Fruits and vegetables aren’t the only bounty at the Roman outdoor produce markets. There are fresh fish, meats, spices, liquors, housewares, sweatshirts, and socks, but my favorites are the fruit wrappers. Louise Fili and I have been collecting these tissue-paper-thin gems for decades; we even produced a card set, Carta Italiana (Chronicle Giftworks). We often buy one orange, lemon, apple, or pear simply for the wrapper, which are always seen punctuating the beautifully stacked orbs. The fruit men and women rarely see the value in what we do, usually offering to throw away the “unwanted” paper before bagging the fruit, then looking at us as though we’re pazzi when we say “please no.” The wrapper is the prize, and finding new ones (as they are regularly changed) to add to a collection amounting to over 2000, is the thrill of market day.
Printed protective wrappers were introduced in the mid 19th century. Oranges from Sicily were mass-produced and exported to the boot and then to the rest of Europe. The illustrations were eye-catching if not mouth-watering. Early examples were stenciled onto the paper; more technologically up-t0-date methods have made them less virtuosic but no less artful. Here are some that were discarded and trashed by our favorite Roman fruit people.