More than 300 hundred years ago, a court painter to the Medici dynasty assembled all the pear varieties he could find growing in Tuscany and recorded them for his patron.
Pears that were steely gray, yellow, green, blue, blush; pears the size of potatoes, pears in cherry-like clusters; pears the shape and color of apples. Hundreds of mouth-watering pears, a total of 115 different varieties, assembled by the artist Bartolomeo Bimbi.
The painting, in its ornate carved frame, is one of the stars of the current exhibition "The Flowering of Florence" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The show features three painters and other artists and craftsmen working to chronicle the Medicis' interest in art and science during the Renaissance.
"Pears" and other works by Bimbi (1648-1729) stand out as extraordinary, said co-curator Gretchen Hirschauer. The fruits are shown in a classical temple, glowing like jewels against a dark background.
The fruit Bimbi painted is believed to have come from the 14 villas that the Medicis owned in and around Florence, and may have come too from the orchards of other Tuscan aristocrats, said Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi, the exhibition's other curator.
Pears had been grown and cherished in Italy since at least Roman times, but the Renaissance gave form to the villa orchard at a time of great interest in botany and fruit cultivation, spawning the creation of so many varieties.
Pears, like apples, produce seedlings from pits that are all different from one another. If a gardener discovers a seedling that bears fabulous fruit, he must replicate it by taking cuttings to grow into trees.
Richard Bell, a fruit scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the Medici orchards probably predated the grafting of trees onto quince rootstock, meaning the trees were large, the spacing between them was as much as 25 feet and a relatively large amount of land was needed to raise them. "They were probably growing them at a much wider spacing than they do today," he said.
The French aristocracy, whose gardeners perfected the art of training pears on walls, had at least as many varieties, he said. And today?
The American consumer is lucky to find any beyond the four European pear varieties that dominate the market: Bartlett, Anjou, Bosc and Comice. "Some of that is driven by the realities of the marketplace," said Bell, a research horticulturist at the Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, W.Va. "There's only so much grocery shelf space."
This paucity is in contrast to the number of pear varieties that can be grown in America. The current fruit register of the American Pomological Society lists more than 200 varieties of European pears.
The society's 19th century founder, Marshall Pinkney Wilder, outdid the Medicis and Dauphins combined. In his suburban garden in Dorchester, Mass., he planted and developed a pear orchard containing, at its peak, 800 varieties. According to the society's Web site, "during his life he tested 1,200 cultivars of pears and exhibited 404 in 1873."
The comeback of the pear may rest with small commercial orchards, "and there's quite an active amateur orchard movement in this country," said Bell.