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008. rufina cambacérès ◊

Rufina Cambacérès, Recoleta Cemetery

Wonderfully Art Nouveau & set in a prominent location, Rufina draws lots of attention. But the story of her bizarre death is also a well-known urban legend of Recoleta Cemetery.

The statue of Rufina depicts her at the age of her death: 19 years old. The Cambacérès family was upper class thanks to a large cattle fortune. Rufina’s father, Eugenio, was originally from France & became a semi-famous Argentine writer. He died in Paris when Rufina was only 4.

Fast forward to her 19th birthday in 1902. Rufina’s mother threw her a big party, & afterwards they were all supposed to go to the Teatro Colón to catch a show. But while getting ready, Rufina suddenly collapsed in her bedroom & doctors pronounced her mysteriously dead.

The following day she was buried in Recoleta Cemetery. Here’s where it gets interesting… a cemetery worker later reported that he found Rufina’s casket lid pushed aside & broken. Her mom feared the worse & thought Rufina had been accidentally buried alive. Another version of the story claims that Rufina somehow escaped from her tomb & made it to the front gate… only to die from a heart attack caused by fright.

Rufina Cambacérès, Recoleta Cemetery

What really happened? It’s impossible to find out 100 years later. Some claim that while preparing to go to the opera, Rufina’s best friend let a secret escape that killed her: Rufina’s boyfriend was also seeing her mother! Shocking. The casket damage could be attributed to robbery since Rufina would have been buried with her finest jewelry.

Something else about the story doesn’t fit. The original location of the Teatro Colón on Plaza de Mayo closed in 1888, & the new theater opened in 1908 twenty years later. So Rufina may have been preparing to see a performance, but it certainly was not at the Teatro Colón.

Whatever version of this urban legend you’d like to believe, some of it must be true. Notice how Rufina is depicted with her hand on the door. Is she trying to escape an awful fate? Be sure to look in the mausoleum’s side door for much more Art Nouveau flowery decoration. The marble casket & chandelier are particularly stunning:

Rufina Cambacérès, Recoleta Cemetery

Rufina Cambacérès, Recoleta Cemetery

Update (10 Dec 2012): Finally getting around to looking at the obituaries in the weekly social magazine Caras y Caretas. In the 07 Jun 1902 issue—immediately following Rufina’s death—the following article appeared:

Rufina Cambacérès, Caras y Caretas, obituary, necrológica

“Preparing to go to the opera, death surprised Rufina in her mansion on Avenida Montes de Oca, the day she turned 19 years old on May 31st. The beautiful miss was the direct & only descendant of Eugenio Cambaceres, the capable Argentine writer, author of ‘Los silbidos de un vago‘ which gained him such notoriety in his day. She was the most genuine, intellectual representation of the Cambaceres family & was preparing herself to become a worthy successor of a sizable inherited fortune, her aristocratic beauty & her refined spirit. An empty space was left in Argentine society that will be indelible since her life was a series of kind acts & respectful caring. She combined all the highest gifts of her family, who were the honor & glory of the French royal court during the Empire, & among us she exercised a positive social influence, in spite of her youth, since she possessed a high level of culture & a rare countenance. The wake of Miss Rufina Cambaceres was a sincere demonstration of sorrow from her good friends, who were as numerous as they were distinguished. This death has left an unforgettable impression, occuring under circumstances that make it even more tragic.”

Rufina Cambacérès, Recoleta Cemetery, Marcelo Metayer

Update (14 Jun 2018): Life stories about the residents of Recoleta Cemetery can inspire others, & that was the case for Pablo Sura. He contacted me last year to share his experience on a visit to Recoleta Cemetery, during a trip to Buenos Aires from Neuquén. Pablo felt so touched by the image of Rufina that he wanted to dedicate a work of art to her… a painting to share with everyone. Last month he presented the image inside Rufina’s former home in Barracas . Great work, Pablo!

