pierre laszlo

Cupressus sempervirens (Cupressaceae)

The cypress is inseparable from the landscapes of Tuscany. What do they offer of interest, if anything, apart from their exclamation mark shapes? Are they native to Northern Italy? If not, where do they come from? Why were they often planted near churches? Those are some of the most immediate questions about cypresses.

Before answering them, though, I’ll tackle a somewhat more obscure query, that of the meaning of Olivia’s declaration, ‟a cypress, not a bosom, Hideth my heart‟ in Shakespeare’s Twelth Night. A modern interpretation, that by Amy L. Smith and Elizabeth Hodgson , terms it ‟a doubly ironic reference to her previous mourning and her newly unveiled desire.
Indeed, the fabric of cypress itself (often used for veils and as an added layer over rich and beautiful fabrics) was known for its ability to “lend [what lay underneath] a charm through partial concealment.”
(In this quote, ‟fabric‟ should be understood as ‟pattern.‟) Which only raises additional questions.
Back to the questions, then. Cupressus was present in Italy in the Pliocene, Pleistocene and Holocene from palaeobotanical evidence. It probably came from Turkey and the Greek Islands.
In common lore, cypresses were believed to have come, some millennia ago, from Persia. Etruscan tribes planted them around their burial grounds, which explains both their implantation in Northern Italy and their persistence around Christian cemeteries. Which also explains, in part, Olivia’s exclamation: she has been mourning, the shadow of a cypress came across her heart.
This association of the cypress tree with the dead has an echo in Greek mythology. The story, with its pederastic undertones, is that of Kyparissos, a lad loved for his beauty by male Gods. In Orpheus-liked manner, his charmed beast of the woods was a tame stag. Disaster struck, though. Kyparissos accidentally killed it with his javelin. The young man was devastated, and to console him, Apollo his protector turned him into a cypress tree, if one is to believe Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
That an evergreen tree was chosen to hedge cemeteries was symbolical to a large extent. As Jenner wrote in his Christian Symbolism (1910), since cypresses do not shed their needles in the wind, the tree became an image of the just man who has preserved his virtue in the upheavals of life. The dark and sombre color helped to make it an assist for mourning the dead.
As for the cypress textile pattern, alluded to by Shakespeare, it was made of silk and was thus named for originating in the island of Cyprus. Hence, cypress fabric is a pun. Cyprus was named, most probably, for its copper deposits, not for cypresses. A silk industry is documented in Cyprus from the time of Byzantium, in the first centuries of the Christian era. During Early Modern times, 13th to 15th century, the Lusignan Dynasty reigned over Cyprus. This coincided with development of silk manufacturing and trading in the East Mediterranean.
Thus, cypresses offer more, culturally especially, than just their highly allergenic pollen.