- full of energy, excitement, and cheerfulness.
Can a place of burial ever be full of energy and excitement? I think the answer is yes, but only if it’s in Buenos Aires.
Cemeteries tell you a lot about a city. The Glasgow Necropolis, standing high and proud on a hill, is testament to the sheer confidence and economic clout of Scotland’s biggest city in the Victorian age, when it was the second city of the British Empire and the world capital of shipbuilding. The Art Deco gravestones at Vyšehrad in Prague tell you all you need to know about the optimism and sophistication of interwar Czechoslovakia. Père Lachaise’s roll call of artistic greats – among them Sarah Bernhardt and Colette, Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde – speaks eloquently of how Paris was once the world capital of intellectual and creative endeavour.
But for sheer architectural swagger, none of these can touch the Recoleta cemetery in Argentina’s capital.
Laid out in the garden of a defunct convent in the early nineteenth century, Recoleta is strikingly urban; though it is in Buenos Aires’ most elegant neighbourhood this is no leafy garden of repose, but rather a compact précis of the city’s architectural ambition.
That ambition was grounded in firm economic foundations. Of late, the headlines would have you believe Argentina’s economy is a tale of pitiful diminuendo, though it only takes a short visit to Buenos Aires to realise the quality of life is rather sweeter than the headlines imply.
But from the late nineteenth century until well into the twentieth Argentina was one of the world’s tiger economies, as beef and grain powered what had been a backwater of the Spanish colonial empire into one of the world’s richest nations. With wealth came sophistication, but a New World, hothouse sophistication which drew on the European traditions of Argentina’s immigrant-based society to create one of the world’s great cities. To walk the streets of Buenos Aires’ Microcentro is to rediscover Paris in the southern hemisphere, though it’s a Paris in which the buildings are taller, the domes more exaggerated, the sheer accumulation of architectural ornament that bit more luxuriant.
As with the city, so it is with the cemetery. Recoleta is an open-air exhibition of European funereal fashion, but with the volume turned up. Alongside Victorian Sentimental there is Gothic Revival of cathedral-like ambition, Beaux Arts, voluptuous Art Nouveau, Art Deco and even a hint of mid-century modernism. The overall impression is not so much one of mourning as of an affluent elite expressing the confidence of its class and nation.
Every great cemetery needs its icon. Recoleta has Eva Peron.
Located on a side avenue, the Duarte family tomb is elegant enough but by no means the most ostentatious in La Recoleta. Threaded with flowers and with small devotional plaques from keepers of the Peronist flame, it is the cemetery’s major tourist attraction. Evita’s route to her final resting place was famously macabre and tortuous. Her corpse disappeared for several years after her death, resurfacing under a false name in Milan and later accompanying her husband’s exile in Spain before finally being returned to her native Argentina in 1974. Even then, it was a further two years before she was interred in the Duarte vault.
Though in life they might have bridled at the thought, in death the cream of Argentinian society are buried alongside the woman once regarded as an upstart by the nation’s elite. They’re a disparate bunch, from admirals and patriots to actors and academics, and among the illustrious families there’s quite a scattering of Anglophone names – here a Campbell, there a Davison. What seems for the visitor to unite them post mortem is a shared commitment to sculptural and architectural display. And in the midst of death, there’s something really rather life-affirming about that.