The watermelon you have never seen before

How art history teaches us things

The watermelon you have never seen before

Art history reveals to us many aspects of how people used to live in the past. We learn from it what the interior designs of the houses were like, what kind of musical instruments looked like, what was the fashion like, from the clothes the models on the paintings were wearing. But there is another thing we learn about, which we cannot see in the museums or old cities we visit. We can see what the food was like and how much it had changed until now.

This Renaissance painting from the 17th century shows how much watermelon has changed. Tha author of the painting is Giovanni Stanchi and the painting dates back into the period sometime between 1645 and 1672. The painter painted still life, lots of different fruits laid upon the table and a big watermelon, cut in half. We see a different kind of watermelon, the one kind that does not exist today.

Professor James Nienhuis teaches horticulture at the University of Wisconsin and uses this particular painting to teach his students history of crop breeding.

“It’s fun to go to art museums and see the still-life pictures, and see what our vegetables looked like 500 years ago,” professor said. “In many cases, it’s our only chance to peer into the past, since we can’t preserve vegetables for hundreds of years.”

Watermelon originates from Africa but probably changed after being domesticated in hot climates in the Middle East and southern Europe. It is presumed it came to European markets around 1600. It is also believed it tasted sweet and was eaten fresh and occasionally fermented into wine. Very much like today, but they still looked a lot different.


Over the centuries, the watermelon we bred changed to having the bright red color we know today. Over the time, we learned that fleshy interior is actually the watermelon’s placenta, which keeps the seeds. The watermelons hundreds years ago had the placenta that lacked the high amounts of lycopene that give it the red color. Previous watermelons had a white interior.

Today we go step further, breeding seedless watermelons. Professor Nienhuis reluctantly calls it “the logical progression in domestication.” Future generations will also have to looks into pictures, like we do with paintings; to see what did watermelon with seeds looked like.

We also have been experimenting with the shapes of watermelons, since Japan bred the cube watermelon.

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