Postcard from Turin, Italy: Letting the graveyard provide introductions

Carlo Tancredi Falletti (1782-1838), Marquis of Barolo, was mayor of Turin in 1827 when he determined the city needed an elegant new cemetery. At the time, Turin was the capital of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.

The Monumental Cemetery of Turin (Cimitero Monumentale di Torino) occupies almost 150 acres of land. And, once again, this taphophile is introducing you to a city via a visit to its residents of yore.

A woman after my own heart, Manuela Vetrano has written a book on this particular cemetery – Torino Silenziosa.

It was 2011 and I was walking through the most ancient part of the Cemetery of Turin, surrounded by magnificent works of art by important names in Italian history. I started wondering why there was no one else but me. Superstition? Fear? I thought it would be nice to let others know about this rich and important place. I started looking for books and documents about the Cemetery and I spent many hours inside it to observe and study tombs and monuments. I collected so much material that it allowed me to open my blog, lead guided tours, and write a book, too. The stories that struck me the most refer to almost unknown personalities.

“The Monumental Cemetery of Turin: Interview with Manuela Vetrano,” Emanuela Borgatta Dunnett, Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2018

Postcard from Genoa, Italy: Hey, don’t knock peanuts

The graceful statue of Caterina Campondonico is among the most popular in the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno because of how it was secured. Peanuts.

“It’s only peanuts” is an idiom that never made sense in our house. Peanuts meant everything to us. My father, Lawrence Conway Brennan (1918-1988), was deep in peanuts.

Not that we grew up in a peanut patch, but our father was treasurer of the Columbian Peanut Company in Norfolk, Virginia. His engagement in the nerve-wracking gamble of predicting peanut deliverables by the railcar-load, subject to all the possible whims of Mother Nature in several southern states, sent three girls to college.

Campondonico scrimped and saved lire throughout her life to commission Lorenzo Orengo (1838-1909) to sculpt this prime example of Bourgeois Realism art in 1881, prior to her death. She funded the monument, as fine as those of neighboring aristocrats, from a lifetime of sales of doughnuts and nuts on the streets and at fairs in Genoa. She clutches a rosary of hazelnuts and a pair of doughnuts in her hands. The restoration of the statue was completed in 2016 by American Friends of Italian Monumental Sculpture.

“The Peanut Seller” is far from alone in the 82-acre cemetery; she is in the company of more than 2-million other Genovesi. The cemetery opened its gates to welcome its first deceased occupants in 1851, and the majority of its monuments are from the period of the following hundred years.

In addition to Staglieno’s monumental pantheon and marbled halls for the dead, families erected individual house-like or chapel-like mausolea climbing up the surrounding hillsides on narrow “streets,” forming sort of a suburban village overlooking those resting down below.

If this abundance of photos fails to satisfy your taphophilia, you have a severe obsession. As do I. I finally added a separate category on this blog for locating and scrolling down through related posts: Haunting Graveyards.

And, maybe, in memory of Caterina “The Peanut Seller” and Connie, my father aka “Goober,” rethink that dismissive idiom. Perhaps even improve a few sayings. A peanut in the hand is worth two in the ground. A peanut sold can be a penny saved. The road to heaven is paved with peanut hulls.

Postcard from Bologna, Italy: My taphophobia trumps my taphophilia*

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.