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.”1 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, the newly emancipated Jewish families of Milan, for when the cemetery itself was opened in 1866 it was the first such municipal institution to make provision for Protestants and Jews.2

Behind the famedio lies the necropolis, with its central ossuary, or vault for the bones of the dead, and its far-off crematorium, its avenues of trees and its galleries with niches for tombs. The different “classes” of graves consist of aedicules (small buildings) or family chapels, assigned in perpetuity; individual tombs called giardinetti, or little gardens, offering underground perpetual burial; columbaries (the word means dovecotes), which offer large niches for the interment of coffins for forty years in the galleries; and the ossuary or charnel house, “for osseous remains from exhumations and ashes from cremations. Thirty years burial.”3

Some cemeteries contrive to give an impression of a park—as in the great examples at Hamburg and Cambridge. A sort of uniformity of good taste is achieved by, or imposed upon, the participating families. The tombs tend to be variants on a formula, and many, indeed, are mass-produced. The Monumentale, on the other hand, is all diversity and exuberance of invention. The sculptors responsible are not stonemasons working from pattern books but individual artists who might well have achieved celebrity in other branches of the art besides the funerary. The names of Medardo Rosso and Vincenzo Gemito are among the better known. But the most famous, and perhaps the most surprising, artist to be associated with the Monumentale is the Argentine-born Lucio Fontana, who became known internationally for his slashed canvases.

Fontana was born in Rosario de Santa Fe in 1899, the son of an Argentinian actress and an Italian sculptor, Luigi Fontana, who specialized in commemorative sculpture and funerary monuments.4 The large “monument to national agriculture” in Esperanza by Luigi’s firm features the same kind of working oxen as in the Butti sculpture mentioned above. When his parents separated in 1905, the child Lucio was sent to Italy to school, where he in due course came to serve, and be wounded, in the First World War. Between 1922 and 1927, Lucio was back in Argentina working as a monumental sculptor in the tradition of his father, but in the latter year he returned to Milan to study under a sculptor much celebrated at the time, Adolfo Wildt. He rented a room and studio near the Monumentale and immediately began work on funerary sculptures.


Fascism suited Fontana professionally, in the sense that he was adept at producing figures to conform to its rhetoric, winning a competition for a portrait of Mussolini. But it would also inconvenience him from time to time. A monument to fallen soldiers lasted only five years before being destroyed by local Fascists in Erba, while a statue of Victory, baffling to contemporary eyes, was melted down. As an artist Fontana became impatient with the very source of his strength. He was a master of carving, and an expert modeler in clay—precisely the craft skills that would have recommended his work to Adolfo Wildt. But he began to see such materials—marble, bronze, and ceramic—as exacting a sort of servitude.

At a meeting with Brancusi in Paris in 1937, Fontana showed some of his work:

By using colour, I was trying to break down the material; what I disliked was this enslavement to material. Something suggested to me by Boccioni. I had tremendous arguments with Brancusi, who was a fully-fledged genius by this time whilst I was still a young man, and he said that what I was doing was not sculpture. I said, I know, I agree, but I am not looking for volume.5

Those who saw the surviving ceramics from this period at the 1999 Fontana exhibition in London may remember their somewhat repulsive surfaces, their garish glazes, and the quality they had, which the artist called terremotata ma ferma, of being “earthquaked but firm.” This line of work was leading the sculptor in precisely the opposite direction from Wildt’s. It was the opposite of his own public work on such projects as the partially gilded bronze Christ on the Castellotti family tomb in the Monumentale, although, as Sarah Whitfield ingeniously pointed out in an essay on Fontana, the gash in Christ’s hand (the representation of the stigmata) seems to prefigure the gashes made in Fontana’s canvases over twenty years later.

Fontana left Italy in 1940, once again for Argentina, and did not return until 1947, when he found his studio destroyed and a good part of his past work discredited. Viewed in a certain light, he was by now a quite different artist, no longer working in materials such as marble and bronze that are proverbially noted for their permanence, but creating, in the two decades between 1949 and 1968, a series of small rooms, beginning with Spatial Environment in Black Light, in which the viewer was shown abstract objects made of papier-mâché and painted with luminous paint or illuminated with ultraviolet light. These rooms or installations were constructed to last only a few weeks, since, as Fontana put it, “In the face of eternity art that lasts only a minute is just as valid as art that lasts a millennium.”6

In one obvious sense, this new kind of art (very much alive today) resembles what had flourished in the cemeteries of every thriving Italian city between the Risorgimento and the end of the Fascist era. Fontana’s early training as a master builder had been appropriate for one who might be called upon to construct aedicules or small chapels for memorials. These postwar ambienti spaziali were temporary aedicules, little buildings in which the artist enjoyed freedom of self-expression, small versions of the pavilions that sprang up in the great exhibitions of the nineteenth century and which can still be seen at, for instance, the Venice Biennale.

