Anne's Blog

Ancient Links to Umbria’s Olive Trees

Date: October 25, 2020 - categories: , , , , , - Leave your thoughts

For my October 31st ZOOM talk (my twelfth!), olives and olive oil in Italy’s  art, history, cuisine, medicine, folklore – and not only! – will take the stage.
I’ve decided to write a few blog notes prior as an introduction.
Let’s get started.
Since ancient times, a symbol of peace, wisdom, prosperity, fertility, and victory, no fruit-bearing tree in the Mediterranean has been praised, sung, and depicted in art as much as the olive tree.
It has accompanied the inhabitants of these lands in times of both prosperity, and deprivation and has visibly left its imprint on  every aspect of the cultural tradition of the Mediterranean people – and defined the landscape:
Olive oil has long been a common ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine including ancient Greek and Roman cuisine.  The Museo Archeologico di Napoli covets a treasure either from Pompeii or Herculaneum – both destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.: a corked glass oliera (bottle for olive oil) nearly full of that liquid gold:
Wild olives, which originated in Asia Minor, were collected by Neolithic people as early as the 8th millennium B.C.   Ancient peoples of the  eastern Mediterranean have been grinding olives for oil the last 6,000-8,000 years.
Archaeological and scientific evidence indicates that the olive tree (Olea europaea) was most likely first cultivated on the Turkey/Syria border with its cultivation then spreading  to Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Greece, Italy, France, and Spain – that is, throughout the Mediterranean world.
The Romans diffused olive cultivation throughout their Empire, including in their north African territories.  In  the 1st-2nd c. A.D. Roman city of Volubilis (Morocco), ….
….. there were at least fifty-five olive presses.
You can see here the remains of a couple:
The Romans in Tunis also cultivated olives, pressing them in giant stone presses like this one:
About thirty years ago, archaeologists found the most ancient evidence of olive oil ever found in Italy to date.  Traces of olive oil – that is oleic acid – were found in a giara (an earthenware or ceramic jar) in Castelluccio di Noto (Sicily), dating to about 2000 B.C. (when present-day Sicily was Greek, part of Magna Grecia):
Prior to this discovery – enthusing archaeologists – the most ancient olive oil traces yet found were in  giare of the 12th and 11th – c. B.C. in other cities of Magna Grecia, Cosenza (Calabria) and Lecce (Puglia).
And do note below the area of Magna Grecia (and the Greek names given to their cities):

I’m not sure about the oldest traces of olive oil found in our region of Umbria, although one gray November day,  I made a pilgrimage to the oldest olive tree, the “l’ulivo di Sant’Emiliano”  (“the olive tree of Sant’Emiliano”) near Bovara, close to the Umbrian medieval hilltop village of Trevi.
Well over one thousand years old (probably closer to about 2000 years old),  this gnarled Umbrian olive tree giant is younger than the oldest ones in Italy:  a tree of four thousand years in Sardinia, a four-to-three thousand year-old tree in Puglia and one in Latium which is about three thousand  years old.
A ninth-century legend tells us that the olivo di Sant’Emiliano grows in the place where Trevi’s patron saint was martyred in 304 A.D. during the Christian persecutions ordered by Emperor Diocletian.  This first bishop of Trevi was tied to this olive sapling prior to being decapitated.
Solemnly holding his bishop’s crozier, Sant’Emiliano faces us with determination in this oil painting by Matteo da Gubbio, 14th-c (now in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia):
The massive tree named for him splits into three large trunks,  all stemming from a central body with a 9-metre perimeter.
The gray and chilly November day I was there, chatting people were picking olives not far away from the olive-tree giant:

They were carrying on a long-lived tradition of the ancient peoples who had worked the olive trees surrounding Trevi centuries before…..

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