The Pompeian Pineapple

This article discusses a discovery in Pompeii of what appears to be a depiction of a pineapple. While there is still debate on the topic of what is depicted, for this article I refer to it as a pineapple, as I think that the fruit being a pineapple is more likely than it not being a pineapple. The section ‘Pineapple History’ delivers the history of pineapples that is based around the idea that Columbus was the first to bring them to the Old World.

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Pineapple History

Pineapples are native to South America. They were allegedly brought to the Old World (the regions of the world that were known to Europeans before the discovery of the Americas) from the New World by Christopher Columbus. Columbus had the privilege of being the first European to taste a pineapple when the Kalinago decided to share it with him.

“Columbus and his crew “discovered” the pineapple in Guadeloupe in 1493… . Sir Walter Relegh wrote of “the great abundance of ‘Pinas’…” in his 1595 travelogue… . … by the mid-1600s it was being produced in … Holland and England.” – T. Bottorff, et al., The Pineapple: The Princess of Fruit and the Symbol of Hospitality.

The pineapple was a hit with European royalty. Its status among fruits was rapidly elavated and it became more than simply a delicious treat, it became a symbol of wealth and hospitality [1]. It became so popular in art that artists who had never laid eyes on a real pineapple were painting them with incredible accuracy.

“When Christopher Columbus landed in the new world in 1493, the Spaniards named the fruit “pina” due to its resemblance to a pinecone. Columbus brought the pineapple with him back to Spain where the fruit became very popular with Queen Isabella.” – Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Pineapple.

The Chinese were successfully growing pineapples at a commercial rate by 1549 [2]. Even at this time, for some people the pineapple was still shrouded in myths and mysteries. For example, in 1578 a work written by Christopher de Acosta claimed that if you stuck a knife in a pineapple for over thirty minutes, the blade would dissolve. The 16th century assertion has not yet proven to be true.

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The Pompeian Pinapple

Domenico Casella published La frutta nelle pitture pompeiane (Fruit in Pompeian Paintings) in 1950. In it, he claims that there is a pineapple depicted on a mosaic from Pompeii. The mosaic shows an assortment of fruits that is apparently accompanied by a pineapple. Figs. 1+2 show what this mosaic looks like.

Fig. 1. The Pineapple Mosaic pineapple circled in red.
Fig. 2. Close-up of the pineapple.

As you can see, the fruit is strikingly similar in appearance to a pineapple. It has the gridded texture similar to a pineapple. It also has the tuft of foliage attached to the upper part. Despite appearing to be a pineapple, many people argue that it is something else. I think potentially it could be argued that the item behind the supposed pineapple could be a pinecone, but it is difficult to tell.

One argument against it being a pineapple is that the size of the fruit is too small to be a pineapple. Upon doing some digging for this article, I learned about the different types of pineapples and their various sizes. Fig. 3a shows three types of pineapple; cayenne, queen, and red spanish. Fig. 3b shows the variety in sizes. After reviewing the images below (and many more not included), I do not think proper size is an issue for the mosaic. Fig. 4 shows a rough comparison of a pineapple to grapes held in a hand.

Fig. 3a. Three types of pineapple.
Fig. 3b. Size variations of pineapple growth.
Fig 4. Pineapple vs Grapes

I have heard it argued that it may be a pinecone, or an artichoke, or a durian fruit, or a piece of bread with some garnish. The most popular idea is that it is a pinecone. Some scholars have narrowed it down specifically to an Umbrella Pine pinecone.

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Pinecones

Fig. 5 is an image of an umbrella pine cone. This image is one of the closest I could find that resembles the mosaic. The pinecone has the same gridded pattern with alternate coloring in the centers of the grid spaces. The main difference is the lack of foliage near the tip. No pinecones have foliage that sprout out of the tip.

Fig. 6 shows another umbrella pinecone. This one looks almost nothing like the mosaic aside from the rough spots on the tips of the points. There are no needles or foliage around this one.

Fig. 6. Umbrella pine cone.

Fig. 7 shows two more umbrella pinecones. They share the same similarity as Fig. 6 but these two are surrounded by needles. These needles point upwards from the base of the pinecone (the base being the round end attached to the branch and the top being the skinny tip not attached to anything). This differs from the mosaic as the fruit appears to have the foliage protruding from the skinnier end and the rounder end has nothing on it. The pine needles also don’t grow out of the pinecone, they are attached to the branch.

Fig. 7. Green Umbrella Pinecones.

Fig. 8 shows a closer up view of the green pinecone. You can see again that the needles are attached to the branch and not to the pinecone. The needles also point in the opposite direction of the supposed ones in the mosaic.

