The following is an excerpt from Helena Attlee's The Land Where Lemons Grow:
Stand as close as you like to oranges in the fruit aisle of a supermarket and you’ll smell nothing but the faint hint of disinfectant. And you can be sure, even before you touch them, that you could tear the peel from one of these chilly imports without alerting security.
And yet I can remember coming home one winter evening in Siena, pushing open the heavy front door and finding the darkness beyond it full of the unmistakable scent of oranges. I may have paused for a moment before running down the flight of steps to our apartment in the basement, opening first the front door and then the inner door, but inside I found my husband still peeling a perfectly fresh orange. I’ve never forgotten that perfume, or the fierce energy that propelled it through two closed doors, up a flight of stairs and across the cool air of the courtyard, and so it’s been no surprise to me that writers in Italy have so often responded to the scent of oranges and other citrus fruit, and to the even more powerful perfume of their blossom.
Citrus has a migrant perfume, a perfume heavy enough to roll across distance, so you often smell it before seeing the trees themselves. John Evelyn was one of the first Englishmen to describe the luxurious sensation of being wrapped in scent by invisible trees. In his diary, he describes an eventful voyage in 1644 from Cannes in the south of France to the citrus farming region of Genoa on the Italian riviera. He set off on 12 October, having first acquired a health certificate, “without which there is no admission to any Towne in Italy”, and struck a bargain with a “Sea-man”. When they were hit by a violent storm off the coast of Liguria, the captain seemed to lose hope, an Irish bishop on board began to hear confessions, and it was left to Evelyn and other terrified passengers to bail water from the sinking boat. The wind dropped as suddenly as it had come, and only then, shocked, seasick and exhausted, Evelyn noticed an extraordinary scent rolling in from the distant shore, a scent in which “might perfectly be smelt the peculiar joys of Italy, ...the natural perfumes of Orange, Citron and Jasmine flowers, for divers leagues to seaward”.
Citrus blossom is generally referred to as zagara in Italian, an exotic word originally passed from Arabic into Sicilian dialect. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that Gabriele d’Annunzio, World War I hero, aviator, proto-fascist and bestselling author, brought it into standard Italian by using it repeatedly in his own work. “It pleases me so much” he said of zagara, “that if I utter the name, I can smell the perfume.” In Nocturne, which is D’Annunzio’s account of convalescence after an accident in combat that almost blinded him, it’s clear that his sense of touch has become preternaturally sensitive. Seeking out the “hard buds” of orange blossom in a conservatory, he says “I feel them one by one. Some are closed, some are split, some are half open. Some are delicate and sensitive like nipples, fearful of a caress.” For D’Annunzio, their scent is “candid, unripe, infant-like”, and it’s true that at its most superficial it is a bright, carefree perfume of the kind an adolescent might wear to her first party. But zagara has many layers, and below its innocence is something cloying and almost fetid.
These overly suggestive undertones serve Giuseppe di Lampedusa well in The Leopard, where his vision of 19-century Sicily is saturated with decadence, sensuality and the ambiguous scent of zagara. Not long after Lampedusa introduces us to the Prince of Salina, we see him noticing “an erotic waft of early orange blossom” in his garden, from trees hidden behind the garden wall. Perhaps that’s why he sets off for Palermo on a “low love adventure”, attempting to conceal the purpose of the outing from his wife by compelling the family priest to accompany him. As their carriage rattles along, zagara is there again. The trees are concealed by darkness this time, and yet “the nuptial scent of the blossoms absorbed the rest as a full moon does a landscape; the smell of sweating horses, the smell of leather from the carriage upholstery, the smell of Prince and the smell of Jesuit, were all cancelled out by that Islamic perfume evoking houris and fleshly joys beyond the grave.” If you read only D’Annunzio’s and Lampedusa’s words, you might always associate the smell with eroticism, decadence or corruption. But Eugenio Montale focuses on something quite different. His poem I Limoni, published in 1925, dwells on a perfume that is both infinitely precious and freely given for anyone to enjoy. His zagara is not an invisible presence on trees swathed in darkness or concealed behind walls. Exposed to view, the trees that bear it are a prosaic bunch, growing on patches of rough ground, or beside miserable city streets in winter. And yet the perfume of their blossom has the power to elevate and transform even these bleak and banal places for all of us, or, as Montale expresses it, qui tocca anche a noi poveri la nostra parte di ricchezza/ ed e l’odore dei limoni — “now it’s our turn, us poor ones, to have a share of riches/ and it’s the scent of lemons”.
There’s room enough for everyone in Montale’s olfactory republic. You have only to fly to Catania on Sicily’s east coast in April, when zagara reaches its apotheosis, to take your place. The perfume will bludgeon its way on to the plane as soon as they open the doors, rolling down the aisle, heavy and inexorable, to claim you. And before you’ve even stood up, it will have undone the disappointments of a long British winter by “melting the ice in your heart”, just as Montale said it would.
Note: The Land Where Lemons Grow is published by Penguin.
© Guardian News Service