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Endless Mile, Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery guide

The list of occupants of Recoleta Cemetery reads like a Who’s Who of Argentine history & society. The elite, an aspiring middle class, friends, enemies & those who contributed to the general welfare of Argentina all share space in a miniature city of mausoleums & monuments.

During a visit, you’ll stroll past Presidents & politicians (some naughty, some nice), Nobel Prize winners, literary greats, entertainers, scientists, military leaders, sports figures & even some who died tragically. The cemetery’s most famous resident, Eva María Duarte de Perón—simply Evita to her devotées—even had a bizarre post-mortem journey before finally resting in peace in Recoleta.

Want to learn more? Get all the details in our highly-recommended pdf guide. The authors of this blog are proud to have guided more than 1,500 people through Recoleta Cemetery… join in!

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530. giulio monteverde

Giulio Monteverde

Many upper-class Argentine families were proud of their Italian heritage, so quite a bit of Italian art can be found in Recoleta Cemetery. Born in a small town in Piemonte in 1837, Giulio Monteverde moved with his family to Genoa & began his artistic career there at the age of nine. A very young apprentice! Later he studied in Rome & eventually became a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts. By the 1870s, Monteverde drew critical acclaim for his statue of a young Christopher Columbus & a work titled The Genius of Franklin… a young angel holding a lightning rod.

Monteverde indirectly influenced Recoleta Cemetery by teaching two famous sculptors who would leave works inside: Victor de Pol & Lola Mora. But he would also leave one piece of his own. When the entrance gate of Recoleta Cemetery was enlarged in 1881, architect Juan Buschiazzo incorporated a chapel for families to hold a final service. Who better to decorate that chapel than the famous Monteverde? His crucifixion statue is often missed since visitors rarely stop inside. Take a moment to appreciate this wonderful work of art:

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, entrada, capilla, Giulio Monteverde

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, entrada, capilla, Giulio Monteverde

Monteverde also made one of the most recognized pieces of funerary art for the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno in 1882 (first photo below). Often referred to as the Angel of Death or the Angel of Resurrection, a copy exists in Recoleta Cemetery on the Llambi Campbell family vault (second photo below):

Cemetery, Staglieno, Giulio Monteverde

Recoleta Cemetery, Llambi Campbell

He was also hired to produce a monument for the city of Buenos Aires dedicated to Giuseppe Mazzini, who fought for the unification of Italy & popular democracy. The 1879 statue can be found in Plaza Roma:

Buenos Aires, Plaza Roma, Giuseppe Mazzini, Giulio Monteverde

Monteverde passed away in 1917, leaving behind a legacy of art & beauty. Most of the plaster studies for his sculptures can be found today in the Gipsoteca Monteverde in his birthplace of Bistagno.

Portrait & Staglieno photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Mazzini photo courtesy of Centro Virtual de Arte Argentino.

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529. una arquitectura para la muerte

Tapa, Una Arquitectura para la Muerte, 1993

References to Recoleta Cemetery appear in some unexpected places, but I’ve always been surprised at the lack of academic research about its development as one of the most recognized & visited spots in Buenos Aires. Not long ago, I obtained a copy of a book titled “Una Arquitectura para la Muerte” (An Architecture for Death) that was published in Spain after a 1991 conference about contemporary cemeteries around the world. This large book compiles all the research from that conference & first became available two years later in 1993.

