please note all photographs in this post can be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
Although it's a true statement, it kind of cracks me up. The first sentence in the Eyewitness travel guide for Buenos Aires about the Recoleta Cemetery begins: "One of the world's great necropolises ..." I just have never really thought of a necropolis as something that would be put on a Top 10 type list of the "world's greatest," even though I love cemeteries, and I have my own favorites. And now Recoleta has vaulted into my undisputed "Number One" slot.
This is a monster article, I'll just confess up front. I cringed while I excluded a lot of photos of mausoleums I liked, and yet, this article contains more photos than any other I've posted in the entire history of my blog. There is so much history and information that could be shared about the cemetery and the people entombed therein, about the structures themselves, etc. I will try to leave most of that to the whim of your own curiosity ... you can look up more information on any of these things on your own if you're interested via the almighty Google. Though I'll try to be slender in text, as I slimmed down the number of candidate photos, you're still left with a rather portly post all the way around. I love photographing doors and locks, so this was a paradise for indulging that love. I can only offer my sympathy for how long it might take you to scroll through, but I hope earnestly that you will take that time, because I really want to share all these photos with you, my dear reader. :)
We visited the cemetery twice in the one-week span of our visit to Buenos Aires, and after spending several hours each time, we still have not seen the whole cemetery. That might make sense for a place like Highgate in London, which spreads out across 37 acres. But Recoleta is a tightly-packed condensed cemetery in the middle of the city, covering an area of only 14 acres, but with a capacity twice the size of the number of graves in Highgate. How do they pack in so many bodies?
The "city streets" are lined with above-ground mausoleums shoulder to shoulder, just like the streets of any traditional European city are lined with houses shoulder to shoulder. Many of the mausoleums look just like little houses, with doors and windows. Inside, there can be up to three levels underground to hold caskets that fit into slots on each floor. There can be as many as 30 coffins in a single mausoleum. There are very simple, small ones, and huge ostentatious ones that looks like miniature Greek temples or castles; some made out of stones or bricks, and some out of shiny marble. There are statues of stone and bronze. The interiors of large or wealthy family mausoleums have large sitting rooms with offering tables, stained-glass windows, flower vases, statues, etc., like a mini chapel.
Ahead lies the vault of a wealthy Argentinian family, Dorrego Ortiz Basualdo, designed by a famous dude in the style of a French chapel. It's considered by some to be one of the highlights of the cemetery, and has even been pronounced "the greatest" (or "grandest") in the cemetery. I don't think it's the largest, but perhaps the most elegant.
Mausoleums and statues represent a vast spectrum of styles, tastes, traditionalism, and modernism. It's a wonderful feature of the place, that here is absolutely no homogenizing of styles, each family has its unique expression in their eternal resting place.
I often felt like I was in a fake city such as you'd be walking through in an amusement park or in a movie set. There are even "street signs" to point to some of the most famous mausoleums. And just like you would read on a webpage or book page about the highlights of a city, you'll find lists about Recoleta titled, "outstanding mausoleums," "greatest mausoleums," "top ten features," "famous tombs," etc. Within the cemetery, there are directions to the most famous sights. The street sign below, for example, is pointing toward the mausoleum and obelisk erected for the 7th president of Argentina, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. The following pics are more examples of how it looks to me like a quaint European city, just kind of miniature scale. Notice the modern high-rise in the background ... so you see you the cemetery is literally smack-dab in the middle of the (living) city.
Several presidents lie commemorated here as well as the overwhelmingly beloved "Evita," wife to President Juan Perón from 1946 until her death at the very unfortunate age of 33 in 1952, and who the popular musical, "Evita," is about. She was proclaimed the spiritual leader the nation shortly before her death. But such a saintly titled belies her controversial role. Recoleta was not actually her first resting place, but her remains were eventually moved to her family's mausoleum and now it is perpetually adorned with flowers from admirers. Many visitors to the cemetery beeline straight to her tomb as the only thing they really want to see. It's a very humble mausoleum, walking past it you would never suspect what a famous figure lay resting inside. Many, many famous politicians, military men, writers, scientists, musicians, etc., rest here in coffins inside a mausoleum.
I like it that there are both heroes and villains to modern-day Argentina resting here. Below is the tomb of General Juan Lavalle, who spent a brief and rather ignominious period as governor of Buenos Aires province in 1829. He executed the reigning governor to obtain his post. Later on (after his governorship) he planned a military attack against Buenos Aires with the French until they retracted their support and made peace with the Federalists instead. As a Unitarian, the Federalists were Lavalle's arch enemy. I hate quoting Wikipedia, but this is kind of interesting regarding his death north of Buenos Aires: "Afraid that his body would be desecrated by the Federales, his followers fled to Bolivia carrying Lavalle's decomposing remains with them. Hurrying over the Humahuaca pass, they finally decided to strip the skeleton by boiling it and, after burying the flesh in an unmarked grave, carry the bones, which are today buried at the Recoleta Cemetery."