The novelty of the cemeteries was that, given large tracts of land beyond the old city boundaries (the Monumentale has forty-five acres), there was space for every rich client—my taxi driver had been quite right to emphasize the word “rich”—to create an ambiente—whether in the sense of an aedicule or a giardinetto. In the Renaissance, when tombs were placed in churches, this use of space had been the privilege of the patrician few. The design of the monument, whether slab or niche (in imitation of the ancient Roman tombs), reflected the status of the dead. Very few families could have afforded, or would have been allowed to build, a chapel, let alone been able to aspire to something like the Cornaro Chapel at Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome (where Bernini’s Saint Teresa is the focus of an architectural, sculptural, and decorative program).


But during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as cities grew and the churches and their adjacent churchyards filled up with corpses, throughout the world came calls for better standards of public hygiene in the disposal of the dead. Nascent imperialism had a hand in this, for it was the European experience of burial customs in hot climates that contributed to the cemetery movement. The playwright and architect John Vanburgh, working for the East India Company at Surat, Gujarat, in the 1680s, saw the mausoleums in the cemeteries of the British, Dutch, French, and Armenian communities. In 1767 (which, as James Stevens Curl points out in an essay in the volume under review, was nearly forty years before the laying out of Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris) Calcutta acquired a cemetery in South Park Street “far grander than anything seen in Europe since Roman times.” Although this was for the European dead, the custom of building mausoleums reflected Indian traditions and ideas of status.

That the future of the burial ground lay outside the churches, and outside the city limits, was a matter of public hygiene. There was also a limit to the number of monuments a church could contain. An extreme example is Pigalle’s famous monument to the Maréchal de Saxe (1753–1776), which occupies the site of the high altar in the St. Thomas Church in Strasbourg, and effectively uses up a whole interior. The overcrowding of Westminster Abbey with tombs and monuments, and the development of St. Paul’s Cathedral as a British pantheon, illustrate both the process of filling up and the desire of a nation to bring its monuments to great men together under one roof—the desire that found its expression in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence in the nineteenth century.

The further that century advanced, the greater became the sense of the value of the Gothic heritage, and consequently the inappropriateness of modern monuments in ancient interiors. Conversely, there was a well-established appreciation of the affinity between monuments and parks or gardens. An early illustration of Père-Lachaise cemetery shows very well what was intended for this pioneering cemetery: a leafy glade of poplars under which nestle mausoleums in a variety of styles, the nearest being Egyptian, others both classical and Gothic. Curl tells us that when the cemetery was first laid out in 1804, the bodies of the legendary lovers Abelard and Héloïse were brought there, along with those of the writers La Fontaine and Molière. There were illustrated guides to this cemetery, just as there had been printed guides to some of the landscape gardens of the eighteenth century.

The same attention was paid to the works of art that began to fill up the Monumentale and its chief rival, the Staglieno in Genoa (designed between 1835 and 1840). Of the latter we are told that it featured a boschetto irregolare, a wooded, irregular hill, in imitation of Père-Lachaise. Mazzini was buried there in 1872, and other patriots of the Risorgimento in a Boschetto dei Mille, a Wood of the Thousand. There were guided tours, guidebooks, and photographs. And it became the practice of Italian newspapers to publish reviews of the recent monuments, around All Saints’ Day in November, along with specially composed poems. The Staglieno, we are told by Sandra Berresford, was visited by Nietzsche, Mark Twain, and Maupassant. It might have been interesting to hear what they said about it, just as it would perhaps have been interesting to read a sample of the newspaper reviews.

Berresford is the chief author of the book under review, which was put together in a haphazard way, starting with the photographs. It could have done with a better editor and a better designer, and fewer authors. But it is the first such work on its subject in English, and although the photographs are not particularly distinguished they will no doubt prove important in the long run, since we can see from many of them that preserving this sculptural heritage is going to be impossible. The tombs are often filthy and are being eaten away by pollution. Nor does it seem likely that the innumerable mausoleums will be kept up indefinitely by the families involved.

A handy gazetteer lists nearly fifty such cemeteries throughout Italy, and not only in the north, in the towns that rose to affluence after the industrial revolution—Milan, Turin, Genoa, and Bologna—although these are typical locations: but also Florence (six cemeteries are listed) and Siena. It is clear from the bibliography that many of these cemeteries have been studied in the last decade, as indeed have many of the sculptors involved.

The styles range from neoclassicism through art nouveau (known in this context as the Liberty Style, after the London store) to art deco, taking in along the way a kind of realism and a very vigorous form of symbolism. There are portraits and groups that quite clearly derive from photographs, and indeed it was through sending photographs that clients in South America were able to order monuments from craftsmen in Genoa. Every sort of trade is represented, including, on the tomb of Giuseppe Treves in Milan (admirably executed by Ettore Ximenes), the full range of activities of a publishing house, with leading literary figures in attendance. In Bologna in the 1950s the monument to Edoardo Weber showed the entire process of designing the Weber carburetor. By then, though, this rich tradition was more or less exhausted, although grand families will still order grand mausoleums: Silvio Berlusconi’s is apparently particularly impressive.

This Issue

February 23, 2006