This deathbed sculpture and the panorama below are taken from the Souvenir du Cimetiere de Genes, published in 1930.
The Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno
Piazzale Resasco, 16100 Genoa, Italy Opened: January 1, 1851 Size: 250 acres Number of interments: 117,600 gravesites
Thirty-five years after the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno opened in Genoa, Italy, the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro decreed that Staglieno was the most beautiful cemetery in the world. It is still considered one of the largest open-air museums in Europe, full of one-of-a-kind works of art in marble. It’s made many lists of the world’s most beautiful graveyards.
The cemetery occupies a space in Genoa’s suburbs. Originally it was nothing special, but as the local merchants grew wealthy through the maritime trade in the 19th century, Staglieno became “an avatar of posthumous consumerism.” Many of its sculptures were commissioned pre-need, so that the living could enjoy them before being buried beneath them.
James Stevens Curl in his landmark book The Victorian Celebration of Deathhas this to say about it:“With its classical architecture, dramatic site, and essential urbaneness, [Staglieno] is unquestionably the grandest of all the cemeteries in Europe. Many connoisseurs consider it to be the most splendid cemetery in the world because of the excellence and quality of sculpture in its galleries.”
The cemetery’s central square is paved with marble grave markers, which are surrounded with thousands of sculptures. The Cemetery Book by Tom Weil says Staglieno is Italy’s largest cemetery.
The Monteverde angel from Staglieno: The Art of the Marble Carver
In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain describes the cemetery: “On either side, as one walks down the middle of the passage, are monuments, tombs, and sculptural 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.” While industrial pollution has dimmed the snowy white statuary, it’s still remarkably lovely.
The most famous statue in Staglieno is Giulio Monteverde’s angel standing over the Oneto family tomb. The androgynous angel holds one hand to his bare chest, gazing down with a fierce fixed expression. At his side he holds a long trumpet, indicating that he is the angel of resurrection who will blow the trumpet at the end of the world to call the dead from their graves. Monteverde’s angel has been copied in cemeteries around the world.
David Robinson’s photo, which served as the cover of his book Saving Graces.
Ken Worpole’s Last Landscapes has this to add: “The cult of representing the agony of death and parting through the languid, eroticized figure of a female nude, or of a naked couple entwined in lovemaking, reached its apotheosis in a number of the sculptures in the Staglieno Cemetery.” Many of these erotic nudes appear in photographer David Robinson’s book Saving Graces.
Walter S. Arnold has examined Staglieno’s monuments from a sculptor’s point of view. My review of his The Art of the Marble Carver is here.
This is the first cemetery book I’ve read that was written by a sculptor. Arnold enthuses about the magnificent statuary of Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa. He goes through all the hands that a grave marker statue passes through from initial conception to the final polish, then spends the rest of the book drawing the reader’s attention to the exquisite details on display in Staglieno. I will never look at cemetery statues the same way.
However, if you are looking for a guide to Staglieno, full of biographies of the dead or names of particular artists, this is not the book for you. Beyond a cursory history of the cemetery, Arnold isn’t interested in names and dates. He’s an artist, here to look at art. I really appreciated having him as my guide.
The book is available on Amazon, but it’s really expensive for a paperback. Here’s the link: http://amzn.to/2lYQfFO
Rome, Italy Founded: After 312 BCE Size: Only 10 miles remain, not all of it lined with tombs Number of interments: none anymore Best time to visit: on Sundays, when the road is closed to traffic Hours of the tomb of Cecelia Metella: Closed Mondays (except Easter Monday), Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Open every other day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The ticket office closes an hour before closing time. Admission: The 7-day ticket is valid at 3 sites: the Baths of Caracalla, the Villa of the Quintilii, and the mausoleum of Caecilia Metella. Visitors 17 and under and European Union citizens 65 and over are free. European Union teachers and citizens age 18 to 24: € 3. Full price tickets are € 6.
Perhaps the most famous ancient road was Rome’s Via Appia, the Appian Way. Begun in 312 BCE by Counsul Appius Claudius, it was envisioned as an easy way for Rome to move its army southward during the Second Samnite War. The road is 14.5 feet wide, wide enough for 5 soldiers to march abreast or for two wheeled carts to pass in opposite directions.
The first Roman highway began at the Roman forum, then extended eventually to Brindisi on the Adriatic Sea, a total of almost 350 miles. Called the “Queen of Roads,” the Appian Way allowed trade with Greece, Egypt, and North Africa.
The Appian Way may be best known these days for its role in the slave revolt lead by Spartacus in 73 BCE. Once the Roman army quashed the revolt, they crucified more than 6000 slaves and lined 130 miles of the Appian Way with their bodies.
