A walk through the Monumental Cemetery in Milan is not on every tourist’s itinerary. Weird though this may sound, it is an education in itself. Opened in 1866 it is the second largest cemetery in Milan.
As one enters the main gate, the walls seem to be covered with floral quilts. These are the myriad niches where people preserve the ashes of their loved ones in urns. They are decorated with flowers some fresh, some plastic which brighten up the surroundings.
In the garden are tombs of various shapes and sizes adorned by crosses and religious sculptures of angels. But there are also many sculptures of sensuous women leaning gracefully over the graves.
The cemetery building next door resembles a large cathedral rather than a graveyard. It has two storeys with a wing extending laterally. It was built as a home to house the famous and the dead. The remains of mighty men, artists, litterateurs, aristocrats and religious leaders lie here in quiet comfort. The main entrance – the Famidio or Hall of Fame is built in medieval style. Honoured citizens are interred here, for some a permanent place of rest, for others a temporary stop over before transfer to other cemeteries. The tomb of the Italy’s famous poet and novelist Allesandro Mansoni occupies the centre of the Hall of Fame. The bust of Guiseppe Verdi the composer is also here, though his body was kept in this cemetery only for a month before it was shifted to another resting place for musicians.
Though most people may be unaware of it, the body of Eva Peron famously known as Evita, the first lady of Argentina, was sent by military dictators, to be buried in a crypt under the name of Maria Maggi. But in 1971, it was exhumed and flown to Rome.
The Famous Nobel prize winner for Literature in 1959 Salvatore Quassimodo also lies here. There is also a memorial to 800 Milanese who were killed in concentration camps.
The Hall of Fame was even featured in a film called “I Am Love,” in 2009.
But what simply thrills the eye are the sculptures of beautiful women seen in different sections of the mausoleum. Intricately carved in marble, their features look life-like. Some appear to be clothed in diaphanous veils, others are nude. One begins to wonder why these figures appear in a cemetery. Do they provide solace to the dead or grieving relatives? Is there a link between Thanatos and Eros? Most of these sculptures were commissioned to adorn the graves of Aristocracy or Ecclesiastical figures. It was a product of the Romantic Art of the 19th century. For Romantics, death was not to be feared because it was followed by rebirth – a transition from death to eternal life. It completed the circle of conception, birth, sexual expression and death. The statues were symbolic of the sensual pleasure of rebirth. They were found mostly in Catholic cemeteries.
The Monumental Cemetery in Milan is a place worth visiting.
By Eva Bell