Angels with dirty faces; Cimitero monumentale di Staglieno

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Angel with a mallet

The Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno in Genoa, Italy is the largest repository of Italian funereal art in the country and one of the largest in Europe.  When I visited this magical, charismatic sea port known best as the supposed birthplace of the explorer Christopher Columbus, a friend sent me a message and suggested I visit the cemetery that had so impressed him when he was a young man.

I love cemeteries and have visited so many I can’t imagine counting them, but there are a handful that stand out in my memory as being truly spectacular.  There is of course Père-Lachaise in Paris, which in my mind is the most amazing, although Staglieno in Genoa certainly rivals it a different way.

Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

My recent visit to the Campo Santo in Pisa, Italy took my breath away.  Pisan Gothic arcades in white marble form a vast rectangular courtyard surrounded by a lofty roofed corridor that contains Roman sarcophagi to 19th Century masterpieces in sculpture.

The Campo Santo at Piazza di Miracoli in Pisa

Many graves are set in the marble floors like those found in churches while marvelous crypts are placed  along the walls and in a domed chapel.

A gorgeous monument in the Campo Sacro in the Piazza di Miracoli in Pisa

The Capuchin crypts in Palermo Sicily are unforgettably macabre, with semi preserved bodies laid out on ledges and hanging from the walls in their rotting funeral garb.  The embalming processes used there  combined with the climactic conditions of the underground crypts have preserved the dead creating a place literally like going in to the graves themselves.

Bodies on display in the Capuchin Crypts in Palermo, Sicily

Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires is regal and grandiose and Sao Joao Battista Cemetery in Rio de Janiero is worth a visit if only to see the grave of Carmen Miranda.  The Colon Cemetery in Havana, Cuba is a museum of breathtaking marble sculpture as well.  There are a lot of cemeteries in the world and this is just a tiny selection, but I remember them as being grand outdoor galleries of finest sculpture.

What really threw me on entering the hillside cemetery at Staglieno was that it is a city of the Dead set in a landscaped forest that covers over one square kilometer.  One of the largest cemeteries in Europe, it even has two mini buses that ply the winding roads, driven by impatient bored chauffeurs who have been known to clip and damage the occasion monument as they zoom around like race car drivers.

A road climbing the hill to the upper reaches of this enormous cemetery complex

Vast arched galleries run for hundreds of meters lined with some of the finest marble sculpture ever executed by the hand of man.  Ernest Hemingway called it “one of the wonders of the world”.   The famed French short story writer Maupassant and the German philosopher Nietzsche visited the cemetery.  Oscar Wilde’s wife is buried here while he is interred in Père-Lachaise in Paris.

Opium Poppies

Mark Twain wrote this after an apparently moving visit: “Our last sight was the cemetery (a burial place intended to accommodate 60,000 bodies), and we shall continue to remember it after we shall have forgotten the palaces.  It is a vast marble colonnaded corridor extending around a great unoccupied square of ground; its broad floor is marble, and on every slab is and inscription – for every slab covers a corpse.  On either side, as one walks down the middle of the passage, are monuments, tombs, and sculptured figures that are exquisitely wrought and are full of grace and beauty.  They are new and snowy; every outline is perfect, every feature guiltless of mutilation, flaw, or blemish, and therefore, to us, these far-reaching ranks of bewitching forms are a hundred fold more lovely than the damaged and dingy statuary they have saved from the wreck of ancient art set up in the galleries of Paris for the worship of the world.”

Napoleon was the man who first dictated the need for proper cemeteries in Italy with the edict of Saint-Cloud in 1804 to help alleviate the disease and stench of internment within city walls.  People were often buried under the floors of churches and catastrophic epidemics were commonplace.  During times of plague bodies were just piled in the piazzas for lack of a place to put them.  As proper cemeteries were established beyond city walls, affluent families saw the opportunity to create grand memorials to their legacy and loved ones.  A grand funerary memorial is a symbol of status in the hopes of not being forgotten.

