Monumental Cemeteries of Northern Italy

by Nancy Kilpatrick and Hugues Leblanc

Italian artists are responsible for much of the world's finest artwork. Names like Leonardo de Vinci, Michelangelo and Bernini Lorenzo are commonly known, which bespeaks the tremendous impact Italy has had on the world of art. From the Etruscans who pre-dated the Romans, through the Italian Renaissance movement to the Italian modern movement, the architecture of buildings and squares have benefited from a plethora of phenomenal artwork, particularly sculpture. And nowhere is there more sculpture evident than in the many cemeteries of northern Italy. These museum-quality funereal pieces reflect the nature of a people for whom the drama of opera is a crucial part of living.

The north of Italy is the wealthier part of the country. There, local or village cemeteries follow the European pattern. Small and well maintained, the long pebble-filled alleys of these garden cemeteries are lined on either side with tombstones or small but elaborate monuments. Sculpture is everywhere, from faces at the top of pillars to graceful angels looking mournfully at the earth while ascending to the heavens. Stones on family plots are frequently decorated with fresh flowers and mementos, and especially include photographs of generations of the departed which are permanently imbedded in the cement and stonework, a constant reminder that for Italians, la famiglia is all important.

In the 19th century, when money flowed, especially in the north, the rise of a well-heeled Il borghese society developed new ideas and ideals of life and the after-life. Urban cemeteries were designed with intentional grandiosity. Called monumental cemeteries, these landscaped grounds displayed the sophisticated architecture of the era coupled with classical and romantic sculpture filled with Italian passion.

As with the planning of Père Lachaise in Paris, nature as the backdrop was fundamental in developing monumental cemeteries. And a tradition dating back to the Etruscans prevailed, the ossario, wall upon wall of individual niches to bury bodies or ashes. This design is evident in Etruscan ruins, and in the early Christian crypts from the 4th Century, where walls of rectangular niches were used as burial spaces, then cemented over to protect the remains. This concept worked its way into above-ground cemeteries, where the walls of niches became the outer walls of the cemetery, forming a bridge between the hyper urban world to the peace and tranquility of the countryside. Every monumental cemetery features a similar juxtaposition of arrangement: a large building with open and artistic galleries of walls of niches at the forefront, and then further into the grounds the individual monuments and gravestones surrounded by trees, shrubs and plants.

This pattern is clearly seen on the Isola di San Michele, the island cemetery in Veneto. Around 1870, two islands, one containing a monastery, the other barren, were united by order of Napoleon to become a huge garden cemetery accessible only by water; Napoleon believed in the French concept of burying the dead outside the city proper. In those days, funereal gondolas, all black with gold-winged angels, ferried the dead and their mourners across the waters to the island where burial took place. Today, the advent of modern water-taxies has made this charming island cemetery with its robed and balding Franciscan monks strolling the paths a popular tourist site. A church stands on one corner of the grounds. Only a few large monuments exist here, and some of the huge marble-topped monuments double as walkways. The cemetery is rigidly divided into sections by plain pale walls, or walls of burial niches. Each section is given to a different theme. One low-lying area, encircled by burial walls, is dedicated to foreigners. In this predominantly Catholic cemetery, there are two rather dilapidated non-Catholic sections-one Greek, where Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev are buried, and the other protestant, which houses the remains of Ezra Pound. (The Jewish cemetery is on the resort island of Lido.) A small building houses charming antique urns and bone boxes from the 19th century, of eclectic design. The San Michele Cemetery is crowded and the dead are left to rest just twelve years, after which the family must pay to remove what remains to small metal boxes for permanent storage, otherwise the bones will be tossed into a common bone yard.

The Milano Monumental Cemetery is located in the north west corner of this fashionable city and is an oasis from traffic congestion. Considered the largest open-air museum of sculpture in Italy, it covers about 250,000 square meters. The design is a blend of Gothic and Romanesque with a touch of imitation Byzantine. A big main building at the entrance is followed by galleries of burial niches. The cemetery was designed by architect Carlo Maciachini in 1866 as a way to blend death and art, and the intent was that it would be open to different faiths. Beyond the Memorial chapel, on an axis composed of the central charnel house and the crematory temple, lays a flat city of ornate crypts, many the size of cottages, overshadowing low-level monuments with small but dramatic sculptures, mostly Art-Nouveau. Themes for the sculptures are the angels and cherubs, the female form, floral arrangements, and trades and professions. Bronze ornamentation is plentiful, and there is an abundance of fresh flowers. Apart from the more usual angels and saints, the grounds are filled with life-sized burial scenarios, sculptures composed of veiled mourners accompanying the deceased to its tomb. Such cemeteries become more than a necropolis. Among the famous dead for whom this cemetery was envisioned are Manzoni, Toscanini and Verdi.

Undoubtedly the most impressive cemetery in Italy is the Stagliano Cemetery, located in the proud city of Genoa-where Christopher Columbus was baptized. Stagliano opened to the public in 1851. Oscar Wilde's wife, Constance Lloyd is buried here. Carlo Barabino (who died early in the development stages) designed the cemetery, and Giovanni Battista, one of his students, finished it according to his master's neo-classical vision. A modest entrance belies the elaborate world within. The ceilings of the initial vaulted galleries of burial niches reach several stories high and contain 3000 dust-covered sculptures along both sides of the colonnade, on ground level, and on ledges high up the walls. The postures of the sculptures are life-like, the faces filled with passion. Once beyond this initial area, the breadth of the grounds is awe-inspiring: layer upon layer, gallery upon gallery in the fashion of a Roman forum, seemingly without end, built up the steep hill, accessible by hundreds of worn stone steps. Each twist and turn opens to yet another private and unique walled interment area, often devoted to extended families. At the epicenter of this cemetery is the Pantheon, a domed structure with more galleries of sculptures and individual niches. The view from the highest points is breathtaking- la città del morto (the city of the dead), is composed of lengthy side streets and valleys filled with small to medium to grand monuments. The landscaping is considered a perfect marriage of anglo-saxon and mediterranian styles. Towering over the entire cemetery is an inaccessible crypt, built in the style of a medieval cathedral, resplendent with spires and towers, the size of a three-story home. The great tragedy of Stagliano Cemetery is that the locals rarely visit. This is the same complaint the citizens of Rome have about the Vatican-you can't find an Italian in the place, just tourists.

These 19th century monumental cemeteries are northern Italy's legacy to the world, exhibiting the dramatic creativity and esthetic that can transport us to the realm of soul.

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