A 17th-Century Stanchi Painting Reveals the Rapid Change in Watermelons through Selective Breeding [Updated]

Giovanni Stanchi (Rome c. 1645-1672). Oil on canvas. 38 5/8 x 52½ in. (98 x 133.5 cm.) / Courtesy Christie’s


Old master work paintings are frequently cited for their depiction of historical events, documentation of culture, or portraiture of significant people, but there’s one lesser known use of some paintings for those with a keen eye: biology. One such instance is this Renaissance still life of various fruits on a table by Giovanni Stanchi painted sometime in the 1600s that shows a nearly unrecognizable watermelon before it was selectively bred for meatier red flesh.

Horticulture professor James Nienhuis at the University of Wisconsin tells Vox that he’s fascinated by old still life paintings that often contain the only documentation of various fruits and vegetables before we transformed them forever into something more desirable for human use. You can read a bit more about the science behind the changes in watermelons over the last 350 years here. (via Kottke)

Update: Greg Cato writes: “The painting depicts a rare outcome of sub-par growing conditions, known as ‘starring.’ It’s perfectly normal, still happens, and is not the result of selective breeding (although it would be cool if it were).” You can see an example here.

See related posts on Colossal about , , , .