Arcades create enormous galleries for a breathtaking array of funeral monuments

The Genoese architect Carlo Barabino began work on the design in 1835 after proving himself a master with other prominent projects in the city.  The architect Giovanni Battista Resasco carried on the work after Barabino’s death during a cholera epidemic.  The main structure of the cemetery wasn’t completed until 1880.  Additions of an English, Protestant, and Jewish cemetery were added over time.

A sign with a plan of the cemetery

The lower and upper arcades create high terraces containing different periods and styles of art considered in vogue at the time of their construction.  These arcades frame the dramatic centrally positioned Pantheon, a domed building modeled after the ancient structure in Rome.

The Pantheon with a monolithic sculpture of Liberty bearing a cross

Above and beyond these symmetrical structures is a more naturalistic park with winding roads and stairs connecting a fantasy world of family tombs in a variety of styles from Neo-Gothic, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau to Art Deco.

The Neo-Gothic Capella Raggio, built in 1896

The back sides and corridors of these arcades are filled with simpler covered crypts in a style that goes back to the pre Roman Etruscans.  More contemporary renditions lie behind these older ones in a style that is popular throughout Europe today.

The flat areas in between were later filled with the humble but telling graves of the common people, smothered in gardens of colorful silk flowers and the flickering lights of electric eternal flames, that is until the battery runs out.  Photos of the departed are affixed to the stones to keep memory alive and aid in locating loved ones when visiting.

Tombstones of the common man fill ground that was once open
A revered Nun

But what is most remarkable about this place is the memorial artwork itself.  Renowned sculptors were commissioned to  carve imagery depicting grief, loss, mourning, death, decay, pride, valor, reverence, beauty, and the ascension to Heaven, often guided by angels or Jesus Christ himself.

Christ resurrecting from his tomb

The sculptors ability to convey the feeling of a person moving from the world of the living to the afterlife, leaving behind family and friends is done with such nuance that you can feel the emotions meant to be expressed.  The downcast eyes have lashes, the delicate hands touch those of an angel preparing to carry the soul to heaven.  There is even a sculpture of a woman literally dancing with death while trying to tear herself away.

Dancing with Death

This is an exhausting collection of images that I took on a melancholy but unseasonably warm day in January.  These incredible works of art are all the more mysterious in that they are now covered in a layer of dust, rather than polished and cared for.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the literal sense.  As the Rolling Stones once sang, “Time waits for no one.”  Here is a comprehensive tour of what I found to be visually haunting and beautiful at the Cimitero monumental di Staglieno.





A humble relative grieving the loss of a loved one




A wicked depiction of the Grim Reaper draped across a sarcophagus




An Art Nouveau sculpture of loved ones communing in a swirl of flowing drapery


Contemplating Death




Grand staircases connect the lower and upper arcades









Nowhere to go but up
With the assistance of an angel


San Michele
Reluctant parting














Contemplative sorrow








Angels with dirty faces


We’re going up now


Knocking on Heaven’s door


A parting kiss


Carried away


Sending a child to Heaven from the crib




Opium must have been liberally prescribed to the dying



He’s gone now













A stubborn man



An incredible moment when a flock of pigeons flew through an arcade


Father and Son






The Pieta







Giuseppi Mazzini, one of the fathers of the unification of Italy


A cupid’s kiss


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Lovely Iris blooming in January


A grotto graces a terrace on the hillside


This incredible bronze was cast to drape directly over the natural rock


An elegant grill light well



Zombies wreaking havoc



Whats a cemetery without cats?


The Crematorium





An awkward kiss


An incredible depiction of the discovery of a death




The departed







The family gathering around the death bed


A poignent prayer


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Preparing for take off


One of the cemetery’s most famous angels


A beautiful angel


Bronze Oak


A monument to the penitentiary




Fresh arrivals


A beautifully rendered monument to departed soldiers
Flowers, mostly silk for sale outside the cemetery gates


A funeral wreath
Discarded flowers

Thanks for coming all this way with me, Jeffrey

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