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Category: Literati

433. 1863 visit

Written by Thomas Woodbine Hinchliff (1825-1882)—an English mountaineer, writer, founder & president of the Alpine Club—the following text was published in the book “South American sketches: or, A visit to Rio Janeiro, the Organ Mountains, La Plata, and the Paranà” [sic] in 1863. The text is in public domain, & the section which refers to Recoleta Cemetery is reproduced below.


But one of the most curious and interesting places to be seen in Buenos Ayres is the Recoleta, or burying-place of the Catholics, whether natives or foreigners. It is a very large piece of ground in the northern outskirts, and is completely surrounded by a high wall pierced with loopholes, which would enable a small body of soldiers within to hold the road against an enemy. It is entered by very handsome iron gates, close to which is a chapel for the performance of the burial service. The poorer people are buried in the remoter parts of the ground, in the simple ordinary graves of Europe; but the central part is divided by numbers of paths into narrow streets of vaults and family mausoleums. The latter are for the most part built of white marble, and look like small temples, generally covered with a dome; an iron-grated door permits a view of all the coffins of the family, arranged on shelves or ledges round three sides of the interior, and decorated with immortelles and artificial flowers. Many of the principal inhabitants have spent very large sums of money upon these structures, and the general effect is remarkably good. Seen from the surrounding neighbourhood, the large collection of white cupolas and turrets, rising high above the wall, would make a visitor believe that he saw an Eastern city in the distance.

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, 1867

I often wandered about this Recoleta, studying the epitaphs in many languages; and one day, close to where an English Catholic had buried his wife, and graced her tombstone with the familiar ‘Affliction sore long time she bore, &c.,’ I found on a tall obelisk the most concise and terrible inscription I am acquainted with. It was this:


‘Assassinated by his friends!’ Struck by this extraordinary epitaph I made enquiries about the subject of it, and found that a party of young men from good families of the place were in the habit of gambling together, till Alvarez won heavily from all the others. They determined to pay their debts by getting rid of their creditor, and enticing him to a lonely place the deliberately murdered him; they put his dead body in a coach that was ready, and threw it down a well in the neighbourhood. They had laid their plans so that detection seemed impossible; but by an extraordinary chance there was a witness to the crime, who denounced them. Great efforts were made by family influence to save them, but in vain; they were executed, and the brother of the murdered man erected the obelisk to his memory. In another part of the Recoleta was a dreadful hole, into which the victims of the tyranny of Rosas used to be precipitated wholesale; but those times are happily over, and no trace of them remains except in the memory of the Buenos Ayreans.


This text is valuable in so many ways. It gives us a first-hand account of burial practices & tomb placement of the time. Hinchliff also discusses the general appearance of Recoleta Cemetery as well as tombs which no longer exist. Finally, he makes the cemetery a tourist destination & finds an interesting story to tell. Apparently some things never change!

Entrance gate & the Iglesia de Pilar, circa 1867, shortly after Hinchliff’s visit. Photo by Benito Panunzi from the Carlos Sánchez Idiart Collection.


417. lucio vicente lópez

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, Lucio Vicente López

Grandson of the author of the Argentina national anthem, the tomb of Lucio Vicente López is one of few in Recoleta Cemetery paid for by public donations. Regular readers know that the majority of plots belong to families, so something extraordinary must have happened for López to be buried alone here. It’s quite a story.

Already a lawyer & recognized journalist, López began publishing books in the 1880’s. La Gran Aldea (1884) first appeared as a regular magazine section & presented porteños with a clever look at themselves & some of their more absurd customs. A personal favorite is the section where a politician derides the main character for wanting to study. The politicians prides himself on getting ahead without ever opening a book. Hilarious. Project Gutenberg has a complete copy available online for free. Of course there was commentary about Recoleta Cemetery (translation mine):

Mientras depositaban el cajón en la bóveda de la familia, yo me perdí en las calles del cementerio.

¡Cuánta vana pompa!

Cómo podía medirse allí, junto con los mamarrachos de la marmolería criolla, la imbecilidad y la soberbia humanas. Allí la tumba pomposa de un estanciero… muchas leguas de campo, muchas vacas; los cueros y las lanas han levantado ese mausoleo que no es ni el de Moreno, ni el de García, ni el de los guerreros, ni el de los grandes hombres de letras.

