Milan’s Palaces of the Dead

 

After a week in Milan, we felt we’d seen everything. We’d visited the Duomo in daylight and at night; we’d had aperitivi at several trendy bars; we couldn’t afford, but we didn’t care to shop at Gucci and Prada. It was an awkward period of limbo, one that came after what seemed like a week of 24/7 sightseeing. Why were we even still in Milan? It prompted my girlfriend and me to undertake a bizarre act of tourism: a visit to the Milan cemetery.

It turns out that graveyard tourism, or grief tourism, isn’t reserved only for the macabre-obsessed. Taking a tour among the dead is popular, with major companies such as Heritage Destination Consulting aiding town officials and cemetery planning boards around the world. For some, it offers a chance to discover or expand their genealogy. Others like to visit the resting places of the famous, such as Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery, which draws thousands of visitors each year. Let’s not even get into the Civil War buffs.

Milan’s cemetery (Cimitero Monumentale, or Monumental Cemetery) was easy to get to. We took the metro green line to the Garibaldi stop, at Piazza Sigmund Freud. Spurred on by my guidebook, which told of a life-size sculpture of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, I expected to see a grassy green hill stippled with tombstones, a few benches, maybe a lightly worn road winding through it. Instead, we encountered an absolutely mammoth cathedral flanked by tall walls, obscuring the inner sanctum of the cemetery. Constructed by architect Carlo Maciachini in 1866, the fearsome cathedral was built in the Pisano Gothic and the Lombard Romanesque style, with many of its large halls and chambers open to the elements.

Faced with such grandeur, I expected to meet an armed guard or at least a ticketing agent, but visitors could pass freely between the world of the dead and the living, at least between the hours of  8 am and 6 pm. As I walked through the gates, I caught glimpses of towering statues and ornamental palaces. I couldn’t believe it: I had walked into a free museum, its effect as powerful as the outdoor statue garden of Loggia della Signoria in Florence. The mausoleums looked like miniature cathedrals; many had multiple stories and were decked out in marble and gold. When I tried to compare the cost of building one of these mausoleums with my annual income, I lost my breath. These tombs were truly otherworldly.

Many graves were marked by mournful statues in place of mausoleums. It is common in Italian culture to place a sculpture of a mourning wife beside a famous man’s grave. Take the jaw-dropping grave of Michelangelo, found inside the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, which features no less than three distressed women. In Milan’s cemetery, I found statues of children, wives, husbands, and mothers all weeping beside headstones. I found a decrepit old man with a sickle and angel wings sitting dazed upon a memorial. These statues were so touching in their integrity, I felt elevated to a higher plain, one where art, life, and death coexisted.

The Monumental Cemetery is no less striking than other statue displays found in Italy, whether in the Uffizi Gallery or Galleria Borghese. The fact that these incredible works of art can be viewed for free and without waiting in line is mindboggling. A visit to Cimitero Monumentale is more than one way to spend your last day in Milan: it is actually one of the most exciting things to do when visiting the city.

Written by and photos by Mattie Bamman for EuropeUpClose.com