of particular fruit in use at the time. The chief citrus divisions in the book being oranges, lemons, and citrons, although he also included exotic kinds of citrus, as well as the “strange and diseased”, known as "bizzarrie" in Italian. The book consists of more than 400 folio-sized pages and is considered to be much more than a herbal or botanical treatise, perhaps better described as a citrus encyclopedia.

Hesperides discusses every possible aspect of the lore and science of citrus fruit, including their taxonomy and classification; medicinal uses; methods of cultivation (including advice about irrigation and fertilizing); as well as giving detailed instructions about the “most up-to-date garden and arboricultural implements”. Ferrari even includes recipes (there's one for lemon sherbet for instance) as well as formulae for cosmetics. The book is also useful for the descriptions it contains of gardens and gardeners in Rome, and of the plants they grew.

The illustration below from 'Hesperides' depicts pruning tools - presumably for use on citrus trees

The original series of 80 black and white plates mainly depict life-size fruits: lemons, oranges, limes, citrons, and antiquated citrus varieties, whole and in section, as well as foliage and flowers, each tied with ribbons labelled with the name of the specimen. These plates were engraved by Cornelius Bloemaert, with most designed by the artist Cassiano dal Pozzo.

'Limon Imperialis', a coloured version of Plate 225 from 'Hesperides' (thought to be a cross between lemon and grapefruit)

Dal Pozzo was himself one of Rome’s leading scholars and patrons of natural history studies, and intensely interested in citrus. He corresponded extensively on the subject collecting specimens from far and wide. Hesperides is in fact thought to have been a collaborative work, although his name was not included in Ferrari's book. It's also known, from his surviving papers, that he was responsible for arranging the financing of this expensive book.

A plate from ‘Hesperides’, after a drawing by G. Reni, depicts the Hesperides nymphs and several gardeners planting trees and tending a sheltered citrus garden. Note the gardening implements in the foreground

‘Two Views of Pummelo’ by Vincenzo Leonardi 1645, from dal Pozzo’s ‘Paper Museum’ collection

The illustrations in the book were not, however, just for decoration. They were an integral aspect of Ferrari’s classification. As David Freedberg of Columbia University has pointed out in his various writings on Ferrari, through dal Pozzo he was associated with The Accademia dei Lincei – generally acknowledged to have been the first modern science academy in Europe founded in 1603, and counting Galileo amongst its members. They understood the importance of visual observation in understanding the natural world and commissioned and collected detailed drawings, be it of fruit and flowers, animals, fossils, or geological specimens. However, dal Pozzo’s collection was perhaps the most extensive. It became known as his Paper Museum and was widely consulted by European scholars in the 17th century.

However, the botanical illustrations are not the only works of art in Hesperides. Ferrari and dal Pozzo also commissioned allegorical images from significant artists of the day (including Nicolas Poussin - adding to the expense) to illustrate the more literary sections of the book - one of which can be seen in the large plate above. Although Hesperides is mostly scientific in tone, as usual for the time Ferrari was quite content to use more poetic explanations where, as Freedberg, writes “scientific ones could not be found”.

It's interesting (and to mind quite modern) how dal Pozzo and Ferrari set about collecting information on citrus. During the 1630s, they sent out what would today be called 'questionnaires' to citrus growers throughout Italy asking for details of citrus fruits in their area – names, descriptions, cultivation, propagation, and uses. From this huge amount of information, Ferrari then attempted to classify the many varieties of citrus fruit reported, including hybrids and mutations.

‘Limoni e ape’ [Lemons and a Bee] by Giovanna Garzoni. Oil on canvas [However, I do wonder if these are 'citrons' rather than 'lemons' - as they look rather lumpy!]

Ferrari was particularly interested in some of the deformed fruit – as were many wealthy and aristocratic citrus collectors of the time, who gave such citrus prominence in their collections of rare and exotic plants. Bizzarrie, such as the one shown below from Hesperides, were prized specimens in such collections.

