‘Recoleta’ is an up-market district of Buenos Aires, a famous cemetery, and a mendicant order of friars and nuns. The austere Augustinian Order of Recollects, founded in Spain in the sixteenth century, established a convent and church on the outskirts of Buenos Aires in the eighteenth century. The church is still there, well-kept and worth a visit.
Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar
Less than a hundred years after the church was opened, the order was disbanded in Argentina, and the vegetable garden of the convent became the first pubic cemetery, the Cementerio del Norte.
Interior of the church
The layout was designed by French engineer Próspero Catelin, said to have had the Parisian Père Lachaise cemetery in mind. The dead were not buried but held in mausoleums above ground. As yellow fever broke out in the poorly drained areas of downtown Buenos Aires, especially from 1852 and culminating in the epidemic of 1871, wealthier citizens moved north to safer ground, and the status of the district rose.
Still a working cemetery today – “May they rest in peace”
The cemetery was remodelled in 1880, from when the grand neo-classical entrance dates. Much of the material used in constructing the elaborate mausoleums between 1880 and 1930 is said to have come from Paris and Milan. When you catch sight of the statuary inside these gates, the effect is astonishing in its exuberance and richness.
For his son by founder of paper La Prensa José Camilo Paz – sculptor Jules Felix Coutan
Recoleta is in fact quite small – some six and a half thousand plots compared for example with the 53,000 of London’s Highgate Cemetery – and the city crowds in to the northwest and southwest. As in the city, the Recoleta streets are shadowed and windy, with some sunny corners.
City of the living just beyond the walls
And as in Buenos Aires, there are marvels of urban architecture to intrigue the eye. Just a touch more exotic.
Elaborate Art Nouveau tomb
One sees quite a few tombs which are barely Christian in style.
Early 20th century ‘Middle Eastern’, Argentinian naval family
The detailed guide book (the website http://www.ciudaddeangeles.com/ is sadly not maintained) confirms that “in 1863 the bishop of Buenos Aires retired its blessed [consecrated] condition after President Mitre – also buried here – ordered the burial of a well known Mason, blessing that has not and will not be recovered.” In fact, leading politicians – Sarmiento, Yrigoyen – buried at Recoleta in Masonic vaults were members of the Obediencia a la Ley N° 13 lodge.
Family of Italian origin, developers of BsAs wholesale food market
Active from 1859, the lodge has its own vault in Recoleta. http://www.scribd.com/doc/36186658/Boveda-Logia-Obediencia-a-La-Ley-N%C2%BA-13
Family tomb of de Alzaga and de Yturriaca
The stories behind the monuments are perhaps more dramatic than the memorials. Martín de Álzaga – his family tomb, above, is shared with the de Yturriaca family – was a poor Basque immigrant whose wealth grew from trade in slaves, fabrics and weapons. He participated in the resistance to the 1806 British invasion of Buenos Aires, and its defence in 1807, but fell foul of the new government and was publicly shot in 1812, his body left hanging for three days. The Recoleta tomb is dated 1866 – the guide book says that his wife and daughter confined themselves to their home until their deaths and burials in the same mausoleum.
The impressive tomb of General Julio Argentino Roca stands out on its corner site for its elaborate sculpture and metalwork. Bronze victor’s wreaths adorn the side of the structure, and the angel atop the pediment holds two more – Roca was twice President of Argentina. Known as el Zorro – the Fox – he devised and led the 1878-1879 Conquista del Desierto, which pushed back the indigenous tribes – dominated by the Mapuche people – who attacked Argentinian settlements in Patagonia, killing about 1,000, capturing 15,000 more, and pre-empting Chilean-Mapuche domination of the area. With the help of the Remington rifle, he laid claim to huge tracts of land, which were awarded to his backers. The settlement of Patagonia by Welsh immigrants dates from this time.
Family tomb watched over by its patriarch
Though crosses top the railing and an obscured Christian cross decorates the pediment, the doused crossed torches on the frieze are Masonic. An apt contrast, in the light of the debate between revisionists and apologists for the Conquista.
