: 23.07.2009




  Genoa: La Staglieno, theatre of grief

It was so exciting. I had wanted to go there for years. We drove from Garbagna, where we were camping, and were listening to a girl singing about her humps, her humps her lovely lady lumps check it out... The I saw the building.

The music was Rosie’s choice I hasten to add; I nearly caused an accident in the excitement of having seen the cemetery; got a few drivers understandably and even justifiably annoyed as I had to change my mind twice about which way to go; parked the car on the far side of the extremely long façade, so that we had to walk our way to the entrance in the late morning July heat intensified by the molten tarmac carpeting the full length of our pilgrimage.

The entry on the left hand side of the façade is announced by a clustering of flower kiosks with bored, kindly ladies and sleepy gentlemen. As we passed through into the main building, and despite the memory of the long façade we had just walked along, we were struck by the endlessness of the galleries doubling up on each other, fading into the distance. It is immense. Measureless sleep. The first thing we noticed, apart from the familiar mood of duly processed death, was a small gravestone (gravestone number 580) of a favourite nun, Madre Domenica Teresa Solari whose memory was being honoured with small battery-lit candles with images of Mary, silver coloured hearts, flowers and other plastic stuff.

The cemetery is laid out around a central carré, with at its head, raised against the hill, a large white marble pantheon flanked by large L-shaped open galleries. Behind the pantheon, stretching to the right into the hills one can see the exotic structures of wealthy family tombs: Byzantine domes, gothic spires classic pediments, Egyptian stuff all of them set amongst poplars and cedars curiously reminiscent of the way small buildings were set within the painted landscapes of the tre- and quattrocento.

The upper deck is accessed by a large central staircase up to the doors of the Pantheon, which was closed, unfortunately. The central open square is full of gravestones rather less ambitious than the ones we specifically had come to gawk at. To the right of the original complex the cemetery was later expanded with a second carré.

Wrapped around three sides of the main central square there is a double row of galleries. The outermost, receiving its diffuse light from the occasional round-arched clerestory window placed high against the vaulted ceiling, presents long straight walls filled with dusty light and dotted densely with the faint splodges of reasonably fresh flowers and other devotional decorations surrounding the innumerable drawer-like graves stacked up ten or eleven gravestones high,, each one with its own carved administrative number. Tall ladders, temporarily abandoned here and there along the way, have been provided for the use of wives, mothers, husbands, fathers, daughters and perhaps the occasional son to maintain the  graves of their loved ones. This sight is impressive enough.

Then, parallel to these endless halls of devoted to the third person singular, the main gallery wraps itself around the central square. Open on one side with an arcade, these galleries have large niches on the blind outer wall, each filled with a sizeable theatrical performance of grief, consolation, biographical narrative and warning. Between the columns opening out onto the central square, smaller, more compact tombs are set within the open arches, which though smaller are just as spectacular because of their backlighting. As you amble along you are walking over the gravestones belonging to these family graves. My son counted well over two thousand.

People started commissioning fancy sculptured grave ensembles in the mid eighteenth century (even though the present cemetry, as designed by Carlo Barabino, wasn't opened until 1851) and by the second half of the nineteenth century the need to keep up appearances and the healthy competition between specialised sculptors, created a climate of unrivalled macabre ostentation, perhaps best illustrated by the walnut seller, a lady who simply saved all the money she made selling walnuts, to commission her tomb. May she rest in peace.

We were the only ones to be walking through the cemetery at that time. The gallery, a boulevard of grief, presents the curious spectacle of the life of death to visitors strolling down its pleasantly wide, well shaded streets, where angels talk with souls and father time is cross and sombre, while grimacing death dances lecherously with nubile, young, shrouded girls, pliant and charged as the objects of our desire. Strolling from one carefully staged scene of grief, commissioned by a doctor surrounded by the symbols of his trade that appear to have come to life, to another devoted to the wife of a wealthy merchant, disconsolate at his loss, but impeccably dressed, pommaded and infinitely respectable in his eternal pose of conjugal and Christian piety, we see beautiful naked ladies contemplating skulls, naked men and women, strong and heroic, wrapped around each other in hungry desperation. Here the doors to the after life have been left open in the pyramid so that the living can peak in, even if they only see darkness; there a man sits stretching his legs in his comfortable chair set within the niche facing the side, contemplating an idea he is not sharing with us. Old ladies looking behind them are dressed in their finest lace shawls, girls, remarkably like the original illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, are lost in this strange world where the hard boundary between life and death appears no longer respected. They sit or stand on tiptoe or are lifted to the busts of their grandfathers by their buxom mothers to offer a last kiss. As one looks from the lower galleries to the raised galleries flanking the pantheon, you see also the backs of the sculptures set within the arcades, which, because of their position no doubt have been given almost as much love and detail as their front. What is most striking is the way the thick layers of dust have made all these sculptures appear their negative, as if they have been lit from below. Sometimes the mis-en-scène shows an extraordinary compositional daring and sophistication. The dynamics of angelic flight, or the dramatic gesture of a last act of generosity. Others delight because of their miniature detail and yet others because of the way the light makes arms, legs, folds, breasts and tummies turn liquid. But all this can be seen elsewhere. What makes this place unique is the way people show their extraordinary ordinariness eternalised in stone, their crumpled humanity as they participate in the grief of their family which has to compete and stand out relative to the family next door. There is one that stands out for a different reason. It is certainly not my favourite but it is strange, it is a sculpture of a man in his late forties or fifties dressed in a loin cloth, standing poised on a slim tall pedestal leaning forward with his arms raised one finger pointing up and a stern expression. Is he a prophet? Is he warning us of something? Surely we already know. We can hardly escape it here. I didn't inlcude my picture of him here. I found him worrying.



the walnut seller


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