I afterwards went to the beautiful cemetery of Bologna, beyond the walls; and found, beside the superb burial ground, an original of a custode, who reminded me of the grave-digger in Hamlet. He had a collection of capuchins’ skulls, labelled on the forehead; and taking down one of them, said, This was Brother Desidero Berro, who died at forty years, one of my best friends. I begged his head of his brethren after his decease, and they gave it to me. I put it in lime and then boiled it. Here it is, teeth and all, in excellent preservation.
Baron George Gordon Byron, Letter and Journals of Lord Byron: With Notices of His Life, published posthumously in 1831
According to Lord Byron’s guide, more than 50,000 people already inhabited the Certosa di Bologna two decades after its establishment, so its population almost two centuries later must be significant. These new residents rest atop a former Etruscan necropolis. The original grounds and initial buildings were part of San Girolamo di Casara, a former Carthusian monastery established in 1334 but closed by the order of Napoleon in 1796.
When the city of Bologna staked its claim to the land for its cemetery in 1801, it declared it to be a “monumental” one with palaces for the dead designed as suitable lodging for Bologna’s nobility. The wealthy responded by providing employment to artisans and noted sculptors to create lasting tributes to their dynastic glories.
The site quickly was promoted as a must-see destination for visitors, with tours offered soon after its founding. Lord Byron described an interesting monument pointed out during his tour:
In showing some of the older monuments, there was that of a Roman girl of twenty, with a bust by Bernini. She was a Princess Barlorini, dead two centuries ago: he said, that on opening her grave, they had found her hair complete and as yellow as gold.
With only Lord Byron as our guide, we wandered seeking ancient graves, ones predating 1800. His instructions were not specific, however, and the population of the cemetery has increased.
We never found any of the earlier graves, but our urge to search was dampened by the hovering presence of one bird cawing ominously as he seemed to follow us around.
I scare easily. I’m always the one in horror films to say don’t open the door to the basement; don’t go upstairs to the attic; and no, no, no, Wendy, whatever you do, do not peek at what Jack is typing…. So, of course, I heeded the bird’s warning.
We might have been able to find them if I had been willing to take any of the stairways leading into a dark and damp maze of catacombs underground. I had no bread with me to leave a trail of crumbs, and, in my mind, crumbs only would have been consumed by some unfriendly creatures scurrying around below. Leaving us lost among the dead. Forever.
Instead, I assured the Mister my taphophilia temporarily was sated by the massive number of impressive monuments we passed. So we left our feathered friend behind and returned to the more vibrant heart of Bologna.
*My fear of being buried alive is far greater than my love of wandering through graveyards.