The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit

Keates_04_14Joanathan Keates at Literary Review:

Goethe's 'The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister', a neglected masterpiece if ever there was, is known nowadays for a single line from a ballad sung by Mignon, the daughter of a wandering musician. 'Know'st thou the land where the lemon trees bloom?' begins her mysterious song, describing an imagined world of blue skies, marble statues and thunderous waterfalls, not without a lurking menace beneath its beauty. When Wilhelm asks her where she heard it, Mignon answers, 'Italy! If thou go to Italy, take me along with thee; for I am too cold here.'

Goethe's verses encapsulate the romantic hankering for what Browning hailed as 'the land of lands' and Forster identified as 'a place that's upset people since the beginning of the world'. Citrus fruit, as Helena Attlee clearly understands, is the ultimate metaphor for Italy as an object of desire among us shivering mortals on the wrong side of the Alps. In Goethe's day, northern Europeans with enough money created elegant orangeries, where the precious trees spent a coddled winter indoors before sweating gardeners trundled them onto the terrace for a few weeks of watery sunshine. Such buildings were a fantasy Hesperides. The real golden apples grew far to the south, where the ancestral wisdom of farmers, cooks, perfumers, engineers and entrepreneurs placed citrus fruits alongside the grape and the olive as an archetype of Mediterranean fertility.

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