Pablo Sura, Rufina Cambacérès

Pablo Sura, Rufina Cambacérès, Barracas

Like Art Nouveau? Learn about the architects of the era, their individual styles & what makes Art Nouveau in Buenos Aires so unique with a 33-page guide from our sister site, Endless Mile.


006. corona

The narrow walkway in front of the Corona family plot makes it difficult to view a unique symbol in Recoleta Cemetery… an angel holding the trying square of a stonemason:

Corona, Recoleta Cemetery

Corona, Recoleta Cemetery

Easily recognized as a symbol of the Masonic order, most everyone is familiar with a compass overlapping a trying square enclosing the letter “G”:

Masonic symbol

In 2007, the Masonic order celebrated 150 years in Argentina. Even the country’s founding father was one… but then again, so was George Washington. A number of symbols denoting membership to this secret society are scattered around the cemetery, but this is one of the most obvious present. The Grand Lodge of Argentina is headquartered in Buenos Aires at Perón 1242 & occasionally offers guided visits:

Gran Logia de la Masonería Argentina

Gran Logia de la Masonería Argentina

Gran Logia de la Masonería Argentina


004. familia d’onofrio

Familia D'Onofrio, Recoleta Cemetery

There’s not much info about who the D’Onofrios were or what they did other than having a little bit of Italian & Irish in their background. What’s more important is the Art Deco-ness of their family mausoleum, created by one of the most gifted sculptors in Buenos Aires: Troiano Troiani.

Born in 1885 in Udine, Italy (the region bordering Austria & Slovenia), Troiani immigrated to Argentina in 1910. Italian artists were invited to participate in Argentina’s centennial festivities, as thanks in part to heavy Italian immigration since the 1880s. Troiani became a popular (yet now forgotten) artist throughout the 1930s & adorned many public & private works during that time. He decorated houses in the Caballito neighborhood, the ex-Ministry of Public Works on Avenida 9 de Julio, light fixtures in front of Congress, & several tombs in this cemetery. Troiani died in 1963, but he left a lot to admire in Buenos Aires.

Inside the D’Onofrio mausoleum is a Byzantine-inspired image of the crucifixion & a textured stained glass panel:

Familia D'Onofrio, Recoleta Cemetery

Familia D'Onofrio, Recoleta Cemetery

Troiani stained glass

If there’s an interior that is interesting or particularly photogenic, don’t be intimidated by a closed door. Glass doors often have multiple openings large enough to point a camera lens through. Even if there doesn’t appear to be much to see, use your camera as a spyscope. Side windows are also another option to get a sneak peek.

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003. adolfo bioy casares

Adolfo Bioy Casares, Recoleta Cemetery

A very close friend of literary great Jorge Luis Borges was Adolfo Bioy Casares, also a respected Argentine author. Often referred to as just Bioy, he devoted his life to writing since he inherited wealth from his family’s cattle-ranching fortune.

In contrast to the challenging prose of Borges, Bioy wrote in a fresh, easy-to-read style absent of ornamentation and linguistic acrobatics. His most famous novel is “The Invention of Morel,” a suspenseful story set on a mysterious island & widely regarded as his masterpiece. The stories of Bioy often take a surreal direction. One short story uncovers a mysterious passage to Uruguay while another is a black comedy about a man whose wife swaps bodies with a dog. If you want to explore modern Argentine literature, Bioy is a great place to start.

Bioy was married to Silvina Ocampo, the youngest sister of Victoria Ocampo. Silvina was also an accomplished short story writer whose macabre tales often centered around childhood. Bioy met Borges in 1932 at the home of Victoria Ocampo & became friends for decades. A whopping 1,600 page diary by Bioy about their friendship is now available in English.

Bioy and Silvina were known for having a very unconventional marriage in which both had a series of lovers… Silvina obviously followed her older sister’s example.

Although the exterior has little of interest, mid- to late afternoon is the best time for viewing or photographing the interior. Since this tomb faces west, the interior too dark to appreciate any other time of day.

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