About 10 miles of the Appian Way is preserved today as the Via Appia Antica. You can bike or walk over the same stones as Julius Caesar and St. Peter. Rick Steves suggests you catch #118 bus from either the Piramide or Circo Massimo Metro stops, but I took the hop-on, hop-off Archeobus without a problem, although TripAdvisor doesn’t seem to be a fan.
On the Appian Way, one can clearly see the road base made of large volcanic stones, cemented together with softer gravel. Along the road lie two of the early Christian catacombs, St. Calixtus and St. Sebastian. Part of it is lined with Roman-era grave monuments.
Following the lead of the Etruscans, Rome prohibited burial inside the city walls. This meant that the roads out of town were lined with ever-grander monuments. Two of these tomb-lined roads were preserved in Pompeii. In Rome, along the Appian Way, only fragments remain.
Vintage postcard of the tomb of Cecilia Metella
One of these, the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella (Via Appia Antica 161; 39 06 7802 1465) is huge. Cecilia was daughter of Quintus Metellus Creticus, the conqueror who gave his name to Crete. She was also the daughter-in-law of Crassus, the richest man in Rome, who made his money trading slaves – and was the Roman general who crushed the Spartacus slave rebellion. Crassus formed the First Triumvirate with Pompey and Julius Caesar in 60 BCE, which ended democracy in Rome.
Not much is known about Cecilia herself. Her tomb was built between 50 and 40 BCE by Crassus’s eldest son, also fabulously wealthy. Cecilia may have died young, but as Tikitaly.com points out, “her tomb is the finest surviving Roman monument on the Appian Way.”
Cecilia’s reasonably well-preserved tomb is 60 feet in diameter and was once faced with travertine marble, long since looted away for other building projects. In the Middle Ages, Pope Boniface VIII gave the mausoleum to his family, from which to collect tolls along the heavily traveled road. The Caetani family fortified it as a castle and tollbooth, adding towers and battlements.
The tomb inspired Lord Byron to daydream about Cecilia in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. JMW Turner painted the Tomb of Cecilia Metella in 1830 and the finished product hangs in London’s Tate Britain Museum. Charles Dickens visited in 1845, writing in Pictures from Italy, “Here was Rome indeed at last; and such a Rome as no one can imagine in its full and awful grandeur! We wandered out upon the Appian Way and then went on, through miles of ruined tombs and broken walls…”
Now the tomb is a museum dedicated to the family of the Roman noblewoman who had been laid to rest there. It is one of nine Rome museums/archaeological sites that can be visited using the Rome Archaeological pass.
Out beyond Cecilia Metella’s mausoleum there are fragments of other tombs lining the old road. Among them are the tombs of Emperor Gallienus, who was murdered in 268 AD, Romulus (14-year-old son of Emperor Maxentius), Seneca (the Stoic Roman philosopher), Marcus Servilius (a Roman historian, about whom not much is known), and many others. On the tomb of the family of Sextus Pompeius Justus in an inscription that tells of the grief of a father burying his young children.
I picked this guidebook up from the caretaker at the English Cemetery in Florence. The little chapbook contains a scant amount of history, followed by 63 capsule biographies of people buried in the cemetery. Despite being commonly called the English Cemetery, the permanent residents include expats of 16 nations. They skew toward British, followed by more than 400 Swiss, nearly a hundred North Americans, 50-some Orthodox Russians, and more than 80 Italians.
The booklet delves briefly into the prejudice faced by non-Catholics in Italy in the 19th century. In fact, Catholic clergy led attacks on freshly dug graves in the cemetery’s earliest years. Most of the earliest Italians buried here died in prison after being jailed for their beliefs. I could have used more background on the persecution.
The historical overview is, unfortunately, the weakest part of the book. I suspect it was translated from the Italian, but that wouldn’t explain why the first page opens with a modern description of the cemetery, then jumps back to the cemetery’s foundation, then leaps back 600 years earlier to when the medieval wall was built around the city, before skipping forward to the Renaissance. It helped me to take notes as I was reading.
While the booklet does include both color and black-and-white photos, they aren’t labeled and also aren’t placed in the book anywhere near the text they illustrate. For example, the photo of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s monument appears on a page after her biography — but unless you knew what you were looking at or were reading with a magnifying glass, you’d never see the connection at all.
Clearly, the world needs a new, improved, updated guide to this lovely little cemetery full of history and one-of-a-kind artwork.
There is one copy listed for sale on Amazon, but it’s $89. At this moment, there’s also one for under $5 for sale on ebay.
View of the English Cemetery, taken by Mason Jones.
