The fruit known as the Bizzaria has a truly extraordinary story, and it’s worth taking the time to tell it.

Among the rarest of fruits, it was rediscovered some thirty years ago in the Medici villa of Castello, in the hills above Florence. The fruits that grow here turned out to be the very same as those illustrated in a book from the seventeenth century by one Pietro Nati, then director of the Botanical Gardens in Pisa. He called this fruit Bizzarria

But it’s not just the name of the fruit that takes us back in time. Its history is intimately connected with the Medici family.

Just look at it: it’s misshapen, knotted, with orange, green and yellow stripes. Whatever beauty it has, it’s a beauty entirely beyond the concepts of harmony so prized by the Renaissance, which is where this story begins – in sixteenth century, Medici-ruled Florence. The city’s fame and opulence preceded it: it was a cradle of culture, the home of the artists. Countless epithets have attached themselves to that dazzling age.

We all love the city’s magnificence, and we all associate it with the artistic, architectural and cultural wonders that combined to create it. But really, in the socio-political vision of the family that largely spawned the Renaissance – the Medici family – this magnificence had to extend to all fields of expertise, every area of knowledge.

In Florence, throughout the period that historians call the Renaissance, human thought once again put man at its centre. It marked an end to centuries of a gloomy, theocentric medieval vision, which relegated humankind to a passive creature with no power over its destiny, totally in thrall to the will of God. Renaissance man, by contrast, was Homo faber sui(man his own maker), capable of forging his own existence, decide his own destiny, direct his own fate. It was a dream and an approach that I’ve always found illluminating, years ago as a dreamy student and today as a loving father. It holds true for all the arts and sciences.

All the greats of that period, whether scientists, artists or thinkers, felt the attraction of this approach, so new, bright and fertile. So many of them made their way to Florence where, thanks to the patronage of the Medici family, they were paid to create something new. Florence was already a beautiful city, with its river and the surrounding hills; but in those centuries it only became more beautiful, graced with more and more hallmarks of humanity. That was true of everything, from the local farm to a palazzo in the city, from a fortified citadel to a sculpture, from a scientific treatise to a political doctrine to a church.

The various members of the Medici family demanded excellence in every field, not least for their own greater glory. But few know, and few have written, that the Medici entertained a great passion for plants, for botany, and a great interest in their medical properties. They also wanted to make the city smell as good as possible – like the rest of world, it did not yet have properly functioning sewage systems.

Thanks to the earlier Marco Polo and the contemporary conquistadors, the period saw some extraordinary plants come to Florence from the Middle East and the Far East. With bewitching aromas and good, healthy fruits, these plants were given the name of citrus: oranges, lemons, citrons. The Italian word, agrumi, comes from the fourteenth-century Latin acrumen, which refers to a sour condiment. Naturally, the Medici decided that the great agronomists in their employ, who tended the rich, geometrical gardens and lemon houses around their villas, should create a truly Florentine citrus – a fruit invented in Florence, a plant that shared the qualities of the new exotic imports but which had never been seen beyond the Florentine domain. The Renaissance was not to be epitomized “only” by artistic masterpieces; in this case, it was to be represented just as well by a citrus tree, the finest citrus tree of all time, and it would be created in Florence.

The same ideas had already led to innovations, discoveries and masterworks well ahead of their time. But for the zealous agronomists at the Medici court, it didn’t go all that well. Grafting and hybridization techniques were still based on Pliny the Elder, Varro and Virgil, and for all their will, talent and Renaissance technology, the agronomists produced the most bizarre of creatures. Part citron, part lemon, part orange, but sadly lacking in any characteristics that did not belong to one of its “parents”. And the fruits that this tree yielded, as we saw at the beginning of this article, had a warty surface striped with multiple colors and studded with excrescence. The Medici’s famous sense of taste, closely bound up with a conception of beauty that depended on harmony and perfection, dismissed the plant as “bizarre”, in the most negative sense of the word, and dismissed the guilty agronomists along with it.

And yet, from that day to this, the plant has continually been reproduced. It has lived its life, however secretively, in a handful of gardens, under the watch of the scrupulous gardeners who realized that it was something special, unlike anything else, and worth taking care of.

We are now in the twenty-first century, and the strange being that is the Bizzaria has carved out its own little niche in the world of citrus. A few specimens have been reintroduced to the main Medici villas, and a few plant nurseries sell them.

This is the same plant that the Renaissance condemned as a botanical freak, an error, a twisted, asymmetrical, disproportionate prodigy. Today it represents a different kind of beauty, something that reminds us to take pride in the past and all its passions, visionary ideas, humanist dreams and quests.

When you look at it like that – when you look at it in any way – the Bizzaria is an incredible plant.

[In photo: an example of Bizzaria grown in Poggio Casciano]