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Every page of this astonishingly beautiful ode to the citrus is a treat

Laura Freeman is transported by J.C. Volkamer’s astonishingly beautiful ode to the citrus

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

There’s an episode of Yes Minister called ‘Equal Opportunities’. Minister Jim Hacker is under pressure to recruit more women to the civil service. The hunt is on for female mandarins. ‘Ah,’ says principal private secretary Bernard. ‘Sort of… satsumas?’ At this time of year, I can’t help thinking of Bernard as I hover in the Co-op over nets of tangerines, mandarins, clementines, satsumas and ‘easy peelers’, whatever they are. ’Tis the season for citrus. For oranges at the bottom of stockings, for Buck’s Fizz on Christmas morning, for smoked salmon blinis with slices of lemon, for Milanese panettone with candied parings of peel, and for J.C. Volkamer’s The Book of Citrus Fruits, an astonishingly beautiful reprinting by art publishers Taschen, too huge to fit down the chimney.

Johann Christoph Volkamer (1644–1720) was a Nuremberg merchant whose grandfather, Johann Volkamer, made a fortune in Italian silks. His father, Johann Georg Volkamer, was a natural historian, astronomer, physicist, botanist and president of the Imperial Academy of Natural History who called himself ‘Helianthus’ or ‘Sunflower’. Johann Christoph took over his grandfather’s silk factory at Rovereto in northern Italy, and his garden at Gostenhof, just outside Nuremberg. He had a zest for citrus of all sorts, the ‘finest adornment to any garden’. He began compiling his Nürnbergische Hesperides in 1685, publishing the first volume in 1708 and the second in 1714.

The myth of citrus starts with Hercules and the Hesperides. It is a story of preciousness, covetousness and the lengths to which a man will go for a lemon. In the garden of the Greek gods grew a rare and fabulous tree laden with golden fruits, guarded by the serpent-dragon Ladon and tended by the green-fingered nymphs Aegle, Arethusa and Hesperia, daughters of the Titan Atlas and the goddess Night. The name ‘Hesperides’ derives from the Greek Hesperos for the evening star or Venus. In one version of the eleventh labour of Hercules, our hero slays Ladon and makes off with three golden apples. In another, Hercules holds up the sky for Atlas and sends the Titan to do his dirty work. The Latin poma aurantiabecame the Old German Pomeranze or ‘bitter orange’, and the fêted fruit of the Hesperides, not a crisp autumn apple, but a bright spring citrus. Strikingly, in Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ (c.1480), the fruits in the trees are closer to oranges or lemons than apples. This may be a nod to Botticelli’s patron Lorenzo de Medici whose family crest of palle(red balls against a golden shield) were sometimes likened to oranges.

Volkamer’s volumes were a labour of love and of Hercules. He oversaw the printing of 750 pages and more than 250 coloured copperplates illustrating 170 distinct varieties of citrus. The plates are an extraordinary, almost surrealist experiment in cut-up and collaged scenes. Each citrus is drawn true to life size. Fruits lower like vast lemon zeppelins over idealised Italianate palazzi and gardens. Volkamer’s vedute (views) may be more fancy than fact, but he was strict about his citrus. Brief botanical commentaries describe the size, shape, colour and scent of each citrus tree; its characteristic leaves, blossoms and fruits; when the fruits ripen; their origins and how the variety is to be cultivated. Volkamer is keen on propagation, whether from seed, seedlings, leaves or thorn. Let a hundred lemons bloom.

Following the scheme of the Jesuit professor Giovanni Battista Ferrari, whose Hesperides, sive de malorum aureorum cultura et usa was published in Rome in 1646, Volkamer divides the genus citrusinto citrons; lemons and limes; and sweet and sour oranges and grapefruits. Each has its guardian Hesperide and corresponding region of Italy: Aegle grows citrons on the shores of Lake Garda, Arethusa introduces lemons to the Ligurian coast and Hesperia prunes her orange trees in Calabria. The frontispiece to the first volume, engraved by Paul Decker the Elder, shows the Hesperides (in yellow and orange gowns, of course) and Mercury the god of commerce offering salvers of lemons and their leaves to Noris, personification of the city, wearing a Nuremberg novelty hat. Putti rush about with shrubs.

A citron (a fruit in its own right) is a strange creature. In her lovely, evocative history of citrus, The Land Where Lemons Grow (2014), Helena Attlee describes the citron as ‘a much more ancient and primitive object than a lemon. It looks like the beginning of an idea about fruit, a rough prototype made at an early stage of the design process, a crude unfinished thing.’ In Volkamer’s rendering they are knobbly, carbuncled bruisers, more like gourds than the palely familiar lemon. Most arresting of all are the grotesques, the freaks, the ‘Bizzarria’, the warty results of spontaneous mutation or deliberate grafting.

Volkamer was proud of having ‘industriously drawn’ all his fruits ‘from nature’, in the flesh and in the pith. The exception was the grapefruit. He had earmarked a specimen in the Bose gardens in Leipzig, but in 1706 the tree bore only one fruit so Volkamer sent orders to have it sketched on the spot. It was the age of the great glass orangery and citrus fruits were successfully grown in German gardens, though fewer varieties thrived than in the south. Connoisseurs bought their citrus from Italy or at the Frankfurt and Leipzig fairs. Some citrus are missing from the Hesperides. Volkamer seems not to have come across the blood oranges grown on the chill plains in the shadow of Mount Etna, while the mandarin orange was not introduced to Europe until the 19th century.

Volkamer had definite ideas about the ideal gardener, a calling to which ‘no stupid or idle person is suited’. The true gardener ‘must have good scientific knowledge and a good eye… be intelligent and thoughtful…industrious and untiring’. His own hired gardeners were never up to snuff. He complained of ‘malicious pranks by such dishonourable and ungodly gardeners’ and of the theft and neglect of plants in their care. He translates a fable earlier told by Ferrari. Two unruly boys who are given the run of a garden let the place go to seed. In punishment, the goddess Flora turns them into a snail and a caterpillar, most hated of all garden pests.

It wasn’t just citrus. In his garden at Gostenhof, Volkamer cultivated (and illustrated) olive, bay and strawberry trees, pistachios and aubergines. (This last was thought to be an unwholesome food that ‘made people stupid or drove them mad’.) He also illustrated the coffee tree, the dragon tree, the coconut, the cotton plant, any number of auriculas and the ‘Queen of Fruits’, the pineapple, which had been raised in European greenhouses since the 17th century. The pineapple plate is pure John Wyndham.

If you’ve ever returned to a favourite childhood book and caught the incriminating scent of clementine peel when you opened the pages, and found perhaps a sticky fingerprint or two, you’ll know something of the sensuous, sunny pleasure of this book. Every page is a treat: heady, sweet, tart and transporting.

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The Book of Citrus Fruits by J.C. Volkamer, ed. Iris Lauterbach, is published by Taschen.

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