Models from Arnoldi’s Fruit Cabinet demonstrate in the Humboldt Lab how diverse the range of German varieties could be
Apples are a fruit to which we are accustomed, one that seems normal and ordinary to us and as the subject of a scientific exhibition is surely nothing spectacular. Yet the apple models on exhibit in the Humboldt Lab are anything but everyday items even though they used to be grown in Germany. They have amazingly little in common with the varieties to be found on European supermarket shelves. The 32 apples, models that look deceptively real, come from Arnoldi’s Fruit Cabinet, a collection of varieties grown in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“You won’t find a Braeburn or a Granny Smith among them,” says Dr Thilo Habel, head of collections at the University of Greifswald, where the Arnoldi collection is held.
In Arnoldi’s days fruit growing was characterised by orchard meadows and by a huge diversity of varieties. Modernisation of fruit growing and the clearance of orchard meadows after World War II led to a decline in the number of varieties. Today, German supermarkets mainly sell just ten out of around 3,000 varieties of apple that grow in Central Europe. “I would simply call them the standard European apple. We have effectively stopped eating small, wrinkled apples that may be very tasty and very healthy,” says Dr Gorch Pieken, head curator of the Humboldt Lab, the Humboldt-Universität’s scientific exhibition in the Humboldt Forum.
The knowledge about the native diversity is getting lost
The diversity to which Arnoldi’s Fruit Cabinet testifies is not just a sight for sore eyes; it also had practical benefits. There used to be winter, summer and autumn apples. “You can actually eat local apples at any time of the year,” Pieken says. Some varieties were harvested in the autumn but then had to ripen and were not edible until Christmas or January. “There are also very early varieties that may have unsightly skins but are extremely rich in vitamins and very tasty,” he adds.
“You don’t have to look as far afield as the Amazon to realise that biodiversity is in decline all over the world.” Arnoldi’s Fruit Cabinet makes the local diversity of varieties visible and creates link to the current global challenges that are dealt with on a large multimedia research wall in the Humboldt Lab exhibition: global trade and traffic in goods, the climate crisis and the extinction of species. The exhibition, entitled ‘After Nature,’ also asks what ‘nature’ actually is. Are orchard meadows as part of our cultural landscape ‘natural’? “There is no unspoiled nature any more, and as part of nature many old apple varieties have ceased to exist and many more are under threat,” Gorch Pieken says.
The model apples in the Humboldt Lab are presented Humboldt Lab are resplendent on soft, transparent brush hairs and can thus be seen from all sides. Made in the porcelain factory of Heinrich Arnoldi, 1813–85, they originally served various purposes. For one, Arnoldi sold them with detailed descriptions to fruit growers and as teaching aids to scientific institutes. They were sold by subscription, with new models sent regularly to subscribers.
The subscribers included the University of Greifswald. “In those days there was a keen interest in agricultural objects,” says Thilo Habel. One reason was that in the 19th century there was an agricultural academy in nearby Eldena. “We had a very enterprising professor of botany who taught in Eldena and at the University of Greifswald. We probably owe the subscription to him,” says the head of collections.
Today the Greifswald collection consists of 214 of the 455 models that Arnoldi manufactured, including 104 apples, 73 pears and a number of other fruit varieties. The models were not made of porcelain; they were cast in a special kind of plaster. They are hollow and coated in tempera, applied elaborately in several layers, replicating delicate nuances of colour and speckles. “The peaches are particularly beautiful. Even their bloom was replicated,” Habel says.
The Collection is also relevant for agriculture again
Pomology, the science of fruit growing, evolved in the 18th and was widespread in the 19th century. “It wasn’t an elitist subject but one in which both princes and the general public were interested,” Habel says. For all levels of the population, preserved pears and apples kept in storage were a luxury that was very much in demand.
Arnoldi’s models served not only as objects of scientific study. Members of the public were also keen to acquire imitations of fruit that looked deceptively real to decorate their homes. To this day the models are shown as examples of illusionist painting. They can be seen, for example, among the collections of the Botanical Museum in Greifswald. “Arnoldi’s Fruit Cabinet is presented as a special treasure of science history,” Habel says.
He has noticed that interest in old varieties of fruit is on the increase again, for both ecological and culinary reasons. Industrialisation has, after all, led to a loss of taste diversity.
An interesting aspect for both science and agriculture is how well suited old varieties are for coping with climate change – in part perhaps better than the few supermarket varieties. Another question is whether wrinkled winter apples might be suitable once more as an alternative to fruit imported from the other side of the world.
|Date:||24. September 2020|