The Art of the Sicilian Orange

Valero Doval

Traditional citrus wrappers—once sweet and picturesque—take a tawdry turn.

Orange wrappers—those thin, protective papers cradling Sicilian citrus—are not what they used to be. They once showed scenes of a happy, sun-drenched land. Today—call it the lingering Berlusconi effect—they usually depict a sexy young woman holding an orange and hinting at all manner of sensual delights.

Giuseppe Catalano, a veteran orange grower from the Etna region and a former president of the Consortium for the Protection of the IGP of the Sicilian Blood Orange, is dismayed by the tawdry turn the once noble art of orange wrappers has taken. “It reflects,” he says, “the cultural backwardness of an industry that is increasingly unconnected to the real world.”

The wrappers were introduced in the mid-19th century, when oranges from Sicily began to be mass-produced and shipped off to mainland Italy and continental Europe. The illustrations were stenciled mechanically (now they are designed on computers) and became an artful marketing tool—a way for the retailer to advertise his brand.

Typical images included orange carts drawn by smiling donkeys, Sicilian landscapes (Mount Etna with a plume of smoke, the Valley of the Temples), a pretty young girl in traditional dress picking oranges in a grove. “The iconography,” Catalano explains, “was mostly designed for the export market.”

Although it was a simple form of decorative art, it reflected the artistic currents of the time. Early illustrations were influenced by Art Nouveau, later ones by Art Deco and the stark, modernist design that prevailed during the Fascist period. Vintage orange wrappers have become popular with collectors who appreciate their value as period pieces.

Carolyn Smyth, who teaches art history at the American John Cabot University in Rome, began to collect the wrappers shortly after moving to Italy 16 years ago. She argues the vulgarization of this particular form of art owes a great deal to the influence of television on Italian pop culture. “We’ve gone from pleasing, festive images that evoked a place in the sun,” she says, “to these delightfully crude pinups that wink at you.”

Smyth, who likes to keep her collection loose in a box rather than in an album so she can “sift through them randomly,” showed us a series of recently acquired wrappers to prove her point. One illustration showed a busty, redheaded girl with big lips and long eyelashes holding a cluster of oranges. Another brought to mind Sophia Loren at her most provocative. Smyth also showed us one of a blonde Heidi-like girl dressed in a dirndl and wearing red-and-white stockings. “Images are gratuitous, random and often absurd. What can the relationship between Heidi and a Sicilian orange possibly be?” she mused.

The most perplexing of all was an image of the Mona Lisa in an Eve-like pose, holding an orange in place of an apple. Her famous smile was replaced by a lascivious smirk. Next to her was a phone number, giving the impression that Mona Lisa was a Sicilian call girl. Despite the artistic decline, Smyth argues that orange wrappers remain a useful anthropological tool. “They are a revealing expression of how various and disconnected Italian popular culture is today,” she says.