Centuries of architectural history can be collapsed into and experienced through the agency of a singular ambulatory experience. More surprising than this assertion is the unexpected set of places where this can occur. The Cimitero Monumentale di Milano – the Monumental Cemetery of Milan – is indeed one such condition, one of the largest cemeteries in the city and a point of interest for many. Architect Carlo Maciachini, whose personal style is associated with the eclectic period of Milanese architecture, poured his design energies into this project in 1866.
The entrance of the cemetery is announced by a large symmetrical façade hugging the colossal front court. The “Famedio” or ‘hall of fame’ sits as the tallest and most prominent feature. Embodying Maciachini’s design expression with a star studded dome, it is the main building of the cemetery and the last resting place of several revered Italian personalities such as novelist Alessandaro Manzoni.
The large overwhelming structure encapsulates an aura of medieval revival, featuring bicoloured marble stripes on the exterior and an interior adorned with geometric patterns and accents of rich blue. The wings of the space are lined with tombs designed in predominantly Romanesque style, dramatic figurines mourning the deceased staged in front of the tombs adding a haunting beauty to the Crematorio corridors.
Behind the Famedio lies the vast expanse of the cemetery, a melting pot of architectural language featuring miles of tombs and mausoleums; an archive of architectural styles ranging from Neo-Gothic to Art Nouveau, Classical, Fascist to Modern and Postmodern. Also present are some unexpected styles considered exotic amongst the Milanese bourgeois in early and mid-twentieth century including Egyptian and Byzantine along with elements from the Orient.
A walk down the grounds feels like a compressed journey through architecture’s histories where the language and materiality of tombs act as markers and clues to discern the period of their execution. These design and material choices are also a visible reference to the social placement of the deceased and their families. The culmination of design aesthetic, omnium gatherum of sculptures, textures and individuality of expression lend to creating a feel of an open air museum for architecture and design to the cemetery.
If not otherwise marked on the map prepared to highlight tombs of architectural interests for visitors, a small chapel that can be easily overlooked is Gio Ponti’s design for the Borletti Family Mausoleum (1929-30). One of Gio Ponti’s simplistic and functional works which he describes as
architecture d’apres l’architecture
An almost square plan, split at two levels with two separate entrances, one housing the chapel and the other the tombs. The modest exterior adorns two angels floating above the doors, executed in alto-relievo (high relief).
Sculptural masterpieces are an overwhelming presence amongst the forest of tombs and mausoleums. One in particular, immediately striking visitors, sits at an intersection of the walkway corridors; The Bernocchi Mausoleum designed by Architect Alessandro Minali and carrying sculptures by Gianino Castiglioni. The marble spiral depicts the Way of the Cross while the arrangement and execution of sculptures with phenomenal dexterity is a fine example of Castiglioni’s representational style. This is also captured in his design of the Campari Tomb, with larger than life figures frozen in the arrangement of the last supper.
The cemetery is filled with fascinating pieces referencing elements of architecture in ancient history. Among them is the Motta Mausoleum. Designed for Angelo Motta, the founder of a prominent Italian sweets company, it sits as an archetype of a ‘tholos’ with 6 large figures guarding the glass face of the structure.
Another prominent structure in the Cimitero is Studio BBPR’s Monument to the Victims of Nazi Concentration Camps (1946). Studio BBPR, famous for Torre Velasca, designed the monument after WWII to commemorate the victims including their partner Banfi who died in the Mauthausen concentration camp. BBPR’s strong Rationalist expression is manifested in the three dimensional grid formation, with a heavy base and a light white metal trellis structure atop. The striking minimalism expressed in the form and use of materials makes the monument stand in striking contrast to the concrete laden surroundings. Yet it has become one of the most notable works in the cemetery, predominantly for its sensitivity to the memory of the 800 victims and the subtle translation to physical personification.
One can easily get lost in meandering strolls through the density of tombs, discovering layers of architectural elements and design styles at every corner. Cimitero Monumentale presents a visually rich and historically charged experience, one not to be missed by aficionados of art, design and architecture; an opportunity to observe, absorb and reflect.
Gio Ponti’s Berlotti Family museum
BBPR’s Monument for Victims of Concentration Camps