It was suggested, insisted upon us, to “go it alone.” We don’t and go as a foursome instead, but the insistence was so great I make sure to break away just to have the experience.
It is creepy. The Cimitero Monumentale delle Porte Sante seems smaller than it is and only unveils the next field of tombstones when I brave leaving the last. I take the few steps up towards the plateau of the main area, an expanse of graves to the front and right of me, with the left lined with burial chambers the size and look of tall sheds. As if on cue, the plateau grows silent. The air isn’t dead but it is different. Somewhere in the distance, an owl begins to sound – whoo whoo, whoo whoo. And then, just up ahead, a creak. Slow and certain. A slam. I turn slightly panicked, caught up in my own imagination, scanning my surroundings.
A door of one of the chambers opens slowly, and I catch my breath. It lingers open for just a moment before it slams back shut. I watch it cautiously a few more times before I’m tenuously certain it is simply the wind.
I move onwards, moving between the plots. Some monuments have the deceased’s busts crowning them, others have their photographs embedded in them, and these now look vintage, antique, and bring on the surreal realization that these were ‘real’ people. This definitely isn’t the typical cemetery I’m used to – flat marble stones lined row upon row, spaced two feet apart, bland, immemorable. The tombstones laid here make me question how many graves actually lie below – they crowd one another, clamor for attention: tall, thin and poignant ones, simple but imposing ones, ones with cross-shaped monuments and others with angels sitting on them.
But the grandest of all are the familial mausoleums. I have never seen one before. Each is different: some are no more compelling than a humble house, but many take their aesthetic cues from Rome, Turkey – miniatures of Colosseums, mosques, cathedrals – all erected for the purpose of reverence. Inside, marble slabs line the walls on both sides, a painting on the center wall depicts a Bible story, an altar stands beneath it along with a kneeling pouf on which to pray. It all seems elaborate by modern standards but these must have been grand families that expected nothing less.
Avoiding a shadier walk around the perimeter of the cemetery, I instead head down a central path and happen upon a circular area closed in by the taller of the mausoleums. A statue of a young girl leaning on a cross and seeping with sadness stumps me: What was all this for? All this trouble, all this effort of a burial people go through? One generation will pay its respects to the one before it, maybe the one before that, but eventually someone will forget, someone will move away, memories will fade… Who will these tombstones be for then? It makes me sad.
The tower bell signals six o-clock. We all find ourselves together on the main trail again, and I am glad we separated for this eerie experience. But it was not the creaking of a broken door or the hoot of an owl that truly unnerved me; instead, the sad and futile consideration of our selves and our remembrance after we’ve passed stayed with me long after we had left.
We can’t guarantee anything in life it seems, and as certain as it comes, we can’t guarantee anything in death either: even if we lie in the house of our families, in the end, we must always “go it alone.”
Beside Chiesa San Miniato al Monte, above Piazzale Michelangelo, Oltrarno. Free. Opening times may vary.