This week the big cemetery, Turin’s Cimiterio Monumentale, has been positively bustling. The carpark is packed and florists are touting their wares in little kiosks just outside the walls. Well-dressed visitors have been popping in in chatty groups with buckets, brooms and bouquets. Everyone is getting into the spirit of a big couple days in the Catholic calendar: Ognissanti (‘All Saints’ Day’) on November 1, and I Morti (Day of the Dead or All Souls) on November 2. This is the time of year when a lot of Italians honoring their dead loved ones by visiting cemeteries, tidying grave sites, leaving flowers and generally taking some time to reminisce.
The other day, passing by, I decided to go in and see what was going on. The first thing I noticed was that it was extremely well kept: there were flowers everywhere; a lot of the tombs and headstones had actually been polished and the shrubs and rose bushes had been carefully pruned. The second thing I noticed was the statuary was very impressive, clearly meant to be appreciated as much for its artistic as its symbolic value. Italy, possibly even more than other European nations, placed a high value on funerary monuments well into the twentieth century and even received reviews from art critics.
The first monument I saw was a sculpture dedicated to the Gambaro family by sculptors Edoardo Rubino (1871-1954) and Giussepi Velati Bellini (1867-1926), both of whom were known for many other beautiful artworks. Rubino, for example, sculpted a monument to Umberto I in Rome and the architect Bellini created two of the finest Art Nouveau buildings in Turin including Casa Florio on Via Nizza.
In fact, the very next tomb was in Art Nouveau style with funerary niche designed by the same Giussepi Velati Bellini and a bronze bas-relief by Gaetano Orsolini (1884-1954). High-class Torinese of the Belle Époch were clearly very serious about the quality of their cemetery furniture.
Another beautiful plaque, this time in Symbolist style, was a frieze of fifteen angels by Davide Calandra (1856-1915). Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Calandra was the artist behind a sculpture I’d seen in Bueños Aires, to Bartolomé Mitre. This makes sense, though, because the crème de la crème of Argentina seemed just as concerned with leaving impressive monuments to the dead, as we found on our visit to La Recoleta, the VIP cemetery in Bueños Aires.
Although there were plaques attributing the artists for these examples, a lot of equally impressive pieces remained unattributed. I was particularly taken with this specimen,
a little perturbed by the color and vivacity of this sarcophagus,
and startled by this realistic vision of old age:
It wasn’t just the statuary that was grand. Just as central Turin is distinguished by its porticos, the cemetery has an arched corridor that gives it the feel of an outdoor palace. There are even frescos on the ceiling:
After a while, even these marble magnificences began to pall compared to the stories about the people stowed away. The cemetery is not only a repository of bones but also of fascinating stories about the people who contributed to the city’s history.
Among the notable figures buried here are the man responsible for funding and creating the cemetery, Carlo Tancredi Falletti di Barolo (1782-1838); celebrated actress Carlotta Marchionni (1796-1861); automobile pioneer Giovanni Battista Cierano (1860-1912); Piedmontese-language playwright Luigi Pietracqua (1832-1901); and first photographer of the Shroud of Turin Secondo Pia (1855-1941).
British-born Italian writer and poet Annie Vivanti (1866-1942) has a particularly charming plot. Her novel The Devourers, was supposedly inspired by her daughter, who was a violin prodigy. Supposedly, in 1890 she met future Nobel Prize Winner Giosuè Carducci and they had a love affair. I don’t know if it’s true or not but Carlo Emilia Gaddo claimed that Carducci carried her bloomers about with him in a suitcase and took them out to sniff them now and then.
An impressive batch of scientists reside in this City of Silence, including Jole Ceruti Scurti (1922-1981), a prominent professor of mycology. Giuseppi Levi (1872-1965) founded Turin’s histological school and taught three Nobel laureates: Rita Levi-Montalcini, Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco. There is a plaque to Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012) but I don’t know if she is buried here or at Rome, where she was living when she died. Born in Turin, she studied at the University of Turin Medical School and graduated summa cum laude M.D. in 1936. With Mussolini’s 1938 ‘Manifesto of Race’ she lost her position as Giuseppe Levi’s assistant and made her own apartment into a laboratory where she studied chicken embryos. When the Germans invaded Italy in 1943, she and her family fled to Florence and so escaped the Holocaust. In 1946 she went to Washington University in St. Louis, USA, where she remained as a research associate. In 1956 she and her colleague Stanley Cohen discovered and described Nerve Growth Factor, an achievement that brought them the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The Jewish section of the cemetery was my favorite. It is enclosed by walls and is much more overgrown and less statue-heavy than the rest, with a ‘Secret Garden’ feel. I surprised a blackbird from a bush growing over someone’s headstone and it literally yelled at me, suggesting that this part is not visited that often. There has been a significant Jewish population here since the 15th century, when they were escaping persecution in Eastern France.
From the Jewish cemetery, I emerged into a more modern section, where there were blocks of plaques covered with flowers and electric candles. This was where most of the visitors were.
I’ve always liked cemeteries as lonely, forgotten places, but here the cemetery is still an integral part of everyday life, which I think is kind of nice.
Death (or allusion to it) renders men precious and pitiable. They move us by their ghostly condition; every deed they do may be their last; there is no face that may not be on the point of being erased like a face in a dream. Everyone, among mortals, has the value of something irrecoverable and haphazard.
Luis Borges L’Aleph