THE APPLICATIONS OF OLIVE OIL
OLIVE OIL AS A FOOD
In the diet, the “oil” theme focuses on the regimen sanitatis and on the consequent harmony between human and plant nature. This harmony is a Greek-Arab heritage, transmitted by the Salerno Medical School since the 10th century, and it highlights the therapeutic function of dietetics.
With the passage of time, the improved living conditions and the testimonies due to comparisons spur studies and research: the Renaissance scientific fervour favours the birth of botanical gardens and the teaching of the semplici in the universities. The diffusion of the press, in turn, facilitates the dissemination of agricultural treatises that highlight the properties of oil in correspondence with dietetics and the progress of medicine. The oil is increasingly present in everyday life as in the dishes of spectacular banquets, nor should we forget the countless vigils and the corresponding salads, born in the kitchens of the great Curias, a further contribution of the Church to olive growing (from the worship practices to votive lamps). Foundation works testify to so much fervour of study, from Castore Durante to Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Ugo Benzi and many more. The erudite wall panel is the work of nutrition historian Massimo Montanari and evokes how in the modern age the oil progressively comes out “from the Lenten logic” thanks to the prevalence of new gastronomic models, while to the north of the Alps from the 15th century butter prevails.
A Salt shaker of the Queen (Ariano Irpino, 18th century) next to a stone mortar for the crushing of the large grains of salt, introduces to the “kitchen” environment, followed by tools, ceramics and a large set of ancient copper containers related to typical dishes where oil prevails.
OLIVE OIL AS A MEDICINE
The organoleptic properties of oil explain its ancient medicinal and soothing function in academic medicine, and as an omnivalent remedy in the magical-religious one.
The olive tree and oil are present in the Hippocratic Medicine, they persist in the Galenic one destined, through the millennia, to survive until recent times.
Among the numerous medical works exhibited that refer to Hippocrates, we see the folio edition of the Opera de medicamentorum by Mesue (Yuhanna Ibn Masawayh, 9th century) from Damascus, published by Giunti in 1589; it attests to the persistence of oil, intended as prevention and cure, after over 500 years since the Islamic contribution to the western food regime. Alongside it, to highlight the era, is a Medici travel pharmacy with an enclosed cookbook on paper, topped by the family’s coat of arms. Extended to the prevention of diseases, dietetics continues to be the norm as it emerged from the 9th century with the teachings of the Medical School of Salerno, of Greek-Arab tradition.
THE OLIVE OIL AND THE MYTH
Athena is the daughter of Zeus and Metis, whom he devours fearing her treacherous intelligence; he then saves the daughter by hiding her in his body. The goddess is born, fully grown and armed, from Zeus’ head, she wins the contest with Poseidon for the possession of Attica and makes the olive tree sprout with her spear. She will become the propitious goddess originating the plow, the rudder, the horse bite and the female crafts. The first two are represented here with models, the third with an Etruscan horse bite (8th-7th century B.C.), presented alongside the sketch of three horses, created by Duilio Cambellotti for the “Hyppolite” presented at the Greek theatre in Syracuse in the 1930s.
A precious finely engraved fusarola of the 8th century B.C. follows. A wool thread connects it, as spinning in progress, to the content of a traditional kalathos daunio vessel of the 4th century B.C.
The cult is recalled by the marble Paros trilicne (dining room) surrounded by six female protomes, with iron suspension frame (620-610 B.C.).
OLIVE OIL AS FUEL
Pomace is the residue of the final pressing of the olives. Composed of stone fragments and plant debris compressed within the pressing mats (fiscoli), the pomace took the shape of a thin disc imprinted on both sides with the texture of the mats.
The itinerary illustrates how a society based on an agricultural economy used its products without wasting any residues: the pomace represented a reliable source of heat with which to feed stoves, warmers and braziers.
In times of war, with the lack of coal, wood or other heat source, the pomace reaches the city from the countryside and most people accept having to bear its sharp and intense smell; the ancient braziers, which had become furnishing elements, are reactivated, warmers of every price are multiplying as well as foot warmers: the heat is not that intense, yet acceptable with the travel warmers.
OLIVE OIL IN COSMETICS
Archaeological evidence testifies how the caravan and maritime trade between Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus – already intense between the 4th and 3rd millennium B.C. – is fed by aromas, ointments, perfumed oils produced or arrived in those lands and, at the same time, how the demand fosters the diffusion of the olive tree. Specific climatic requirements call for anointing as skin protection, and olive oil is the best essences stabiliser.
In the Homeric Greece, the oil amphora at Nausicaa, the nurse anointing of Ulysses and the ritual unction of the body of fallen Patroclus constitute the premise of the unguentaria art that soon blossomed in Delos, Corinth, Cyprus (see the recent excavations). Republican Rome condemns “oriental weaknesses”, but cosmetics are unstoppable in the imperial city and become a thriving market, testified by the ubiquity of laboratories in Paestum. With the perfumes and ointments, the production of containers also increased, from the “ciste”, exhibited as status, to the chains that tie the aryballos to the wrist, the lekythos (like the one here of the 5th century young woman) and more. Christian writers will protest, Dante and Jacopone will echo them; the Renaissance that loves perfumes will be followed by the Counter-Reformation condemning it, sumptuary laws will follow and all will be lost battles.