Recoleta Cemetery got some much-deserved space with two separate articles. The first was written by team of authors—María Rosa Cicciari, Marcelo Huernos, Rubén Lasso & Carla Wainsztok—who worked in conjunction with the Instituto Histórico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires. I’m surprised that I never heard of them since I often went to find info at the Instituto Histórico. Anyway, La muerte en el imaginario social en Buenos Aires does its best to favor the less exclusive Chacarita Cemetery but also presents quite a few interesting facts about Recoleta Cemetery that I’ve had trouble confirming exact dates or never knew…

  • Funeral carriages often took a route down Calle Florida to Recoleta Cemetery so everyone could participate in mourning along the most famous street in Buenos Aires.
  • Bodies were wrapped in sheets due to a lack of caskets during the yellow fever epidemic that gave birth to Chacarita Cemetery.
  • The Estación Fúnebre Bermejo existed at the intersection of Calle Ecuador (formerly named Bermejo) & Avenida Corrientes to handle the transfer of the deceased by train to Chacarita, complete with offices & rooms for autopsies.
  • A trolley line for Recoleta Cemetery began service in 1870, prior to the Lacroze line to Chacarita which commenced operation in 1888.
  • The first cremation in Buenos Aires took place due to a cholera epidemic & became a standardized procedure in 1886.
  • A 1923 city ordinance prohibited a public funeral service in Recoleta Cemetery with a later transfer of the deceased to another burial location. Evidently the social status of being buried in Recoleta Cemetery generated a few odd practices like this one.
  • Home wakes continued until the early 20th century, like that of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. They state that funeral homes didn’t really catch on until 1960!

Familia Leloir, architectural diagrams

The second article—Arquitectura funeraria de Buenos Aires, La Recoleta by María Beatriz Arévalo & María del Carmen Magaz—starts with a lengthy history of cemeteries in Spanish territories & the creation of Recoleta Cemetery. The authors then group funeral architecture into trends based either on nationality (English, Italian & French) or by period (Art Nouveau, for example). AfterLife has covered most every topic discussed in the article, but one quote stood out for me… the basis for their research stemmed from a 1989 art history conference that outlined the conditions for every modern cemetery:

Por un lado pasa a ser una reducción simbólica de la ciudad, en segundo término es una galería donde la comunidad conserva la memoria de sus grandes hombres y, por último, es un ámbito donde desarrollar el arte.

On one hand it should be a symbolic reduction of the city, in second place a gallery space where the community preserves the memory of its great men and, lastly, a place for art to develop.

That happens to be the perfect response when anyone asks themselves: why would I visit a cemetery?

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528. vanity fair, 23 jan 2018

Vanity Fair, holiday 2017/2018

Returning to Buenos Aires after decades away, British novelist & biographer Nicholas Shakespeare recently described his observations about Recoleta Cemetery for Vanity Fair:

Directly opposite La Biela is the Recoleta cemetery, where Borges hoped to be laid alongside his parents and grandparents; in fact, he is buried in Geneva—like Graham Greene, whose favourite among his own novels, The Honorary Consul, is set in the Argentina of those years. Rather as Buenos Aires parodies its European origins—flaunting a Harrods, a Claridge’s, a Hurlingham Club and an ugly clock tower modelled on Big Ben—so is Recoleta, in V.S. Naipaul’s words, “a mimic town”.

A beautiful, wounded nation seeking its identity in plagiarized dreams. That is how a walk through Recoleta’s extravagant cemetery makes me think of Argentina. Compressed into marble mausoleums the size of houses are the families who moulded and misshaped the country. Incontestably the best known is Eva Perón, the Generalissimo’s embalmed first wife, whose cult continues to flourish 65 years after her death. Poking from a grille stuffed with roses, a fresh handwritten note from the sharply diminished “Armed Forces” commends “Evita” for “standing up for social rights”.

Embellished with iron roses, a grey bunker houses Argentina’s quintessential dictator, General Manuel de Rosas—“the implacable butcher”, as Borges called him—who died in exile in Southampton in 1877. A journey I never made was with Bruce Chatwin to the dairy farm where Rosas sold milk for two pence a quart, and to see his grave. Chatwin died in the same year, 1989, that Rosas’s remains were repatriated with enormous fanfare to the Recoleta. A riderless horse draped with Rosas’s symbolic red poncho accompanied the casket, alleged by critics to contain the bones of a Blitz-blasted cow. Also in the procession were 5,000 gauchos and members of the security services dressed as members of the Mazorca, Rosas’s dreaded secret police—nicknamed the colorados, after their ponchos—although not many of the estimated two million observers lining the streets knew this. The Mazorca dumped the corpses of their victims over the walls of the Recoleta—as, in copycat style, did Isabelita’s paramilitary successors, the Ford Falcon-driving Triple A.

