At Large  May 15, 2023  Fabio Fiocchi

The Monumental Cemetery of Milan

Photo by Dani Vander Horst. 

The entrance of the cemetery and the Famedio (at centre).

 

The monumental cemetery of Milan (Cimitero Monumentale) is among the famous and iconic monuments of Milan, such as the Duomo with its spectacular spires reaching up into the sky, or the imposing Castello Sforzesco with its majestic towers. This cemetery, though perhaps not the most well-known structure, is a masterpiece and actually attracts over 100,000 visitors every year. 

An impressive compound located nearby the modern Gae Aulenti square, in the North-West part of the city, the cemetery’s history began in 1837 when the city of Milan proposed the construction of a new graveyard to help replace the city’s many older and smaller ones.

Photo by Fabio Fiocchi. 

The Bernocchi family monument.

After many delays and changes, in 1863 construction commenced on plans by Carlo Maciacchini (1818-1899), a talented architect who had won the design contract offered by the city. Maciacchini’s original structure was continuously expanded until the cemetery filled 250,000 square meters of space, including not only the graves but trees, pathways, and the main building at the cemetery’s entrance, the Famedio. Also known as “The Temple of Fame,” the Famedio welcomes visitors with its impressive grandeur, equipped with pinnacles and an elaborate rosette at the center. Constructed in a neomedieval style of horizontally striped dark red and white stone, the building extends to both the right and left with two galleries of connected arches, through which statue-crowned sarcophagi and tombs overlook the square in front. The Famedio’s three main doors, each overlooked by lunettes filled with golden mosaics, lead into a tall, light-filled room topped by a dome decorated with vivid blue paint and golden stars which watch over the plates of those remembered or buried here.

Not just anyone was allowed to be put to rest in the cemetery and the Famedio. Enshrined by an edict in 1884, only certain Milanese citizens (either by birth or adoption), who brought particular benefits to the city, who had special merits in the fields of art, science, or literature, or those who distinguished themselves in the history of Italy were granted the right to be buried in the Famedio. Thus, inside and in the crypt below, many famous individuals are buried or commemorated such as writer Alessandro Manzoni, poet Salvatore Quasimodo, composer Giuseppe Verdi, architect Gae Aulenti, and ballerina Carla Fracci.

Photo by Fabio Fiocchi.

The Rancati - Sormani family monument.

On the opposite side of the cemetery stands the Crematory Temple (Tempio Crematorio), which resembles an ancient Greek temple. Sponsored by Alberto Keller (1800-1874) and completed in 1876, it was an innovative building because it pursued the objective of its founder to introduce and popularize the practice of cremation during the 19th century. Keller’s success made Milan one of the first European cities to do so.

Between the Famedio and the Crematory Temple, which now also serves as a burial place, stands the Ossuary, whose bichrome stones and arches recall the style of the entrance of the cemetery. Between all three of these structures, all around, hedged in by the perimetral walls, there are graves and a gentle silence.

And it is the silence that is probably the first thing that a visitor can perceive, even though one is still in the heart of the city. Across the grounds, the gurgling of the “green dragons” - the typical Milanese civic fountains - can be heard, while the wind gently moves the foliage of majestic trees, whose shade embraces living visitors and dead residents, who are sleeping in their stone and bronze eternal houses. The majority of the cemetery is subdivided by white gravel pathways, which run among the graves. 

Photo by Fabio Fiocchi.

Detail shot of the Ornati family monument.

Photo by Fabio Fiocchi. 

The Morgagni family monument.

 

Art is everywhere here, surrounding the visitors who walk among impressive statues and monuments made by the hands of skilled artists. Such works are especially concentrated in the Necropolis, an area at the center of the cemetery where one can see the spectacular aedicula of Antonio Bernocchi, on which marble statues, arranged in a spiral pathway ascending from the base to the top of a conic-shaped tower, narrate the Passion of Jesus. One should also endeavor to find and admire the majestic tomb of the famous Campari family, a reconstruction of the last supper with life-sized bronze statues, and many other exquisite artistic testimonies. 

Yet, despite the fact that most of the monuments belong to wealthy people, there is no egregious opulence to be found here, only a kaleidoscope of emotions. The compassion in the sight of a guardian angel, the touching of bronze figures who hold hands, the delicate and eternal kiss of two lovers in stone, or the deep, sharp desperation of other statues’ gazes and poses. Walking among this forest of monuments is not just a foray into 19th and 20th century art, but it also means peeking into people’s past lives, their concepts of death, and the love they both gave to and received from their beloved ones. Milan’s Monumental Cemetery is not only something to see, but to feel.

About the Author

Fabio Fiocchi

Fabio is an Italian archaeologist, native to the city of Milan. He specialized in cisterns, wells and underground excavations and holds a degree in Science of Cultural Heritage from the University of Milan and in Archaeology and Cultures of the Ancient World from the University of Bologna. A lover of books and art, his work has led him to develop a particular interest in ancient everyday objects from the Celtic, Roman and Etruscan worlds.

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