This tree was planted before the nation of Italy was born, when the Italian south was a kingdom apart. It could well have been producing olives when Naples was at the height of glory, one of the leading cities on the continent, and a must-see stop on the Grand Tour of the eighteenth century.
The olive is mentioned in ancient literature, including thirty times in the Bible. Its oil fueled the original Olympic flame. Kings were anointed with olive oil, and it is still used in religious ceremonies.
Theophrastus, a student of both Plato and Aristotle, wrote about olive husbandry. “The olive tree grows, one may say, in more ways than any other plant; it grows from a piece of the trunk or of the stock, from the root, from a twig, and from a stake…” He warns that olives grown from seed produce a wild olive, of poor quality. He also quotes Androtion in saying that olives require heavy pruning for the best production, and also need “the most pungent manure and the heaviest watering.” He describes the damage they suffer from hot winds or freezing temperatures. Though he wrote this in Greece in the third century B.C., these classical methods were carried into the Magna Graecia and applied to olive culture there.
I find fascinating the common knowledge of the natural world in earlier times. A statement of Theophrastus illustrates this, in regards to the summer solstice. How do I know when the solstice is? I check a calender, reference book, or (more likely) find it online. But two thousand years ago, people checked their olive trees for that information: “There is a peculiarity special to the olive, lime, elm, and abele: their leaves appear to invert the upper surface after the summer solstice, and by this men know that the solstice is past.”
In Roman times, a garden was not considered complete without some olive trees, and olive oil served as liquid money. It is still highly prized, with Italy consuming about 30% of the world’s olive oil, most of which is grown in the Mediterranean region.
Next time you break open a rustic loaf of bread, pour a little olive oil in a dish, add some balsamic vinegar, and think about the ancient origins of your small feast as you enjoy it.