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Slow Tuscany > Tuscany > Livorno > The Cypress and its role in the history of Tuscan art
The Cypress: role of nature in the Tuscan history of Art (part 1)

Damiano Andreini

Cypresses in the Tuscan countryside
For several time I've been thinking of dedicating one or more articles to the Tuscan history of art, especially underlining the elements which better identify the image and the character of our land. Therefore I run through concerned images, firstly by heart and later searching in the books, but the huge artistic heritage of our region offers so many subjects, over which we could talk so long, that - once more - I decided to postpone it.

Suddenly, I realized that, instead, I could have thought of something which was obvious to think of, since it consists of a constant leitmotiv between the frescos and the paintings for more of a thousand years in the Tuscan art and which ties them up like the pearls of a necklace: it is not a stylistic element, even though the stylistic effect of many works of art would fail without this; it is not an iconographical detail, though the meaning of the picture would be plain without this.


I am talking about a tree, more exactly I am talking about the symbolic tree of our region: the Cypress. First of all, it has to be said that the origins of the Cypress are not Italian but its cradle is the eastern Mediterranean basin, ideally located amongst Persia (the present Iran) Egypt and Greece, in fact it grows there spontaneously. It was imported in Italy by Phoenicians and Greeks and in Tuscany it was surely introduced by Etruscans. The Cypress, further than decorating streets and gardens of the Tuscan hills, for about 3,000 years, has continuously had a symbolic and ornamental importance. Slim and slender cypresses were regularly found in the gardens of marvellous Persian palaces. In Athens, the intrinsic, solemn stylishness of the cypress was particularly underlined, too. Egyptians exalted the noble fiber of this three using only cypress wood to build sarcophagi for the burial of the deceased.

Etruscans and Romans, too, gave to the cypress a symbolic meaning connected to the mortuary context. In fact, they usually planted cypress-trees all around cemeteries and tombs of famous characters - thereby underlining their persuasion that the resin of the cypress could cover the smell of dead people. Soon, the cypress got more and more a funereal image. The craftsmen, instead, ignore its funereal image and used its wood, whose fiber was thick, regular and compact and therefore its good quality was practically ideal to resist to time and inclemency of the weather, to build everything, from the hulls of the ships to the doors of villas and palaces, from the luxurious furniture to the most refined musical instruments.


And also: according to the Bible the Noah's ark was made of cypress wood and even the Christ's Cross was made of cypress, together with pine and cedar woods. Therefore, even in a Judaic context first and in a Christian one later on, the Cypress was considered a symbol of Eternity, as well the Cedar-tree. During the Middle Ages, the cypress accompanied the establishment and the life of every convent and monastery: cypresses were used as windbreak, as delimitation of the sacred from the lay space and they also had a symbolical function: as well as per the biblical tradition, according to which the tree of life is in the center of the Celestial Jerusalem, the monks would plant a Cypress or a Cedar-tree in the centre of their cloister, in order to remind of the image of the Eternal City, whose brightness is "equal to a gem of crystalline jasper".

Since over a thousand years the cypress is the indivisible companion of each church, parish or convent all along the Tuscan countryside. It represents the immortality (the cypress is an evergreen tree and its wood, resistant for centuries, is often remembered in the biblical tradition), the detachment from the "world" and it also works as windbreak barrier around the sacred buildings, which were often built top of the hills and therefore exposed to the strong wind.


Starting from XIV century - at a time in which Dante Alighieri was expelled from Florence and composed its Divine Comedy and in which Giotto was in Assisi and fully revolutionized the concept of figurative art - the cypress appeared in the luxuriant gardens of the out-of-the-city villas of noble and bourgeois Florentines, who already wished to reach the classical ideal of idyllic life - under suggestion of humanists like Boccaccio and Petrarca - to be parsimoniously consumed in a prosperous and verdant environment.

It is here, among the smooth Tuscan hills and the works of art realized by those learned and wealthy Maecenas of the Renaissance, that the cypress plays a fundamental role as a real or ideal frame of their dreams and ambitions. Next time we will talk more deeply about this subject, which obviously deserves a further space than that here practically left ...



Damiano Andreini
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