Question: Where in the world did nuns decorate their medieval church with fake fruit to please a picky visitor?
Answer: The Martorana, Palermo, Sicily
Some people are hard to please. Such was the case with the 16th-century Archbishop of Palermo. He was scheduled for a visit to the Martorana, a majestic 12th-century church founded by the world’s first Admiral, George of Antioch (see below). Despite the church’s fame for its beauty, the nuns were worried that the Archbishop wouldn’t be impressed.
It should have been a slam dunk. The medieval church was filled literally to the rafters with detailed frescoes, gold mosaics, and wooden friezes. A mixture of Norman and Arab influences, the dome is surrounded by the words of the Admiral’s favorite hymn rendered in Arabic. The church was acclaimed from almost the moment that it was finished, with Muslim explorer Ibn Jubayr writing in his journals that it was “one of the most marvelous constructions ever to be seen.” What’s not to love?
But the Archbishop’s critical reputation preceded him. His visit was scheduled for September—several months before the first oranges of the season would be ripe—and the nuns were concerned that the cloister garden would look drab and uninviting. They came up with a witty ruse to impress the eye and make themselves look good: they made oranges from marzipan and hand-painted them to be lifelike. Their creations were then placed throughout the branches of the trees as if the garden had suddenly come into bloom.
One version of the event says the Archbishop took the early-ripened oranges as a sign of the nun’s favor with God; another says he knew the oranges were fake but was impressed at the nun’s effort and how realistic the fruit looked. (A later version of the story said it was Emperor Charles V, because that would be even grander than wowing an Archbishop.) In any case, word of the frutta Martorana spread and the nuns’ creations were soon in demand. By the end of the century, any bakery worth its salt was mixing up its own frutta, with offerings expanded to nuts, vegetables, even sandwiches.
Today, children receive the treats by their pillows for All Saints’ Day and traditional pasticceries still carry them daily. The frutta are now shaped from wooden molds (often cast from the real-life edibles), painted with watercolors that are hand-applied, and polished with an edible resin, some taking as long as two days to finish. Archbishop or emperor—anyone would be impressed.
10 Facts About the World’s First Admiral
- Syrian-born son of Greek parents, George of Antioch moved as a child with his mother and father to Tunisia, where his dad worked for the ruling Berber emir.
- In his twenties, George demonstrated military aptitude both on and offshore as a navy officer for Sultan Tamim ibn Muizz—a job that only lasted until the reign of the sultan’s son, who despised him (perhaps jealous of his father’s pride in the sailor).
- George fled to Palermo and made nice with Roger II, the Norman king, who was impressed at multilingual George’s knowledge of Tunisia, Egypt, and the seas, and eventually put him in charge of the Sicilian navy.
- Sicilians took his old title—emir al-bar (commander of the sea)—and Norman-ized it into “admiral,” a new moniker that he was the first to possess.
- Roger II felt his rule was threatened by a rebellious (and by all accounts bratty) Prince Grimoald of Bari in Abulia and dispatched George, who subdued the Prince and his followers. He also put down rebellions in Calabria and Amalfi.
- In 1132, he was awarded the title “Ammiratus Ammiratorum,” which today would be translated as “Admiral of Admirals” but meant “Emir of Emirs” to his fellow Normans and Arabs.
- In 1143, he founded the Martorana, which features a mosaic of him humbly venerating Mary; knowing where his bread was buttered, he also installed a mosaic of King Roger being crowned by Christ.
- In a two-year period, George captured Tripoli and Corfu, then sacked Athens and Corinth, returning to Sicily with his plunder (which included weavers he brought back from Thebes).
- George’s conquests were complete when Tunisia surrendered and became part of the Kingdom of Sicily, making the sultan who rejected him a subject of the king who employed him.
- His last attack failed in 1149, when he sailed 50 ships to Constantinople to defeat the Byzantine Empire—which easily rebuffed them. With only one significant loss under his belt, he died two years later.
Discover the delicious history of this storied island when you join O.A.T. for Sicily’s Ancient Landscapes & Timeless Traditions.