Profusion of Flowers

The Amadeo Pietro Giannini (May 6, 1870-June 3, 1949) and Clorinda Agnes Cuneo Giannini (March 4, 1869-December 21, 1941) gravesite in the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma, California, marks the grave of A.P. Giannini and his wife, Clorinda, and many of their children who are also buried in the family plot.  A.P. Giannini, the progenitor of the family, was a prominent and successful businessman who founded the Bank of Italy which later became Bank of America.

The family plot is surrounded by curbing with a stone black and white checkerboard pattern covering the entire floor.  In the center of the gravesite is a monument featuring a seated mourning figure.  Behind the woman is a bas-relief of Jesus Christ in a roundel in the center of the Latin cross. 

Surrounding the cross is a profusion of flowers.  Without the benefit of color, the erosion of the marble, and the stylistic devices of the carver, it is difficult to discern the types of the two flowers displayed on the stone with certainty.  However, the flowers in the upper portion of the stone appear to be pansies. In the lower half, the flowers are most likely chrysanthemums.  In Victorian times, flowers took on significance as a way to send coded messages; this was known as floriography from the Latin combining flora—“goddess of flowers”—and graphein—“writing.”

In 1884, Kate Greenaway, a popular author and illustrator published a book titled, the Language of Flowers.  According to her book, each flower had a meaning that was conveyed to the viewer or receiver of the flower or bouquet of flowers—for instance, the weeping willow represented mourning, the white lily represented purity, the Easter lily represented the Resurrection, and so on.  The book is a nearly complete listing of flowers along with their “secret” or symbolic meanings. 

In Greenway’s book, most flowers have a one-word descriptor or meaning.  In the case for the flower pansy the word is thought. Greenway used thought, no doubt, because pansy is derived from the French word pensée which translates to thought which is recorded in her book.  It wasn’t only the Victorians who identified the meaning of pansies in that way.  Pansies are mentioned in Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act 4, Scene 5, when Ophelia is talking to Laertes about her father’s funeral—“There’s  rosemary, that’s for remembrance.  Pray you, love.  And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.”  In gravestone symbolism the pansy has come to represent the remembrance of a loved one—fitting with which to decorate a stone.

The chrysanthemum is more problematic.  Greenway breaks the meaning out by color—red for “I love”; white for “truth”; and yellow for “slighted love”.  But obviously, the white marble doesn’t give a hint to the color of the flower intended.  But European tradition gives a clue to the meaning on a gravestone.  In many countries, including Italy where the family originated, the chrysanthemum was frequently used to decorate coffins and graves and became to be used as a token of comfort and condolence to the grieving family.

The language of flowers is quite beautiful, if you know it.

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