The green pillar belongs to one of Argentina's national heroes, Admiral William Brown, the founder of the Argentine Navy. He was actually born in Ireland and grew up in Philadelphia and had quite the action-packed and interesting life. He immigrated to Argentina after being held prisoner of the French in the Napoleonic Wars and retired from maritime life. Then re-entered, endured a series of wars and created the navy in Argentina (also being its first admiral). But, what caught my photographic interest was not the national hero's monument, but the humble stone mausoleum beside it. It belongs to a war veteran as well, General Tomas Guido, who served in the war of independence from Spain. I read that Brown's monument was built partially from the metal of melted down cannons from ships Brown once commanded, and that Guido's stone tomb was built by the hand of his son.
So I'm bouncing around kind of haphazardly here in organizing (? ummm perhaps not a relevant term) or at least in presenting the photos. Here are a bunch that I like specifically for their doors. Some of them could certainly be mistaken for the doors to a house if you didn't know they belonged instead to a mausoleum.
I like the next photo (which is simply a zoom in on the one above) for the reflection. It's a little chaotic to figure out. I like the Celtic crosses at the top of the mausoleums poking into the blue sky. There are two reflections of me, one on each side of the doors. The second photo I took as a conscious selfie.
Are you curious yet about what the inside of these house-like mausoleums looks like? The photo below captures only the ground level and the first below-ground level, but there are stairs leading down to two more levels further down. Each level has several layers of shelves/niches for coffins. Some of the mausoleums were run down and decaying, no longer kept up by family (who may be all dead or moved away by now) nor by the cemetery itself, whose resources help maintain some of the mausoleums ... and the insides could be just as ruined as the outside, with coffins sliding out of their niches. We saw one coffin where the lid had slid partially open and we could see the human bones inside it!!
Many of the interiors were gorgeous. I especially liked the ones with stained-glass windows. All the photos I took of the interiors were shot through the locked gates protecting open-air mausoleums (no solid doors) or through the bars of glass-less windows in doors. But a lot of the mausoleums you could not see inside at all or else only through glass. Here are some of the stained glass interiors I liked.
And here are some examples of statues and carvings and offering tables inside. Some of the items are so beautiful and elaborate, I'm glad this is a tourist destination so they can be seen by a lot of people.
I like this one, which seems somehow particularly creepy with its door ajar as if to say, "Welcome ..." in a James Earl Jones-type voice. "Won't you come inside." And then of course it's all over: the door slams shut behind you, the coffin lids open and the bones rise up to strangle you. Though, it is Buenos Aires ... I suppose they could simply offer you a glass of malbec.
I like the following two for how they depict layers of construction and decay. Notice the small cross still in tact in the middle of the first wall?
I like the plaque below to commemorate the "artista de la guitarra." Such a more musical title for a "guitarist." Many mausoleums have multiple plaques on the outside walls to commemorate the individual inhabitants of the coffins inside.
I think Recoleta would be one of the best places on earth to have a scavenger hunt! Confined in a relatively small space, yet countless details to which clues could point -- in the plaques, in the doors, in the statues. I wonder how many statues there are in the cemetery, if you were to go count them!
I like the skyline in this photo below. This is what you see everywhere when you look up in the cemetery -- crosses, angels, men and women, temple tops, minarets and other fanciful adornments. So an important note if you visit the cemetery, always look up! (In addition to every other direction, of course.)
But stone is not the only statue material. I would venture to guess it might be the most common, but there are loads and loads of bronze sculptures and statues as well.
Liliana Crociati de Szaszak is not a famous person, but her tomb is one of the most popular in the cemetery. Outside of the mausoleum, she's represented in a life-size bronze statue wearing her wedding dress. After her dog followed her in death, a statue of him was added beneath her hand. That's what I read, anyway. But it's curious that her statue was made with one hand outstretched into the air like that. I think it would have looked a little strange with nothing under it, so maybe the sculptor had planned for the dog from the beginning.
I like the clash of simple and opulent, functional and ostentatious. One of the things that makes Recoleta so interesting is a lack of codes -- no right or wrong design. Even though it's like a city, there are no neighborhood code-enforcement officers monitoring it to restrict creativity to a homogeneous row of buildings.
I like pretty much every facet you could think to mention about the cemetery. I like every style of mausoleum and tomb, including the simple, the decaying, the shiny and new, the grand and the elaborate. I like the free-standing ones in the middle of the city streets, often at a crossroads, like little castles or temples. This one is like a miniature European cathedral.
If I were to have sought out a particular tomb, it would have been that of one of my all-time favorite writers, Jorge Borges (I didn't find it). He is one of the most celebrated authors in the world, and surely the most famous Argentinian author. But he was vehemently opposed to the presidential Peróns, and the nationally beloved Evita. From him: "Perón was a humbug, and he knew it, and everybody knew it. But Perón could be very cruel. I mean, he had people tortured, killed. And his wife was a common prostitute."
Of course I couldn't leave without some photos of the locks and keyholes. Many keyholes had small dried flowers stuck into them.
A feature that often lent some artistry to locks, keyholes, statues, window corners, etc., was the cobwebs. Weird as it sounds, the cobwebs seems particularly nicely designed, geometrical, symmetrical, and artistically placed as if someone conscientiously added them with a brush ... not a paintbrush but a cobweb brush.
And finally, what would a photo essay from a cemetery be without the obligatory cemetery cat? Seems cemeteries are always a peaceful haven for the strays.