• The First Person to Successfully Domesticate a Pineapple in Europe

    Kimberly Glassman

    The first person to successfully domesticate a pineapple on European soil; during her lifetime, Block commissioned over 400 botanical drawings.

    Agneta (Agnes) Block (1629-1704), grew up in Emmerik, Germany. Both Block’s parents died when she was still a teenager, so she and her two sisters left for Amsterdam to live with their uncle and religious aunt, Susanna de Flines (1607-1677). Brought up in a Mennonite home (an Anabaptist, Christian denomination with roots in the Radical Reformation of 16th-century Europe), Block grew up with the belief that worldly matters should be separated from religion. This ideology enabled Block to pursue scientific research without contradicting the tenets of her family's faith.

    In 1649 Block married her first husband, a successful silk merchant whose wealth made it possible for Block to pursue her passion for botany. In 1668 Block and her husband moved into a house on Herengracht where he soon after died in February 1670. In July of that year, Block bought a country estate in the community of Loenen aan de Vecht, in the Dutch province of Utrecht. Block used her estate, Vijverhof on the Vecht, to engage directly with theoretical and experiential sciences from which women were commonly barred. Poems written contemporaneously about Block claim she drew, painted and modelled, though nothing about her own work is known, apart from some historians who claim that paper-cutting was a commonly accepted Mennonite artistic practice she may have taken part in. Block is, however, well known for her patronage of some of the top botanical artists of her time who captured the beauty of the plants and insects at Vijverhof, amongst them artists such as Maria Moninckx, Maria Sibylla Merian and her daughter Johanna Helena Herolt Graff, Herman Saftleven, and Pieter Withoos.
    Block's claim to fame came in 1687 when she succeeded, after numerous failed attempts, in cultivating the pineapple plant at her estate. In doing so, Block became the first person to produce a pineapple on European soil. Working within a botanical hothouse, pioneered by the Dutch in 1685, Block was able to subvert the seasons and combine technological innovation with botanical knowledge. She eventually took on the pineapple as her personal emblem and had it featured in frontispieces of her botanical collections; has it placed in a family portrait by Jan Weenix; and engraved on a commemorative coin, on the reverse of which was featured in her garden. Block had built up a network of botanists and connections such as with professor of botany, Lelio Trionfetti, and director of the botanical garden at Leiden, Paul Hermann. A number of other notable botanists gave her work due credit, such as William Sherard and Jacob Breyne, both of whom mentioned Block in their publications and expressed their gratitude by visiting her garden.

    Block died in Amsterdam in 1704, bequeathing the portfolio of her beloved drawings of flora and fauna to the eldest of her next of kin. Unfortunately, none of these books have survived. Nevertheless, Block's influence cannot be denied; in addition to providing species for the Leiden Botanical Gardens, Block is the only woman to be included in Hermann’s “Horti academici Lugduno-Batavi catalogus”. As historian Catherine Powell rightly points out, “her inclusion in a book written in Latin, and therefore for consumption by educated individuals, placed Block within the realm of the learned.”