In 19th century Europe many new cemeteries were established to solve practical problems. Père Lachaise opened in Paris in 1804 to address overcrowding and the spread of disease and in 1839, Highgate was built in London to meet the demands of a fast-growing population. In contrast, the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno in Genoa was designed as a creative masterpiece in the art of death. Opened in 1851, scenographic principles—artistic perspective concerning the visual, experiential, and spatial composition of performance—were used to determine the layout, rather than practicality. In Staglieno it’s transposed from the confines of the stage onto a sloping hillside to create a theatrical setting in which death is the star.
The grounds, covering one square kilometer, are divided into sections according to when they were designed and built, the inhabitants’ religion, and specific military events. Inside the main entry, the Neo-Classical style graves in Sector A are arranged in mathematical fashion in observation of 19th century conventions. In death, as in life, the certainty of scientific and technological discoveries define the social order. Similarly, both Père Lachaise and Highgate cemeteries are laid out on formal lines, with wide leafy avenues and areas contained within distinct boundaries. Death appears under control.
In Staglieno majestic galleries housing hundreds of tombs and cremated remains form a quadrilateral portico wrapped around this first large central square. Like an actor about to proclaim a speech, Santo Varni’s statue of Faith stands at the exact center. From there one’s eye is immediately drawn to the Suffrage’s Chapel, sitting majestically atop a wide marble staircase. Its placement is no accident. Hundreds of tombs, statues, gravestones, and memorials radiate out and upwards from the Chapel, a copy of the Pantheon. It’s the director of this city of the dead full of dramatic displays of loss and grief realized in marble, bronze, and stone.
An internal bus service winds around manicured roads lined with an artfully manufactured wilderness. Small footpaths criss-cross the different levels leading to concealed treasures. Visitors feel they’re entering another world. A clutch of spires peeps out from a tangle of trees, as though waiting for the curtain to be pulled back. They belong to Capella Raggio dating to 1895. Architect Luigi Rovelli combined Neo-Gothic styling with references to the Ambrose Rite, only practiced in the Archdiocese of Milan, to create this miniature version of the grand Cathedral.
Of all the sectors to explore, Sector E has the leading role. Dense with tombs, it was built when Genoa was a major seaport and shipbuilding center. The city was wealthy, and the affluent and educated bourgeoisie wanted long-lasting memorials firmly in place once they left the mortal coil. It’s the crowning glory of Carlo Barabino, the architect who approved and designed the cemetery in 1835. In a case of fitting irony, he died the same year in a cholera epidemic that decimated Genoa. The project was taken over by Giovanni Battista Ravasco using Barabino’s original design.
Barabino wanted to express the interplay of secular and sacred ideas. Consequently, Sector E, known as il boschetto or the grove, has two distinctly different styles of funerary architecture on display. On one side solid man-made structures hewn in marble, granite, and bronze articulate the desired dominance of man over nature. Geometry, order, and logic determine their appearance because rationalism and the importance of the public memory of the dead are at the forefront. More fanciful tombs, ornate with botanical whimsy and lyric designs, fill the other. They illustrate a mediation on death in direct comparison to nature, rather than earthly achievements. Unlike in other European graveyards, ultimately all the tombs are surrounded and overwhelmed by nature. Mortals are born of the earth and return to the soil. Their lives are long forgotten while the cemetery remains, a lasting testimony to the power of death.