'Limon Striatus Amalphitanus', one of the bizzarrie citrus depicted in 'Hesperides'. It's thought this particular fruit was a lemon-citron hybrid

Medici citrus today

Today, the largest collection of potted citruses in the world, comprising almost 600 species and varieties of plants, ancient and otherwise, are held at the Villa Medicea di Castello gardens in Florence – created by Cosimo I de’Medici in 1539. And the story of the citrus grown there is a fascinating one.

Helena Attlee (author of The Land Where Lemons Grow: The story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit, 2014) writing in Country Life in 2016 described the garden as containing hundreds of heavy terracotta pots of citrus – “mandarins and oranges growing on the same plant, citrons with skins raised in terrible carbuncles or lemons shaped like hands with an unsettling number of shiny yellow fingers” (the weird citrus medica digitata or Buddha’s Hand).

'Citrus medica digitata' or Buddha's Hand. Author's photograph, 2015

Some of the oldest trees in this garden, Attlee wrote, were “once part of the largest and most diverse citrus collection in Europe, lovingly accumulated by successive generations of the Medici family... these trees have existed for 300 years in their pots, outliving generations of gardeners and even the Medici themselves.

Historically, each tree in the Villa's garden was labelled with a number corresponding to an inventory that had been meticulously maintained for hundreds of years. A tree’s number also corresponded to the plinth it stood on in the garden, and to its position in the limonaia, thus enabling the gardeners to monitor each tree individually. By leaving them in the same spot each year, the gardeners also minimized the trauma for the trees of moving from the inside to the outside.

The famous 'Lunette of Villa di Castello' by Giusto Utens, 1599

Nothing interrupted this routine until the first world war - when the Medici citruses suffered their worst damage. The Villa’s limonaie buildings were used as a field hospital, and all the plants were left outside for 3 winters. The damage done to many of the trees was huge but, somehow, some of the rootstock survived underground later sending up new shoots. Attlee says that its easy to spot these survivors, because their branches are “blackened and split and their twisted trunks emerge from gnarled knots of rootstock.” (Apparently visitors to the garden often complain about how ugly these particular trees look!)

This vast collection of citrus struggled on but was almost lost in the late 1970s with the trees mostly unnamed or neglected. The new Curator given the task of looking after the garden, Paulo Galeotti, had to turn to history – notably Ferrari’s work and the paintings of Bartolomeo Bimbi, to compare the citruses illustrated with the unidentified plants in his care. In just 4 of his works, Medici-court painter Bimbi depicts 116 citruses present in the Medici gardens at the time and, thanks to these, Galeotti found that 80 were still growing at Villa Medicea di Castello. To confirm his findings, Galeotti turned to modern science with the use of plant DNA, and also reintroduced many species that had been lost completely, including the strange Buddha’s Hand.

However, Galeotti believes many plants completely died out over the years and have sadly been lost forever, although his work continues, especially to identify remaining bizzarrie citrus.

One of several paintings of the Medici citrus collection c.1715 by Bartolomeo Bimbi. Bimbi (1648-1729) painted plants and animals for the Medici court

'Villa Medicea di Castello'


Cassiano dal Pozzo’s Drawings of Citrus Fruits, David Freedberg, 1989

Ferrari on the Classification of Oranges and Lemons, David Freedberg, 1992

The Citrus Family Tree, David Karp, Uni. of California, National Geographic Magazine, 2017

Orange, Lemon, or Citron? Giovanni Battista Ferrari’s Hesperides, Renee Prud’Homme, Assistant Librarian, Worcester College Library & Archives, University of Oxford. Posted June 2018

Meet the ‘Citrus Archaeologist who rediscovered dozens of ancient plants, Frederico Formica, May 2018

Further reading:

The Land Where Lemons Grow, Helena Attlee, 2014

Lemon: A Global History, Toby Sonneman, 2012

Hesperides is available on-line.

1,429 views2 comments


Caroline Murray
Caroline Murray
Apr 28, 2022

Thanks for this fascinating piece on Ferrari's work! You might perhaps be interested in his northern European equivalent:


Apr 27, 2022

What a fascinating topic. I adore orangeries, I had no idea of their Italian name. There are some wonderful citrus plants fruiting and flowering in the Oxford Botanic Garden at the moment.

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