Allí la regia sepultura de un avaro, más allá la de un imbécil… la pompa siguiéndolos en la muerte….

While the casket was placed in the family vault, I got lost among the walkways of the cemetery.

So much pompous vanity!

How could one be measured there, a local parade of imbeciles & morons alongside the best of humanity. There, the pompous tomb of a ranch owner… many leagues of countryside, lots of cows; leather & wool constructed that mausoleum which does not belong to Moreno, García, the soldiers, or the great academics.

Here the regal tomb of a miser, there another of an idiot… pomp following them in death…

As most members of the upper class, López soon became involved in politics. Shortly after the 1890 Revolution & under the government of Luis Saénz Peña, López was named Interventor Federal for the Province of Buenos Aires… basically a government inspector or auditor.

Although in the post for less than a year, López uncovered a case of corruption that he would pay dearly for. An unpaid government loan had been issued for a large lot of land… land that was later resold without payment of the original loan & whose resale also violated the loan’s terms. The person in question was Coronel Sarmiento (no relation to Domingo F.), personal secretary to General Luis María Campos then serving as Minister of War. López opened a case against Sarmiento, for which he was detained three months in a provincial prison, but in the end no charges of illicit gain were filed.

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, Lucio Vicente López

During these events, López & Sarmiento never saw each other. But afterwards, the only way to clear the air between them was a duel. In the 1890’s, duels were still an occasional event in Argentina but for the most part, they involved firing shots into the air as a way to restore both parties’ honor. Not so for López & Sarmiento. This was to be a duel to the death.

The godparents of both López & Sarmiento—bound to preside over the duel as tradition dictated—tried to dissuade López & Sarmiento. No need to spill blood. But in the end it went ahead as planned. Shots were fired at 12 paces & both missed. Guns were reloaded. In the second round, Sarmiento hit López in the abdomen, causing damage to his gallbladder & liver. López did not survive the night.

Most thought that the death of López was unnecessary & deprived Argentina one of its most respected authors at the age of 44. Old traditions definitely die hard.


393. lucio v. mansilla

Lucio Victorio Mansilla, Recoleta Cemetery

Lucio Victorio Mansilla was, like Ascasubi, a man whose life could have been a novel. Mansilla embodied the Romantic character: military man, writer, traveler, bon vivant.

Mansilla was born in Buenos Aires in 1831… son of Coronel Lucio Mansilla & Agustina Rozas, sister of Juan Manuel de Rosas, who they called “the star of the Federation.” As a teenager, his parents sent him on a trip to Asia, the Middle East & Europe in order to discourage a love “that was not to his convenience.” Young Lucio traveled through India, Egypt & Turkey as well as France, Italy & England. Those travels would later become material for future works of literature.

After the fall of Rosas, Mansilla’s family moved to France for a year. Lucio married his cousin, Catalina Ortiz de Rosas y Almada, after their return. He challenged José Mármol to a duel in 1856, thinking that the writer had offended his father in the novel “Amália.” The future author was exiled for three years & later sent to fight in the war against Paraguay:

Lucio Victorio Mansilla, Recoleta Cemetery

In 1868 Mansilla supported Sarmiento in his bid for President, who later designated him as frontier commander in Río IV, Córdoba. From there, he embarked on a journey south to defend a peace treaty with the ranquel/rankülche tribe. Mansilla spent 18 days with them & wrote his experiences down to be published in the “La Tribuna” newspaper. His style was colloquial & included many stories, even those told by the campfire. They were published together as “A Visit to the Ranquel Indians,” one of the most striking works of Argentine literature.

Below is an 1868 photo of Mansilla (center, wearing a cape) in what is now Plaza Roca in Río IV… two years before leaving for ranquel territory:

Lucio V. Mansilla, Río IV

From 1876 until his 1913 death in Paris, Mansilla occupied a large number of political positions & published a number of books. But the most important experience of his life—living through & telling his time among the indigenous people of Argentina—had already passed. Mansilla rests in peace in the family vault with his mother & father, & this vault was declared a National Historic Monument in 1946:

Lucio Victorio Mansilla, Recoleta Cemetery

Update (29 Aug 2012): Interestingly, David William Foster of Arizona State University considers Mansilla’s tales of the ranqueles as “one of the great classics of nineteenth-century Argentine prose, ranking perhaps only behind Sarmiento’s Facundo.” More info can be found here.

