The English landscaped park of Villa Cusani Tittoni Traversi was designed by noted landscape architect, Antonio Villoresi, to give an idea of uncontaminated nature in its purest, where old and towering trees alternated with lawns that paved the way for prospective telescopic activities of the historical residence, allowing a clear view also from the opposite end of the garden.
A forest of yews with their gnarled trunks and orange-brownish coloured bark welcomes visitors and shows off a dense natural growing vegetation.
One of the main characteristics of this tree that has allowed it to be easily planted in Lombardy’s noble Villas, is its ability to coexist alongside the most imposing trees and be able to equally develop a vast and rounded or oval-shaped crown.
If you look closely at the plant which belongs to the Taxaceae family, you will notice that on protruding branches, the needles of the yew are couplets, or arranged in alternating fashion, while on branches that grow vertically, the needles are distributed spirally. The peculiarity of these shiny, dark green leaves lies in the fact that despite being very pointed it does not sting at all; it creates a nice contrast with the light green foliage of linden trees which are also present in the park. This tree is often present in the Italian landscaped gardens of the noble villas of Brianza because it is highly tolerant to even drastic pruning, and can be considered as a sort of plant sculpture. Their crowns, in fact, under the skilled hands of the gardeners of that time, were often transformed into cubes, pyramids or any other figure that the master topiary sculptor desired. We can also see them in the entrance of the Palazzo Arese Borromeo in Cesano Maderno, enhanced by the presence of small plant sculptures in rows, perfectly pruned as a cone or a flame, as they welcome the visitors and introduce them to this splendid garden, a silent oasis in competition with the daily urban traffic.
The yew blooms in February to March. It is a dioecious species because the flowers are carried by different individuals: the male buds are yellow, small and round and appear individually in the lower part of the leaf axils of the previous year; the female buds are tiny and green and upon maturation, form bright red fruits in the form of a cup (arils), which contain the seeds. In the branches and leaves of the yew is an alkaloid substance called taxin which if ingested may lead to cardiac arrest; therefore the plant is highly toxic. However, birds nesting in the trees feed on their fleshy fruit. The arils, slimy to the touch and with a sweet taste, are non-toxic, unlike the seeds which contain massive doses of taxin.
The toxicity of the yew was also known in ancient times, bringing dreary images to the minds of nobles and patricians. This feature also has earned the yew the nickname, “tree of death,” so that in the days of mourning in ancient Rome, there was the habit of wearing a crown made of its branches.
Ovid, who explained that the path to the underworld is lined with these trees, shows the link of this tree with the underworld.
In the Celtic culture, the yew is considered a sacred tree and many religious objects were carved out of this wood, like the canes of the Druids to various simulacra. For them, the yew had a dual symbolism: first, by recalling its toxicity, it meant death, and the other symbolized immortality, because of its evergreen leaves. This symbolic polyvalence is also found in other evergreen trees, such as the cypress and pine.
Although it is not the case with Villa Cusani Tittoni Traversi, yews were often used in the villas to build esoteric or entrance pathways, amplified in the following centuries by specific legends and traditions.