Fig. 8. Green pinecone.

I reviewed other artworks found in Pompeii and surrounding cities to look for depictions of pinecones. I found three images of which I review below. My primary conclusion is that the artists of Pompeii were extremely talented and were competent enough to depict a pinecone exactly as a pinecone looks. If the mosaic in question in fact depicts a pinecone, I would imagine that it was ridiculed when juxtaposed against its contemporaries.

Fig. 9. Plato’s Circle [3]
Bottom left border of Fig. 9
Slightly left of the middle of the upper border of Fig. 9

Fig. 9 has three pinecones depicted; two in the bottom left and one in the upper middle. The bottom left pinecones are depicted with long skinny pine needles between them. There are not needles sprouting from the skinny top of a pinecone, but from a branch. The same can be seen in Fig. 10.

Fig. 10. Hippo mosaic.
mid-right side border of Fig. 10.
mid-left side border of Fig. 10.

The pinecones are undoubtedly pinecones. Some are clearly on the branch, and almost all have the classic long skinny pine needles fanning in the proper direction that they do on natural trees. Fig. 11 shows this same realistic mosaic style in a mosaic from the House of Doves.

Fig. 11. House of Doves mosaic.
Top-mid-left border of Fig. 11.
Fig. 12. mask and pinecones.

As can be seen above, the artists that made these images were competent in their practice. The pinecones are easily identified because they are the spitting images of their real-life inspiration. Did the artist struggle to depict a pinecone in the mosaic under question? The rest of the fruits in Fig. 1 are depicted almost exactly the same as in the other images.

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Other Possible Pineapples

Along with the Pompeian pineapple, there are two more possible pineapple depictions which were found at Herculaneum. Fig. 13 shows what appears to be a pineapple situated on a stand between two snakes. I do not think that this is a fluked attempt at a pinecone or an artichoke. In my opinion, this image lends strength to the possibility that the other two images (Figs.1+14) show pineapples.

Fig. 13. Single Pineapple with snakes.

Fig. 14 shows the fresco of the Greek Gods at Thermopolium. On the upper portion of the image, counting from left to right, there is what appears to be a pineapple on a table between the second person and the third person. On the lower portion, though in considerably worse condition, there appears to be a similar depiction as in Fig. 13, a pineapple between two serpents.

Fig. 14. Pineapple on table and pineapple between snakes.

Given that pineapples quickly became a symbol of wealth and opulence, it might make sense why Herculaneum would have more depictions (and arguably better depictions) than Pompeii. This is based on the idea that Herculaneum was reportedly the richest of the cities destroyed by Pompeii. Christos Tsirogiannis writes in How Different was Herculaneum from Pompeii?, “Archaeological finds support the claim that, out of the five cities (Herculaneum, Pompeii, Stabiae, Oplontis, and Villa Boscoreale) destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius, Herculaneum was probably the wealthiest.”

Fig. 15. Three possible pineapples

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Conclusions

There are a variety of conclusions that one might reach. If one decides that the images depict pinecones (or some other common item other than a pineapple), then the general textbook narrative of history can continue without disturbance. That being that pinecones were being depicted and pineapples remained across the ocean, unknown to the Old World.

If one decides that the images depict pineapples, then the general textbook narrative of history needs revision in order to be as accurate as possible in light of the evidence which has been obtained. I know of a couple possibilities that might explain how depictions of pineapples could have appeared in Pompeii and Herculaneum; pre-Columbian trans-oceanic distribution of the pineapple to the Old World or a misdating of the destruction of the cities near Vesuvius.

Given the greater scope of evidence outside of this article, I think that the more likely possibility of the couple is that the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum has been misdated. I think these competent artists depicted pineapples because that’s what they were attempting to depict. This means that the cities were not destroyed in 79 AD, but sometime after Columbus brought the pineapple back to share with the Europeans.

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UPDATE: I no longer believe that the mosaic depicts a pineapple. I do believe it depicts a pinecone. I will have to write another article to explain why I changed my mind.

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References:

[1] – https://www.danthoniadesigns.com/blog/pineapple-welcome-signs/

[2] – https://www.mexconnect.com/articles/2418-the-pineapple-sweet-symbol-of-the-tropics

[3] – http://www.electrummagazine.com/2011/11/platos-circle-in-the-mosaic-of-pompeii/?fbclid=IwAR0_jjYxll0KY_BYNFWG0EuoMMZri-EI0bR48VDBEO8KFIk445IDuxj5hPA

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