The Lemons of the Sorrentine Peninsula: An Integrated Cultural Landscape

Vera Shur (MArch I) and Julian Wu (MArch I)

Project Overview

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has labeled the lemon gardens of the Sorrentine Peninsula a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS). It recommends that the area be preserved and appraised as an example of a synthesis between anthropogenic development and ecological conservation. The lemon gardens of the peninsula represent a complete integration and co-evolution of an agricultural product with its physical and cultural environment. Over the last 300 years, the demands of lemon tree cultivation have morphed the surrounding landscape and influenced patterns of settlement in the area. Though lemon farming in the region is difficult and labor-intensive on account of its severe topography and adverse weather conditions, lemon tree farming has impacted the urban development of the towns along the coastline, from the density of the population to the forms of the individual dwellings, through its proliferation and dependency on terraced ground. These unique characteristics make the area an ecologically and culturally successful example of agricultural semi-urbanization.

Project Information

Landscape and Topography

The Sorrentino-Amalfitana Peninsula is located along the Mediterranean coast of the region of Campania in southern Italy. The area is situated in the northernmost climate feasible for the cultivation of lemons, which are sensitive to the cold. The topography of the region is relentless, with sheer drops of hundreds of feet to sea level and mountains and gulches slightly inland. All living, farming, and social activities have had to adapt themselves to this form of topography. Small towns cluster along the coast of the peninsula, ranging in populations from 16,500 inhabitants in Sorrento to 2,500 in Ravello. Despite these relatively low numbers, population density is fairly high on account of the fact that much of the land is too steep for habitation.

Cultivation Techniques and Traditions

Lemon farming in the Sorrentino-Amalfitana Peninsula is done almost exclusively by small farms, many less than three acres in size. Cultivation is very difficult and requires a large amount of manpower and agricultural knowledge, as the area is not naturally suited for farming operations. The primary geological characteristic of lemon farming in the region is the ubiquitous terracing required to make use of the steep mountain landscape. The terraces, which follow the natural contours of the hills, consist of plateaus filled with soil and buttressed by low stone walls.

Before it became a specialized practice, the agriculture of the peninsula was largely characterized by subsistence farming. The trade of citrus fruits began to drive the economy of the region in the 18th century as a result of its rise in popularity in Northern Europe for cooking and seasoning. Farmers replaced wooded areas as well as less profitable crops with lemons in order to meet the rising international demand. Advances in the cultivation of lemons were necessary for them to flourish in the severe topography and adverse weather conditions.

Cultivation Techniques and Traditions

Prior to the 19th century, lemons trees were densely planted so their branches would form a canopy that could prevent frosts. This system created high levels of humidity and prevented the sun from reached much of the tree, which resulted in unripened fruit and led to the spread of root rot. To improve the quality of the fruit and mitigate the spread of disease, many of the farmers were forced to renew and replace their tree crop annually.

In the 19th century, the pagliarelle was introduced as a substitute to the dense lemon canopy.

The pagliarelle consist of a gridded structural system that holds up screens and netting to protect the lemon trees from severe weather, birds, and wind. They are almost exclusively made out of the trunks and large branches of chestnut trees, which grow in abundance in the area and thus constitute a renewable resource. Spaced evenly in between the lemon trees, the pagliarelle generally reach about four to six meters in height, clearing the tops of the lemon trees. Diagonal bracing, also of chestnut trunks, creates a rigid structure. It is usually held together with thin steel cables. The layout of the pagliarelle can be modified to suit both flat and terraced sites.

Cultivation Techniques and Traditions
Plant Screens

Screens made from plant material are a common method for providing protection for the lemon trees. Because the climate here is within the northern-most range of what is feasible for growing lemons, much care has to be taken in order to prevent killing the trees and producing a crop. The methods employed by farmers are quite effective, as proven by the fact that most of the trees are between 100-300 years old. The screens are using various techniques and materials, but generally consist of small branches tied or nailed together into mats.

Cultivation Techniques and Traditions
Netting and Windbreaks

Plastic netting is placed atop the chestnut pagliarelle to prevent frosts, birds, and hail. It is unwrapped during certain parts of the year and dropped over the top of the structure, and rolled back up during the rest of the time. In older structures that still use matting rather then netting, small hut-shaped structures on top of the pagliarelle house them during off-seasons.

Like the plant screens, wind breaks serves to shield the lemon groves from weather and winds coming from the sea. They generally consist of olive or chestnut trees planted orthogonally to the dominant direction of the wind, but sometimes also consist of other plants.

Cultivation Techniques and Traditions

Lemon trees on the Amalfi coast are grown within a very particular interval of spacing set by IPG (Indicazione Geografica Protetta – Protected Geographic Origin) requirements. In order to qualify for IPG status lemon growers cannot plan more than 344 trees per acre. This ensures that the trees will have adequate access to light and prevents them from rotting and other diseases. Generally, the further south you go, the further lemon trees are required to be spaced apart. In Sicily, a major lemon producing region, trees are much bigger than on the Amalfi Coast, and require an interval of about fourteen- eighteen feet. On the Amalfi Coast, the interval is about ten feet, which is in keeping with the rule of 344 trees per acre. The spacing requirements means that lemon yields are relatively low, which prevents the Amalfi Coast from being a major competitor for the export of lemons.