Tombs of national heroes like Roca are well kept, so what are we to make of the dilapidated tomb of the Sáenz Valiente family? The mouldings and ironwork barely keep the patched brickwork standing, and the stucco is long gone.
Tomb of Casto Sáenz Valiente
Anselmo Sáenz Valiente, a successful Spanish grocery merchant, was a hero of the British Invasion of Buenos Aires, joining forces with Martín de Álzaga to resist and repel the invaders, but avoiding political entanglement with him, despite being affected by anti-Spanish measures after moves towards independence began in 1810. His son Casto, the third-born of 14 children, was close to Juan Manuel de Rosas, who was to become virtual dictator of the newly independent Argentina. Perhaps he did not have his father’s instinct for political survival – the guide book says he fled to Uruguay, where Rosas laid siege to Montevideo for ten years. Does the state of his tomb reflect his continued political exile?
A cemetery of mausoleums naturally has architectural interest, but there is a wealth of decorative detail to enthrall the eye too. The non-Christian trend is also in evidence here.
‘Egyptian’ memorial, mourner wearing a Fascist helmet?
The Biblical tradition is of course strongly represented. In a section of Recoleta set aside by de Rosas for prominent citizens, the Panteon Ciudadanos Meritorios, there’s a charming bas-relief in marble illustrating the New Testament verse on children. Its low-key simplicity is restful to the eye.
Sculpted by Italian Livi in memory of Peña, an educator
Sometimes a simple trick of the light is enough.
Shadow of a statue
A small detail can be hugely significant. A simple family tomb …
Top right is a plaque bearing a well-known name.
Memorial to little Eva (Evita) Perón nee Duarte
Roughly translated, it says that whoever follows the same path as Eva Perón, in imitation of Christ, is also one of his disciples. The guide book tells us that there are always flowers on this memorial, and it relates more of Eva Duarte de Perón’s history, dramatic even after her death.
When Juan Perón was exiled from Argentina, Eva’s embalmed body was guarded by her sympathisers in secret, but flowers always appeared at her door; one of the guards shot his own wife by accident while guarding the body. The military government of the day quietly sent the body to a cemetery in Milan, where it stayed for 20 years. A new military government sent the body to Peron in Spain. When he returned to Argentina in 1973, the coffin was once more taken and recovered. Her sisters finally interred the body safely under the concrete of the Duarte family vault.
One begins to understand how strong the symbolism of earthly remains is in Argentina. In 1987, Juan Perón’s hands were removed from his body and an US$8M ransom demanded. It was not paid, no one was ever charged, and the hands have not re-appeared. It’s been interpreted variously as an attempt to promote Argentinian democracy, to destroy the cult of Perónism – which remains a significant political force in Argentina – or a Masonic ritual to deny Perón’s body rest.
The most haunting story though is associated with a memorial striking for its beauty.
Memorial to Rufina Cambaceres sculpted by Richard Aigner
Eugenio Cambaceres was a wealthy man, a controversial politician and novelist, who died in 1888 of tuberculosis when his daughter Rufina was only four. Her uncle was also a well-known politician. Her mother Luisa Bacichi was a dancer from Trieste, who despite not being accepted by local society later took up in with founder of the Radical party and President of Argentina, Hipólito Yrigoyen, who had many informal relationships with women. An unconventional family.
Rufina was found dead on the evening of her 19th birthday. Despite being examined by three physicians, no cause of death could be established. She was interred, but some day later cemetery attendants noticed that the coffin had been moved. When they opened it, Rufina’s face was said to be scratched and injured, presumably in an attempt to escape or at least to be heard. She had been interred alive, while suffering from catalepsy. Her family commissioned the tomb you see, with the freestanding young lady in white at its door.
Taking a little sun
There are those who say they see a young lady in white wandering near the cemetery at night. Certainly the way death is treated quite casually here – all the dead above ground, ornate coffins on display behind glass and wrought iron – lends itself to such stories. Even if the sombre reminder as you exit frames mortality firmly in a Christian context.
“We expect the Lord”