Some years ago, I was being driven through the suburbs of Milan when we passed an astonishing façade in the “medieval Lombard style,” all horizontal stripes in contrasting stones and extending for a quarter of a mile. “What’s that?” I asked the driver. “Cemetery.” “What sort of cemetery?” “For the rich,” said the driver, a man of few words. This was the Cimitero Monumentale, or the Monumentale for short—the great nineteenth-century burial ground of Milan.
Visiting it the next day, I was half-astonished, half-amused by its seemingly limitless inventions in sculpture. Here was the Campari Last Supper, free-standing, life-size, and in bronze, erected in 1935, in which Christ breaks the bread just over the name of the famous aperitif. Here, among various monuments to aviators, was the bronze figure of Umberto Fabè, dragging a huge propeller away from a Medusa head, while one of the snakes curls around his leg. Naked but for a skimpy cloth and his goggles and helmet, he struggles with death in 1941.
Here I came upon what looked from the rear approach like a crag of pink sandstone, which turned out to be the backside of a great brooding earth mother, the Vital Breath of Nature, who overlooked (for this was an example of two sculptures in one) a bronze group of peasants with a team of oxen. The creation of Enrico Butti, completed in 1912, it is a tribute to the arduousness of work. The oxen are refusing their task. The earth spirit seems preoccupied with some other subject. Yet from behind there is the implication, not deducible from the photograph, that it is her flank that is being plowed.
When we first visited Italy as children or as students, our instructors were always urging us to look away from what was not genuinely old, and from what was not in the line of good taste, which rather petered out (as far as sculpture was concerned) with the High Renaissance. And even when the scope of our inquiries was extended, and we took in the virtues of the Baroque and Neoclassical eras, we still maintained the habit of ignoring those vivid—ugly, we thought them—revivalist buildings we would pass on the outskirts of cities. We might perhaps visit the Protestant cemeteries, to pay our respects to their distinguished foreign writers. But the tombs and monuments of the Italian dead, heroes of the more recent past, lay quite beyond our scope of interest.
The central section of the Monumentale’s façade consists of the famedio, or Temple of Fame (built between 1875 and 1887). This is Milan’s Pantheon, resting place for the bodies of “illustrious citizens and patriots”—artists, writers, scientists, all who “shed lustre and brought prestige and advantage to our country,” and who “contributed to the national evolution.” At the west end of the façade lies the cemetery of the Acattolici, the non-Catholics or Protestants, while at the east end we find similar provision made for the Israeliti …
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A Cemetery in Limbo November 16, 2006