On Lemons

In Naples in August 1973 during the cholera epidemic, the price of a single lemon reached one thousand lire. To place this in context, I was in Florence at the time and this was what I was living on per day through my job as an English teacher. The New York Times dated 9 September 1973 wrote: 

“And the disease has had a certain effect, too, on buying habits. In Naples supermarkets, shoppers carry off beer by the crate because the beverage is believed to be the best antidote to cholera. Lemons, too, are thought to protect from infection. During the first day of the epidemic, lemons vanished from the shelves and were sold by black marketeers at $2.50 a pound. Neapolitans are squirting lemon juice into their spaghetti, espresso coffee, even their beer.” (NYT “Italy’s cholera”)

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago in London when talking on the phone with a young Florentine student isolated in her University room at UCL and suffering from Covid 19. Veronica preferred to eat a whole lemon rather than take paracetamol. I am happy to say that she has now got over the virus. Around the same time, a friend in Greece was telling me to eat lemons to boost my immune system. My Greek mother always started the day with the juice of a whole lemon in hot water. I don’t know whether this is a particularly Greek and Italian custom prevalent in the lands where the lemon tree grows more profusely, but it does appear that lemons have antiseptic and antibacterial qualities that can help us at this time.

Lemon trees have played a part in my family traditions. We planted one in my mother’s garden in Athens to mark my birthday one year and another in Florence was a surprise birthday present for my husband for his office courtyard. We planted another lemon tree high on a windy hillside outside Pistoia, where we were told by experts it would never flourish. The Medici who were great collectors of citrus fruit would house them in their “limonaia” (lemon house) during the winter months to escape the frost and that is what is still done today in all great Tuscan gardens, so we were justly proud when, against all odds, our little lemon tree produced a crop of seven lemons.

I have a photo archive of one hundred or so paintings of lemons done by my students in watercolour painting classes in Florence, London and Brighton since 2010. I don’t quite know how or why I came up with the idea, but painting a lemon is the first painting exercise I give (after painting a colour chart) to whoever starts a class with me, whatever their experience. It is my way of seeing where they are coming from, how they look, interpret, feel, rather than their technical prowess. Maybe because of the preconceptions we have in our heads – a lemon may suggest a deceptively simple form, but there are so many variations in shape, tone, texture. So many decisions to be made with regard to how it is approached, the angle of vision, differences in skin texture, marks, shadows and further decisions about background, all of which reveal the individual artist.

With the Garzoni Challenge, I have been living with the beautiful images of lemons painted by Garzoni which have inspired some of my work and also Frankie’s. Way back in February when I introduced Frankie to Garzoni and her challenge and we looked together at Garzoni’s paintings, I was excited by her immediate enthusiasm and ideas about what she could do and we could do together, from a slow craft stitching session using the work of Garzoni as a starting point to create a stitched still-life scene including fruits, flowers and insects, to using the Garzoni Challenge as a focus for our next art salon hosted in my Brighton studio. Since then, Frankie has been incorporating lemons in her crotched jewellery.

I came across the term “natura sospesa” (nature suspended) in the Getty museum’s description of Garzoni’s “Still life with bowl of citrons” and it seems to me yet another instance of the Garzoni challenge weaving itself into our lives as life itself has been, in many ways, suspended obliging us to stay still, to take note, to reflect. Meanwhile, I am hoping that one of Frankie’s lemon brooches will act as an amulet for me.

Rea Stavropoulos, London, 18 April 2020