In Ecclesiastes 2:4–8, Qohelet describes how he built houses, and created gardens and parks filled with fruit trees, with pools to water them. He also acquired slaves, animals, treasure, singers, and concubines. This royal environment echoes the palaces of great Middle Eastern kings, with their vast botanical gardens and complex irrigation systems. These were both pleasure gardens for private enjoyment, and a public statement of wealth and power (Brown 2000: 32).
Like Qohelet, powerful rulers in Renaissance Europe built lavish gardens and filled them with rare plants. The Medici dynasty in Florence amassed a large collection of citrus fruit trees, including hundreds of oranges, lemons, and citrons, learning to grow these exotic species through extensive horticultural experiments. Gardens like those at the Medici-owned Pitti Palace were both a display of wealth and taste, and a reflection of their scholarly, humanist interest in philosophy and science.
These expensive citrus plants required skilled care by trained gardeners, and extra precautions in colder months, when potted specimens were moved into special lemon houses. A basket of specimen fruit was sent annually as a gift to the pope, and particularly unusual forms of citrus fruit were prized as ‘bizzarrie’ (curiosities). The many varieties were recorded and celebrated in paintings like this one by Bartolomeo Bimbi, and in plaster and wax casts.
Gardens may be an attempt to recreate paradise on earth, they may represent scientific curiosity, or they may be—as Qohelet’s gardens were—part of an investigation into the value of pleasure and the nature of the good life (2:1–3). He concluded that there was pleasure to be found in creating such magnificence, but that, nevertheless, all these achievements were ultimately nothing but ‘vanity and a striving after wind’ (2:11).
Atlee, Helena. 2014. The Land Where Lemons Grow: the Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit (London: Particular Books), pp. 5–27
Brown, William P. 2000. Ecclesiastes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Filardi, Domenico. 2007. Orto de' Pitti: The Architects, Gardeners and Botanical Design of the Boboli Gardens (Florence: Centro Di)