OLIVE OIL IN SPORT
A small container of oil or blended ointment always accompanied the athlete, who used it as a purifier for its detergent properties, after a gymnastic activity or even more after a competition. The classical statuary bears witness to it, see Lysippos’ The Athlete, who cleanses himself with the strigil. This is confirmed at MOO by the image of the superb amphora filled with oil from the olive grove sacred to Athena; it was the gift bestowed on the winner of the Panathenaic – the celebrations in honour of the goddess – from which it takes its name.
This is also attested by the bronze strigil (1st century B.C. – 1st century A.D.) and the 5th century. B.C. Attic lekythos decorated with an athlete holding a strigil
The olive branch crown was the customary prize for the winner of a competition, but also for the craftsman who created a masterpiece, such as the Painter of the Foundry, author of Athena’s shield (Room V).
OLIVE OIL IN RELIGION
The presence of Coptic and catacomb lamps introduces us to the sector dedicated to religion. Oil feeds the votive lamps and it plays the function of sacred anointing with ampoules and a beautiful silver ciborium for the consecration of oil on Holy Thursday. This was created by Gianni Crescentino of Urbino after 1815 and displays an original contamination of stylistic motifs recovered from the Roman and Florentine schools. The nearby ampullae testify to the pilgrims’ habit of collecting the oil burnt on the Holy Sepulchre or on those of St. Manno and others. Traditional Christian, Jewish (hannukkah, sabbathic, Ner Tamid) and Islamic lamps testify to the role of oil shared by the three Mediterranean monotheistic religions. Next, we find the copy by Giampaolo Tomassetti of the Madonna of the Olive Tree, created by Nicolò Barabino for the sanctuary of Sampierdarena: Queen Margherita loved it and took it with her to the Racconigi Royal residence; it was later exhibited in Berlin where it became “the Madonna of the Italians”. Barabino repeated it and it became the typical bridal bedroom painting in vogue at the beginning of the 20th century.
OLIVE OIL IN SYMBOLOGY
The olive tree is a primary symbol of peace and as such it often recurs in visual arts (see the Peace by Lorenzetti, attired in white and crowned with olive branches in the Good Government), in ritual and celebratory monuments, and is depicted in imprese (see the 1776 Iconology page of the Perugian edition by Costantini shown here). Next to it is a bronze by Edouard Drouot, presented at the Paris exhibition of 1898: a young man firmly raises his arm clutching an olive branch in his hand; at his feet are broken weapons and a plow. Next is a finely worked wrought-iron olive branch: it is the work of Pietro Cardolini designed by Vittorio Grassi. The awarding of prizes in the form of an olive branch can still be seen today: suffice to mention the Cannes film prize. A refined drawing of an owl, a work by Grassi, refers to the classical world and Athena’s owl attribute, since nothing escapes her sight in the darkness of the night.
OLIVE OIL AS SOURCE OF LIGHT: THE LAMPS COLLECTION
Oil as a source of light is the theme of the collection of oil lamps from the classical age to the late Neoclassicism: the start is given by a lamp shaped like a Nuragic vessel from the 8th-7th century. B.C. which is followed by one of the usual Attic lamps from the end of the 4th century. B.C. characterised by a round shape painted black and circled in red. A damascened bronze lamp dominates, accompanied by others, on the following crowd of terracotta lamps with embossed symbols.
The collection develops chronologically: the Renaissance bronze oil lamps emerge next to one obtained from recycled marble, followed by the hanging ones. In the section dedicated to ceramic lamps, the Caltagirone group stands out for its color and brio. The collection of Spanish “Capucine” lanterns is an endowment by the museographer Isabella Gasparro. Several “Florentine” lamps and their variants follow a series of unusual ones: for nocturnal hunting, in the function of a clock, for lace-makers, esoteric and more. The two 16th century stairway lamps in silver, with a double punch (by the Goldsmith Corporation of Florence and the silversmith Paolo Sogliani), and the large group of silver parlour lamps stand out. Called “lumiere” when they include classical sculptures, they often rest on imperial recycled marble, like the refined Retour d’Egypte by Pietro Paolo Spagna, topped by a victorious wing fan, forgetful of Abukir. The Hermes by Giambologna is a recurring theme; the one shown here is by Vincenzo Bugarini (19th century), loved because he is the God who guides the souls in Hades’ dark houses. The sacred follows: the impresse in terracotta and the votive lamps, also in silver, including one from the family workshop of the great poet Gioacchino Belli, the work of a cousin by the same name to whom the refined, typically Roman stoppiniera lamp is owed.