Food & Drink

Puzzle Inspired Story

The Pear - A Noble Fruit

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, fresh fruit, pears in particular, were considered a luxurious delicacy most suitable for the sensual pursuits of the aristocracy. The pears’ perishability made them inappropriate for peasants who, always threatened with famine, had to either preserve them (degrading the fruit in the process) or focus their energies on more durable foods. The pear’s taste was associated with the delicate, ephemeral qualities of life as opposed to the earthly or burdensome ones. To convey the message of prestige, gifts of pears were made among medieval aristocrats; in the 5th century, Ruricius, a bishop of Limoges (in south central France), sent a basket of 100 pears to Vitammer, a Goth nobleman. Some thousand years later in 1564, Cristoforo Madruzzo, the prince-bishop of Trento (in northern Italy) sent a hundred pears to the imperial court in Vienna. An Italian Renaissance philosopher and poet, Tomasso Campanella, wrote a sonnet on the occasion of a gift of pears sent to him by a woman, one of them purposely “nibbled by her teeth.”

In addition to taste, pears had one other important quality which made them planted more often than apples in Italy during the Renaissance. A pear tree lasted longer (often 250 years) and bore fruit for a longer period of time in the season. By assembling a suitable portfolio of varieties, it was possible to collect pears from May to November. Even Charlemagne, the king who established the Frankish empire in the 8th and 9th centuries, recommended cultivating different varieties in the royal gardens. There’s no better an illustration of this approach than the painting “Pears” (c. 1700), by Bartolomeo Bimbi, an artist in the employ of the Italian aristocrat Cosimo de’ Medici III. The work depicts large platters of 115 varieties of pears annotated by their names and the time of ripening, a sequence of dates starting in June and ending in the winter.

In addition to documenting 17th century Europe’s infatuation with pears, Bimbi’s painting illustrates a major difference between the artist’s times and the current horticulture. Consumer choice has become the cruelest of selectors, much more so than nature, wiping out the less “satisfying” varieties from existence. The pears sold in Italy’s supermarkets today are of only a handful of varieties and do not come from local orchards. Instead, they are transported from the Emilia-Romagna region, the center of the country’s agriculture, or Argentina. As a result, many of Bimbi’s varieties are lost to posterity as they are no longer cultivated by anyone.

On occasion, given the trees’ longevity, it is possible to find an old pear tree still surviving in an abandoned orchard on the side of an Italian hill. In fact, an agronomist, Isabella Dalla Ragione, has created a special orchard – a museum of fruit no longer sold or found anywhere, yet depicted on the paintings of renaissance artists like Bimbi, Ligozzi and others. Dalla Ragione’s arboreal archaeology brings back the faded aristocrats of the pear world, reminding us that taste, similar to beauty, does not last forever.


  • Massimo Montanari, “Cheese, Pears, and History in a Proverb”, translated by Beth Archer Brombert, Columbia University Press, New York, 2010
  • John Seabrook, “Renaissance Pears”, The New Yorker, September 5, 2005


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