I first noticed flowers with a tight mass of red petals one June in the garden of the Medici villa at Castello, north of Florence. They were on a large bush or small tree with masses of shiny dark green leaves and looked like the flowers in a paradise garden on a Persian carpet. Along the stalks behind the pointed leaves were thorns. Like the hawthorn bushes with a profusion of white flowers in spring, this must be a cautionary plant saying ‘Do not take me for granted! Grasp me at your peril.’
Along the autumn hedgerows on the nights of a full moon round shapes hang in the bushes, dark in the milky light. The weather has been perfect with orange into scarlet sunsets, the colours of oranges and pomegranates, both with a tang in their taste. A full moon in a clear night sky throws deep, soft shadows across the track. High stone walls holding up the next level of terraces are like an abstract relief of lichen, caper plants and ivy hanging down or peeping out of crevices to write their life all over them.
Leonardo da Vinci must have ridden along this same track to find the view – or map – that he drew of the flooded Val di Chiana. He could look closely at the walls when travelling on horseback. Horses cannot trot or canter for long, so long stretches of his journey from Rome to Florence would have been at a pace to leave him time to look and think and perhaps even draw? Would he have held his notebook and sketched while his mount ambled along a similar track? He could have looped the reins and kicked the horse when it stopped to bite at some greenery, his mind stimulated by the shape of leaves and the patterns of time on the stone walls.
Later I found the same small red flowers in spring along such hedgerows as Leonardo would have passed. In autumn he would have relished the ripe pomegranates, shiny green shaded with brown and red. Many now have a gash in them revealing ruby-like seeds. They are sharp and bitter in taste, like Seville oranges – another warning to look, but do not pluck and eat. Both were cultivated in Roman gardens following the Persian example, and the wind must have blown the seeds of the tougher pomegranate plants all over the Italian countryside.
Another fruit tree – the persimmon – used to be found near farmhouses. I planted one and can see the strange smooth yellow fruit as I write. Like pomegranates, they have a strong shape and colour giving substance to a paradise or enclosed garden. Like a pomegranate, the persimmon is unsatisfying to eat. Almost tasteless and stringy in texture, it is believed to be the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil that Eve offered to Adam in Paradise, and which he ate. The pomegranate with a gash showing the seeds like drops of blood is often held by the Christ child in Renaissance paintings as a symbol of his fate, the Passion. So here in the Tuscan countryside are the ancient symbols of temptation and passion.