Perspectives on coffee culture: Arcimboldo’s bean
Insight into the early spread of coffee culture is hampered due to limited sources and uncertainty if they refer to coffea, or another plant. A playful source for debate in coffeaology (the study of coffea) is Arcimboldo’s 1590 masterpiece: Vertumnus(1).
The earliest ‘western’ depictions of coffee appear to be in 1574 by Charles de l’Ecluse (Clusius), while botantist of Maximilian II (2), and 1592 by Venetian botanist Prospero Alpini(3). Neither is detailed, but accompanying text enables identification of Alpini’s berry-free coffee tree (observed in Cairo); Clusius mentions the ‘furrow’ in his beans (obtained from the Duke of Ferrara’s physician).
Guiseppe Arcimboldo, the Habsburg court artist and accomplished natural history painter (who co-served with Clusius(4)) may have provided another. The surprising juxtapositions found in Arcimboldo’s work though humorous, and eccentric, appear to accurately represent flora and fauna4. Vertumnus (1590) depicts Emperor Rudolf II (son of Maximilian II, and an avid collector, and naturalist) using fruit and vegetables. A sprig of olives is shown; beneath it, at first glance, is an olive pit, yet its histology is problematic(5).
The endocarp morphology shows a clear longitudinal groove, and its shape suggests possibly a date, but particularly a coffee bean(6). Did Arcimboldo wink at us by ‘hiding’ a coffee bean? Rudolf II knew about coffee from Clusius’ works. Was Arcimboldo’s double entendre intended subterfuge to ally contemporary suspicions of coffee.
Attachment: Journal_of_Brief_Ideas_200_Words_-_Submission_27_July_2021.pdf (521 KB)