Photo of Mansilla in Río IV courtesy of the area’s Regional Historic Museum.


389. ascasubi

Hilario Ascasubi, Recoleta Cemetery

The fabulous life of the gaucho poet Hilario Ascasubi seems to have come directly from the pen of a 19th-century Romantic writer.

The story goes that Ascasubi was born in Córdoba in 1807 aboard a covered wagon. At the age of 5, he rode alongside the then Coronel José de San Martín. And when he turned 14, on a whim Hilario embarked on “La Rosa Argentina” & sailed for over two years around the world.

In 1825, he enlisted as a recruit in General José María Paz’s forces to fight against the Spanish. It was there where Ascasubi began to compose verses to entertain his companions. Shortly after, he met Facundo Quiroga in Tucumán.

Hilario Ascasubi, Recoleta Cemetery

When Rosas came to power, Ascasubi wrote satires against the “Restorer” which got him two years in prison. After his release, he lived in exile in Montevideo for the next two decades… the time when his literary expertise would make him famous. Ascasubi returned to Buenos Aires in 1852, & the following year edited the satirical newspaper “Aniceto el Gallo.” A few years later he spent almost his entire fortune in building the first Teatro Colón on Plaza de Mayo.

In 1872, his complete works were published in Paris & “Santos Vega” appeared for the first time —about a storyteller who defies the Devil himself & is regarded as one of the best works of Latin American literature. In Recoleta Cemetery, his most recognized works are listed on the left side of the tomb while his military actions are named on the right:

Hilario Ascasubi, Recoleta Cemetery

Ascasubi —friend of Sarmiento, Florencio Varela, & Valentín Alsina— passed away in Buenos Aires in 1875. His crypt was declared a National Historic Monument in 1946. The tree stump is unique to the cemetery… a symbol of death of something which once lived, something which can never be recovered:

Hilario Ascasubi, Recoleta Cemetery


386. luz maría garcía velloso ◊

Luz María García Velloso, Recoleta Cemetery

Close to the entrance gate, the Art Nouveau effigy of Luz María García Velloso draws a lot of attention. Beautiful & in a highly visible location, it only seems natural that an urban legend would develop around her death.

Luz María García Velloso, Recoleta Cemetery

Supposedly a victim of leukemia at the age of 15, Luz María’s mom spent several night vigils at the cemetery… actually sleeping inside the vault. Much later, men walking near Recoleta Cemetery reported an encounter with a young woman dressed completely in white. The most common version claims this woman would accompany them to a bar, get a chill then ask to borrow her date’s jacket. Next she would accidentally stain it with whatever they were drinking & take the jacket with her when they said goodnight.

The following day the man somehow contacts her mother to get the jacket back, & she explains that the young woman is already dead! In desperation, he goes to the cemetery & finds his jacket draped over the effigy. While none of the above has been confirmed, it makes for an interesting story… probably one of the most common urban legends in the world.

Luz María García Velloso, Recoleta Cemetery

Fortunately some factual information about the rest of the family —also buried here— is available. Luz María’s father, Enrique García Velloso, was of Basque descent & heavily involved in the arts at the beginning of the 20th century in Buenos Aires. He directed the first movie version of Amália by José Marmol in 1914. Two years later he wrote Mamá Culepina about the barracks following the troops of Lucio V. Mansilla.

Enrique García Velloso, Recoleta Cemetery

All this artistic activity led Enrique to be named the first President of the Casa del Teatro—an actors association/retirement organization based on Avenida Santa Fe. Still possessing a popular theater,  the fantastic Art Deco building was designed by Alejandro Virasoro… the same architect who built the Defferrari family vault.

Enrique’s cultural connections expressed their sorrow for the death of Luz María with poetic plaques on the left side of the family vault:

Luz María García Velloso, Recoleta Cemetery

Unfortunately the elaborate interior painting is missing these days, but the ceiling’s stained glass remains intact:

Luz María García Velloso, Recoleta Cemetery

Second to last photo courtesy of the Archivo General de la Nación. Like Art Nouveau? Learn about the architects of the era, their individual styles & what makes Art Nouveau in Buenos Aires so unique with a 33-page guide from our sister site, Endless Mile.