The quite different layout and feel of an Italian cemetery as compared to an English one tells in my opinion much more about the difference between the two cultures than many other aspects. In the UK the tombs are laid out on the greenest turf in an often informal arrangement. In Italy they are rigorously defined within a close knit urban setting – a city of the dead, in fact. It’s the difference between Welwyn garden city and Milan: the difference between a culture of greater respect for privacy and informality of social ties and one where the extended patriarchal family still overshadows many areas.
Every year, the day after Halloween is the day of all the dead and a national holiday. Italians hope it occurs as near the week-end as possible so that a Ponte or bridge can be made and a mini-holiday break achieved. On this day people go to visit their dead relatives bring them flowers and receive a blessing from the local priest. It’s a real social occasion and one feels some inescapable presence of familial ghosts in the midst of the living.
Indeed, the whole atmosphere cannot be that far different from those world cultures where ancestor worship is the norm and where offerings are made to departed souls of relatives in order to placate their midnight peregrinations: there is, in fact, a more arcane interpretation of the phrase from the Requiem prayer “O lord grant them eternal rest!” As one friend told me “we are still essentially Etruscans” – indeed there is not much difference in idea between the necropolises we visited in Tarquinia this summer and the modern cemeteries of Italian cities.
After the day of the dead ceremony the Italian cemetery is a riot of floral colour.
Although not the happiest of places for a visit Italian cemeteries will give much insight into the country’s inhabitants’ thought patterns. Architecturally, they give a historical lesson in styles from gothic to classical to neo-gothic to liberty to modernism to brutalism and to post-modernism. It is worth visiting the amazing necropolis in the major Italian cities: Genoa for its Staglieno, Milan for its monumentale, and Florence for its Fiesole from which these photos were taken.
Culturally, the cemeteries can give much insight into changing dress styles because of the prevalence of portraits of the deceased and several of their statues.
Historically, many inscriptions will provide valuable information on the life of the entombed and the sentiments prevalent at the time.
l love wandering in cemeteries whether they be the English variety, best exemplified in Hampstead – where the encroaching ivy, the collapsing marbles the deep damp smell of general decomposition concentrates the mind awfully – or the Italian kind, with exalted family temples, moving sculptures and poignant photographs leading one to delicate thoughts on the transience of life and the scandal that is death.