Cultivation Techniques and Traditions
Retaining Walls and Roads

Unlike other crops that had been previously cultivated in the area – such as olive and mulberry trees, which could be grown on rocky soil along steep slopes – citrus trees require perfectly flat, loose, well-ventilated, and deep soil, as well as a functional system of water distribution. Miles of retaining walls and wide terraces were built to hold the soil that was required for growing lemons. The rock used for the retaining walls was harvested from the mountains of the region. Soil was excavated from the region’s valleys, exaggerating the already dramatic changes in elevation. For the containment walls alone, over 200,000 cubic meters of rock were excavated, dramatically changing the regions topography and landscape.

Many of the roads on the Amalfi coast were created for the transport of lemons from the gardens to the harbors, where they could be shipped to auction houses. Like the stone retaining walls, the roads were reinforced with local stone to withstand the effects of water runoff from the irrigation systems in the gardens.

Harvesting Practices

The harvest of lemons is a laborious and delicate task; once picked, they are placed in baskets covered with cloth and stuffed with straw; most are transported by carts on small roadways. Once transported to the warehouses, the lemons are selected and packed into poplar crates. Traditionally, the task of selecting, wrapping and packaging was done exclusively by women. The sorting of lemons was based on diameter. The lemons were then wrapped in colored tissue paper on which the company name, brand, and quality were etched.

The means of cultivation integrated the entire community. In addition to being the region’s major source of income, lemon production employed craftsmen to produce and erect the pagliarelle, and also necessitated traders and bankers to negotiate prices and organize shipments.

Trade and Economy

Trade of lemons, which began in the 15th century, was tied to the development of the maritime industry. At first it was limited to markets accessible by small sailing boats, primarily to other parts of Italy. The 17th century opened up greater markets for trade with the development of the shipbuilding industry along the shores of Sorrento.

In the 19th century the economy became more focused on agricultural production. Women wrapped and packed the lemons, brokers and exporters shipped the product, farmers cultivated the land, and craftsmen constructed the pagliarelle pergolas. After the unification of Italy in 1871, customs barriers were eliminated and exports further expanded. Agricultural exports as a percentage of total production increased from 24% in 1871 to 40% in 1878, 53% of which was attributed to oranges and lemons. The larger ships built in the 1900s brought the produce to the ports of Europe and North America – New York and Boston were among the most popular; there were up to three ships per week departing from the Sorrento coast.   Because trips to North America were so long, the trade was restricted almost exclusively to lemons. Once they arrived at their ports of destination, the lemons are inspected and then placed in the auction catalogue to be sold.

In 1928 the use of rail to carry produce was introduced, which reduced the Sorrento-London travel time from 28 to 8 days, thus reducing the industry’s dependence on shipping.

Beginning in the 19th century, brand advertising grew increasingly prevalent. Both large and small posters were displayed in auctions rooms, offices of shippers, and point of sale. Crests and monograms labeling the cases conveyed quantity, size and choice. Brand names were printed in color on papers pasted to the side or atop the case, and later stamped directly on the wood with aniline ink. The brand and name of the exporter were also printed on pieces of tissue paper used to wrap the fruits.

The high demand for Amalfi Coast citrus in the U.S. market led to imitation by illegitimate traders, which further stimulated the need for brand recognition in advertising. This led the Finance Minister Guido Jung to establish a national standard in 1927, in which there was stamped the mark INE (Institute of National Exporter) next to the exporter label. On special occasions, a small sticker depicting a cherub or saint was pasted onto the fruit. Auction catalogues often contained stamps as distinctive signs of the company to enhance the prestige of the product. Depictions varied from mythological illustrations to symbols of currency. Well-known industry images were easily adapted by substituting a sword with an orange of bunch of lemons. There were also references to patriotic pride with images of royalty and flags, paired with those of destination markets.


Because the crop yield of the Amalfi coast lemons is so low in comparison to Sicily and other parts of the world, and because maintaining the gardens is so labor intensive, lemons are treated as luxury products. Quite often, the farmers growing lemons are also in the business of making limoncello. Lemons are also used in expensive perfumes, confections, and soaps.

Lemon Houses

The growing of lemons in the center of the city makes for a very interesting sort of typology. Despite the fact that the Amalfi Coast caters primarily to tourists, the existence of the lemon gardens creates a very private living condition. Because the lemons grow on soil that was brought in from outside the city and buttressed by retaining walls, blank facades face the streets at eye level. The first floors of all homes adjacent to lemon gardens are quite dark, and most living functions are relegated to the second and third floors, facing the gardens.