They're everywhere these days: on swimsuits, on gift wrap, on shoes, on Instagram next to tanned legs hanging in the pool... it's like they grow on trees these days!* The pineapple is the cute fruit/design/print/meme of the moment. But despite with S/S 2015 will have us think, we're about 400 years behind the Italians.
Cristoforo Colombo, or Christopher Columbus if you learned history in English, was the first recorded Westerner to taste the fruit during his second voyage across the ocean blue to the Caribbean in 1493. Originally from Genova (just 30 minutes from Portofino), Colombo returned to a Europe devoid of dolce, where refined sugar was rare and fresh fruit limited its seasonal harvest, and introduced the pineapple for the first time. This New World Fruit, with hard exterior protection and sweet, juicy pulp, caused a great sensation, with royalty coveting its delicious taste, and horticulturalists attempting unsuccessfully to grow it locally. As an exotic, physically extravagant, and thoroughly tasty treat, by the 1600’s the pineapple was a symbol of wealth, prestige, and subsequently, hospitality.
And in Italia? Pinecones, from which Europeans associated the pineapple’s textured exterior, were used in imperial Rome on government buildings to symbolize fertility; as a pinecone carries hundreds of seeds to form offspring, so an empire strives to spread its reign. A 4-meter pinecone was used as a fountain next to the Parthenon, and is now the namesake central courtyard in the Vatican. Pineapples were the next received with the same attitude as the rest of Europe, but in some cases took the place of the pinecone, as a nod to historic reference of power with a modern twist. It’s a metaphorical double entendre, if you will.
We can see the pineapple’s influence today in the towering church of San Giacomo di Corte in our very own Santa Margherita Ligure. The church was started and completed in the 17th century, and although we aren’t sure of the exact dates, this time period is right around when pineapples were first becoming a status symbol representing wealth and all things cool. They are etched into the ceiling in 6 of the interior ceiling arches, perched atop a glowing fruit pyramid.
But 2 villages over in Chiavari, we are left with a pinapple mystery. The church construction lasted 30 years, from 1613 - 1633, again, amidst the original pineapple craze. Looking up to the 5-story ceiling, we see two majestic angels with the famous fruit seemingly balanced on their heads, framing a Christian sun symbol. Or are they pinecones with decorative flames? Could this be the ultimate example of the pinecone/pineapple mixed symbolism?
What do you think it looks more like?
* This is a bad pun, because actually, pineapples on cactus-like plants on the ground. Native to tropical climates in South America and Caribbean, pineapple cultivation in non-native soil can actually destroy the land.
“Precious Cargo: How Foods From the Americas Changed The World” by David DeWitt. Counterpoint, June 2014.
“Pineapple: A Global History” by Kaori O'Connor. Reaktion Books, November 2013.
“Social History of the Pineapple” by Hoag Levins
“The Pineapple: King of Fruits” by Francesca Beauman. Chatto & Windus, 2005.