Rugged round the edges it may be, but delve into the narrow streets immediately off the front and you’ll discover another Genoa – one of impossibly narrow streets, huge palazzi tottering over the smallest of piazzas, and a wealth of bonhomie otherwise almost absent in the larger tourist magnets. It’s the closest thing to an Arab medina this side of the Mediterranean and quite rightly it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site too.
Genoa also makes for a great springboard to see some of Liguria’s highlights: the incredibly pretty seaside town of Camogli, the celebrated villages and walking trails of the Cinque Terre and the unlikely monastery-with-beach hideaway of San Fruttuoso can all be visited on day trips out of town. But here’s a little confession. I love cemeteries and Genoa (before going there at least) meant only one thing to me – Staglieno.
Staglieno is not just another cemetery – at over one square kilometre in size it is one of the largest in Europe, and often touted as the world’s most beautiful. It is one of a series of huge Italian monumental cemeteries that came about following Napoleon’s Edict of Saint-Cloud from 1804, which prohibited burials in churches and towns. Following the 1835 cholera epidemic that hit the city, plans for the cemetery were finalised and it finally opened in 1851. Designed by the noted Genoese architect Carlo Barabino, Staglieno was laid out with intentional grandiosity in the Neo-Classical style popular at the time. Soon after it opened it became the de rigueur place to be seen dead in and an attraction in its own right. Mark Twain praised the cemetery in his Innocents Abroad, and Freidrich Nietzsche was a frequent visitor.
Apparently I am the only tourist among the few visitors around and an elderly guide who spots my camera offers his services which I politely decline. I have done my research well and have a good idea what I want to see. Or so I think.
But I am still overwhelmed. The amount of superb funerary sculptures along the endless colonnaded arcades is huge. There are friezes depicting grieving families by deathbeds, hooded figures and angels aplenty; one angel frozen in the act of writing the deceased’s death date. All depicted realistically, way too realistically. The themes vary from the ones oozing pathos to the unintentionally grotesque bordering on Hollywood horror.
I get my bearings and head for two particular graves – the ones that initially made me aware of this place in fact... Long ago as an angry young man I was gobsmacked when I first heard the British post punk band Joy Division and was equally impressed by the band’s cover artworks. Two of these featured monuments from Staglieno. The band’s second album Closer features the Appiani family tomb – a classic grieving composition if ever there was one. Some distance away is the disconsolate sprawled angel of the Ribaudo family tomb – used as an alternative cover for the band’s best known single Love Will Tear Us Apart.
A few well known figures are buried in Staglieno. Oscar Wilde’s wife Constance Lloyd rests here as does the prominent figure of the Italian Risorgimento Giuseppe Mazzini. One of Genoa’s best loved sons, the singer-songwriter Fabrizio de André is buried here with his guitar seemingly watching over him. Ten thousand fans attended his funeral in 1999. But curiously one of the best loved monuments in the cemetery belongs to a relative nobody. Caterina Campodonico was a simple nut seller and must obviously have been caught in the personalized grave craze of the time. While still alive she commissioned and sat for her life-size portrait in the traditional garb of the street seller – complete with a garland made of the stuff of her trade: nuts, loaves, doughnuts. Despite my best efforts I simply am unable to locate this touching monument but it’s probably a good enough excuse to return to the place one day – armed with a better camera.
The warm morning clouds over and turns into a muggily humid noon. Soon enough a light drizzle starts to fall. My energy is sapped and slowly the decay of the place starts to get to me. The grime and dust covered statuary which no one bothers to clean, the rusting iron grilles everywhere finally make me conscious that I am in the land of the dead. I take the bus back to central Genoa pondering on life, death and a lot of beautiful things in between.