The authors of this blog are unaware of any dumping of corpses in Recoleta Cemetery by the last military dictatorship. We’ve documented how Mario Firmenich & the Montoneros broke inside to steal the corpse of Pedro Aramburu, but even they left his abandoned casket outside the walls. A visit by Thomas Woodbine Hinchliff in 1863 mentions dumping bodies into a “dreadful hole” by the Mazorca… another claim we have been unable to confirm in Argentine sources. The idea likely comes from Jason Wilson’s compendium of literary references (Buenos Aires: A Cultural and Literary Companion, page 104), but we’ve been unable to confirm any such act.

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527. historic photo 10

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Arturo W. Boote

Photo by Arturo W. Boote, exact date unknown but sometime around the end of the 19th century. From the angle, this photo was likely taken from the adjacent Iglesia de Pilar, perhaps from the bell tower.

Samuel Boote (1844-1921) y Arturo Woods Boote (1861-1936) were brothers, both first generation Argentines of a large English immigrant family. Raised on ranches in the Provincia de Buenos Aires, they eventually moved to the capital & became the most famous photographers of the 1880s. A decade later they had traveled through much of Argentina, leaving a valuable photographic record for us today. By 1900 both brothers left the photography business to pursue other ventures, but at least they left a reminder of what they experienced at Recoleta Cemetery over 100 years ago.

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526. alfonsín vandalism

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Raúl Alfsonsín, vandalismo, Peronistas

Sadly, two posts in a row deal with damage & destruction inside Recoleta Cemetery. The tomb of former President Raúl Alfonsín was spray painted on 05 Jun 2017 with the pro-Peronista symbol “PV”, Perón vuelve. Alfonín passed away in Mar 2009 after a long battle with lung cancer & was buried with much fanfare, fitting of someone so important in national history (for more info, see the 4-part Death of a President series). This method of showing political disagreement should never be considered acceptable.

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What follows is a translation of a press release from the Télam news agency:

Buenos Aires, June 05

National representative Ricardo Alfonsín (of the Cambiemos-Unión Cívica Radical party) today thanked those who called him concerning the vandalism of his father’s mausoleum located in Recoleta Cemetery & confirmed that he would not accept any candidacy.

After a reunion with Governor María Eugenia Vidal, in which it was rumored that the leader of Buenos Aires province offered him a post, Alfonsín reassured that “the meeting took place & we talked about many things, both sides showed courtesy, kindness & frankness”, but emphasized that he does not want “to be a candidate for an elected position, either in Argentina or in a foreign country”.

In statements to Télam Radio, Alfonsín said that he received calls offering support after news of vandalism of the mausoleum of the deceased ex-President Raúl Alfonsín had been made public.

“In every country around the world there are powerful personalities with anti-democratic ideas who do this kind of thing, which we always must renounce regardless of who is the victim”, he affirmed.

Among those who communicated with the Cambiemos representative are the Minister of Security, Patricia Bullrich; the head of the Federal System of Media & Public Content, Hernán Lombardi; the ex-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner; the ex-Minister of Transportation Florencio Randazzo; and the former head of the Cabinet Aníbal Fernández, as well as “all members of the Radical political party”, the Governor of Santa Fe province & the national head of the Socialist Party Antonio Bonfatti.

In this context, Alfonsín complained that the during the period of government under Cambiemos, the UCR party had maintained “a rather passive role which has harmed society” & added that “no one should be surprised, therefore, that disagreements would present themselves”. At the same time he admitted to be “working” so that “in 2019 there will be a Radical party President”.

Photo from the Télam news agency.

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