The English Cemetery of Florence
aka Il Cimitero degli Inglesi
or officially Il Cimitero Protestante di Porta di Pinti
The Protestant Cemetery of Porte di Pinti
Piazzale Donatello, 38 50132 Florence, Italy
Telephone: +39 055 582608 Founded: 1827 Size: small Number of interments: 1400 + Open: (As of 2010) Monday 9 a.m. to noon, Tuesday to Friday 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. (summer) or 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. (winter)
Traffic whips by on the streets that encircle the cemetery’s small plaza, so take care as you scurry across. The streets isolate the cemetery, which feels like an island. One of the guidebooks mentions Arnold Boecklin’s series called “Isle of the Dead,” painted in his studio nearby. One version hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A small island near Corfu had inspired those paintings, but here at the edge of the graveyard, we had a very definite sense of being set apart from the bustle of life.
When the cemetery was founded in 1827, it stood outside the Pinti Gate, outside the walls of Florence. The land had been used as a dump and pieces of broken china still sometimes surface after a good rain.
Once the caretaker allows you through the gate, follow her through the gatehouse – whch also serves as a museum and library dedicated to the works of those buried in the cemetery. Julia Bolton Holloway, an expert on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, has served as the cemetery’s caretaker for decades.
When the city walls were demolished in 1869, the cemetery became part of the city of Florence. As such, it fell under the Napoleonic edict that there could be no burials within city limits. The last burial took place in 1877 – and for 130 years, the cemetery was basically abandoned and allowed to fall apart. During World War II, Allied bombs did even more damage. Money is welcomed to help with the repairs and restoration.
Past the gatehouse, a path leads up a gentle hill. One-of-a-kind white marble sculpture jams the cemetery, climbing the hill in ranks of stone like chess pieces or an army mustered at attention.
Part way up, just to the left of the path, stands the monument to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The poet came to Florence in 1847 with her husband Robert Browning to escape the cold damp of England and her possessive father, who’d declared that none of his children would ever leave home. Elizabeth celebrated her new residence in the poem “Casa Guidi Windows.” She and Robert hosted salons and publicized the Florentine charms so well that the city became a stop on the Grand Tour.
The monument of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
In 1861, Elizabeth succumbed to the weakness in her lungs. Robert saw her buried in the ground, then immediately left Florence, unable to bear it without his wife. He lies in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in London. Elizabeth remained behind beneath a marble sarcophagus upheld by six classical columns. A cameo of the muse of poetry ornaments the box.
The sarcophagus of Fanny Waugh Hunt
Just behind Elizabeth’s marble confection lies the grave of Fanny Waugh Hunt, wife, model, and muse of the Pre-Raphaelite painter W. Holman Hunt. He immortalized her radiant beauty in his “Isabella and the Pot of Basil.” She died in childbirth and was buried beneath a sarcophagus sculpted by her husband. It’s a rounded capsule of marble with a peaked lid that seems to float on stone clouds above a granite base.
Walter Savage Landor, a poet-leader of the early English Romantic movement, is also interred here, under a simple marble tablet.
In part because Elizabeth’s grave became a place for pilgrimage — no person of sensitivity could go to Florence in the 19th century and not visit her — the cemetery became known as the English Cemetery. Officially, it’s called the Cimitero Protestante di Porta di Pinti: the Protestant Cemetery of the Pinti Gate. The Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church owns the land.
A pelican feeding her young on her own blood.
The iconography here is different than elsewhere, even in Italy. We saw lots of butterflies, more than one ouroboros, pelicans feeding their young, and hourglasses winged with swan’s wings, bat’s wings, and everything in between.
The pelican appears in the writings of St. Augustine. For some reason, early Christians believed that the pelican tore open its breast to feed its young on its own blood. For centuries, the pelican symbolized Christ, spilling his blood to nourish his believers with eternal life. On these graves, the pelican seemed to speak of sacrifices made for the church.
Many of the people buried in the “English” Cemetery are in fact Italians, who had been persecuted for their Protestant beliefs. Challenging the Pope’s authority in Italy in the 19th century had been a criminal offense, punishable by imprisonment and also refusal to be buried in sanctified ground.
The Grim Reaper, English Cemetery, Florence, Italy
In this sea of sculpture, the most amazing monument marks an Italian’s grave. A larger-than-life skeleton brandishes a scythe, about to slice down a clump of stone lilies. The Reaper wears his shroud like a cloak, tossed jauntily over one shoulder. The raw bones of his shin and thigh peep out at the bottom. A rag blindfolds his eye sockets but doesn’t mask his grimacing teeth. I’d never seen anything like him. I haven’t been able to discover any information about Andrea di Mariano Casentini (1855-1870), but clearly Mama and Papa had some message to give the world when they lost their child.
Click here to sign up for my monthly mailing list, which will keep you up to date on my speaking schedule and upcoming projects. As a thank you, you'll receive "4Elements," a short ebook that showcases one of my favorite cemetery essays, a travel essay, and two short stories, spanning from urban fantasy to science fiction.