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A History of the Married Grapevine Symbology

16 augustus 2021 door in Blog, English, Foodhistory, Gastblog |

PART 1 Chapter 1.1


The Etruscan Married Grapevine Millennial Tradition 

1.1 Labrusca, Arbustum Italicum, Arbustum Gallicum, Vinea

Gesina Ter Borch’s aquarelle Gentleman walking along a river (ca. 1661) is characterized by a peculiar representation of grapes cultivation. The form of grapevine arrangement depicted is one of the most archaic types of viticulture ever known.

heer lopend langs een rivier-site

Heer lopend langs een rivier [Gentleman walking along a river]: ca. 1661

The fundamental forms of grapevines cultivation are three and are all derived by Etruscan, Greek and Roman techniques:

a. Labrusca / Lambruscaia
[not to be confused with the vitis labrusca, which is an American genus of grapevine]
Labrusca (a Latin term; the identification of the original Etruscan words for Labrusca and then Arbustum is still uncertain) is the primordial form of wild grapevine, that in Italy ca. 12th-century BC already naturally grew attached to the trees. The Etruscans started exploiting the wild Labrusca and, through a system of primordial cultivation, created the Arbustum from the Labrusca. The badly treated and/or abandoned Arbustum naturally degenerates in an original Labrusca.

b. Arbustum (Vitis Marita) / Vite Maritata / Married Grapevine
[Pliny 17.199: ratio arbusti; Geoponica 4: anadendràs = arbustive]
The tall Etruscan Arbustum is a development, through proper cultivation, of the naturally tall wild Labrusca and is characterized by the grapevine attached to a tree, i.e. the married grapevine. The Arbustum can be of many different types, determined by very different methods of pruning: Italicum (known in Italian also as alberata), Gallicum (known today also as piantata), Aemilianum, etc.
It’s important to understand that, in this ancient Rome context, Gallicum means only Northern Italy and not France! In fact, Gallicum means Gallia Cisalpina, which was then subdivided in Gallia Transpadana and Gallia Cispadana and has nothing to do with the French Galliae Transalpinae.

c. Vinea / Vigna / Vineyard
[Pliny 17.164: ratio vinearum, mainly subdivided in five subtypes; Geoponica 4: énrizos = rooted]
Mostly the low type (both with or without stakes and wires; in certain cases, it can be also a tall type, but without the live support of the tree), so common today around the world, was an evolution, in early Roman times, of the first ancient Greek techniques.




A detailed account on Arbustum and Labrusca, as given by Pliny the Elder (23/4-79 AD), will be in the Part 2 of our blog post. According to Pliny, who must have been himself a wine producer, through his rich family, the best results, in wine-making, are those from a correctly treated tall Arbustum. The fundamental difference between the Arbustum Italicum method and the Arbustum Gallicum is that the Arbustum Italicum is characterized by grapevines growing attached to the supporting tree, while the Arbustum Gallicum, in addition, creates long festoons of grapevines between two or more supporting trees.

Therefore, the ca. 1661 aquarelle by Gesina technically represents the typical form of the Arbustum Italicum or, at least, a Labrusca of secondary wilderness at an early stage. In fact, the fundamental difference between the Labrusca and the Arbustum Italicum is determined by the very density of the grape-clusters. Wilderness or the return of the cultivated grapevine to wilderness imply a progressive increase in the distancing of the berries from one another and a consequent impoverishment (in number of single berries) of the common grape-cluster.

In any case, Gesina’s depiction is consistent with the typical representation of grapes and trees in Art or in the Books of Emblems of the 16th- and 17th-century: usually an Arbustum Italicum, not a Gallicum. This type of representation of the Arbustum Italicum is substantially derived by the wide diffusion of images inspired by the many Italian landscapes with grapevines cultivated on trees (e.g. Tempesta’s artwork infra in Rijksmuseum Collection); such types of landscapes were rather common in various parts of Italy until ca. 1920s, when a series of factors (i.e. plants diseases and industrialization techniques) very heavily reduced the multi-millennial practice of the Italian Arbustum, which still survives today, in Italy, only in few areas. On the few surviving forms of Etruscan Arbustum Italicum/Gallicum see this paper by the University of Naples, that is still useful on a couple of subjects, despite some confusion on Pliny and other sources and a few old data, that should be updated:

Buono R., Vallariello G., La vite maritata in Campania (in Delpinoa no. 44, 2002), pp.53-63.

The Rijksmuseum Collection itself features, at least, ca. fourteen works representing an Arbustum Italicum. Three of them are by Dutch/Flemish artists of the 17th-century:

a. Satyr and Maenads 1640-1655 by Cornelis Holsteyn (1618-1658)

b. Woman with a basket of grapes with a man in an autumn landscape (1625-1635) by Adriaen Pietersz van de Venne (1589-1662)

c. Fable of the Fox and the Grapes (1608) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (ca. 1520-ca. 1590)

One by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) himself:

d. Satyr with a bunch of grapes, a tiger and leopard (1651-1652)

Other works are, in general, German, French, Italian, all, in any case, with some Italian derivation. The most characteristic work is without doubt September: vintage (1599) by Antonio Tempesta:


But the Arbustum Italicum can be also seen in many other paintings by Dutch/Flemish painters, like Jan van Hemessen’s ones (ca. 1500-ca. 1566): Madonna con bambino (1544).

22 July 2021
dr. Leone M. Jennarelli

T0 be continued.

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