Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, (1474-1539) knew a status symbol when she saw one. In those days, the lemon tree was expensive and rare.
Isabella d’Este used lemons, lemon trees, lemon blossoms, lemon branches as backgrounds for her commissioned paintings and as decoration for her palace rooms and gardens.That Isabella’s family, the Estes, Renaissance leaders of Ferrara, cultivated lemon trees in that town’s cold, foggy climate was a public indication of their wealth, a status symbol. After all, only the wealthy could afford the imported plants, a rarity in these northern climes; only they could employ the servants needed to cart the trees from indoors to outdoors in the spring and vice-versa in the autumn. Only they had the wherewithal to build special buildings, ‘limonaie’, primitive greenhouses, to house the plants.
Even before Isabella married Francesco Gonzaga at the age of sixteen, she was well-versed in Greek and Latin, Roman history and literature. She had probably read about lemon trees, and lemon branch garlands, used in Imperial Rome as decoration. She knew Greek and Roman brides wore lemon blossoms as symbols of purity and fertility.
How did the lemon tree reach Italy?
Did Isabella know how and when lemons reached Europe? Some historians believe lemon trees were native to China, Persia and India; others think the Arabs, much later, transported their native lemon trees to China. At any rate, shortly before the rise of Rome, merchants brought lemon trees to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. During Roman times, lemons were imported to Italy from the Near East, probably Libya, but not on the same industrial scale that cargoes of grain, olive oil and wine crossed the sea to feed the throngs in Rome, and the standing Roman armies throughout the Empire.
After the fall of the empire, and throughout the early Middle Ages, lemon cultivation seems to have been forgotten, just as much else was…Greek and Roman literature and art, for example. Lemons may have barely survived the Middle Ages because Franciscan monks grew a few of them for medicinal purposes, in the cloistered gardens of monasteries throughout Christian Europe. But it was the Arabs, the Moors as they were called back then, who organized their systematic cultivation in Spain, North Africa and Southern Italy, beginning in the 900’s, thus restoring lemons to the European table.
The Arabs, with some help from the returning Christian Crusaders, acted as a kind of bridge spanning the Middle Ages from Greek and Roman civilization to the Renaissance. Crusaders brought seeds back from the Near East and planted them throughout Europe.
Cultivation of lemons on a large scale, a tiny part of knowledge recovered from classical times, was restored in the late Middle Ages, and the fruit become wildly popular among the European upper classes. Lemons were a part of that classical heritage sought after and studied by anyone who was anyone during the Renaissance.
Isabella d’Este and the Lemon
By Isabella’s day, the late 1400’s and early 1500’s, lemons had taken on real symbolic weight, signifying longevity, purification, friendship and healing. Because lemon trees could flower and bear fruit simultaneously, they came to symbolize both Venus and the Virgin, and continued to be used in wedding ceremonies to represent love and chastity.
The Ferrara Este family made full use of them for the embellishment of their palaces and for the enhancement of their prestige. Isabella, carrying on her family tradition, was intensely interested in gardens and symbols of classical times.
Decorating her ‘studiolo’, a small, personal museum in the vast Gonzaga castle in Mantua, with commissioned paintings and Roman and Greek artifacts, became Isabella’s passion. She bought paintings by some of the best artists of the Renaissance. Lemons or lemon trees are depicted in at least two of these paintings.
Isabella commissioned Mantegna to paint ‘The Parnassus’, showing Mars and Venus being entertained by dancing muses and Apollo playing his lyre nearby. The mythical characters in the picture are surrounded by trellises and great lemon and orange trees, both blooming and bearing fruit. The second picture by Mantegna for the ‘studiolo’ was called ‘Pallas Expelling the Vices’, with Minerva (Pallas) driving various grotesque figures out of a garden. Some critics suggest that Minerva is actually a portrait of Isabella. Again, lemon trees dominate the vegetation in the painting.
Lemon Production near Mantua
Where did these lemon trees come from? No doubt Isabella kept lemon trees in the castle gardens. Early in her long permanence in Mantua, she made the trip to nearby Lake Garda. Julia Cartwright, Isabella’s modern biographer, writes,” So for the first time Isabella saw the lovely shores of Garda and the lemon groves of Salo’.'”
She may have also ordered the trees from a small town on Lake Garda called Limone, which, by the 1400’s was already specializing in lemon production. From Mantua, Limone was only a short trip up the Mincio River and across Lake Garda. Limone’s inhabitants during the late Middle Ages were farmers, fishermen and smugglers. They discovered the lemon in the 13th century and began building their ‘giardini’, gardens, very early greenhouses, later called ‘limonaie’. For centuries, the Limone inhabitants exported lemons north to Austria and beyond, and south to the Milanese, Venetians, Ferraresi and Mantuans.
Isabella d’Este was ever the trend setter. Today, though no longer status symbols, lemons and lemon trees continue to be symbolic of fertility and chastity. Even now, brides in Italy often choose lemon blossoms as bouquets and table decorations.
- Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539, A Study of the Renaissance by Julia Cartwright
- The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson
- Encyclopedia Britannica