Born in Buenos Aires in 1815, Juan Andrés Gelly y Obes had a high-ranking diplomat & lawyer for a father. His family emigrated from Paraguay to Argentina for political reasons, & after the birth of Juan Andrés they had to move to Montevideo in 1830. Father & son fought side by side against the relentless sieges of Rosas. Those early struggles no doubt inspired Gelly y Obes to enlist in the Argentine Legion at the age of 24.
Although reaching the rank of Lt. Coronel, Montevideo would later lose all its appeal: his father moved to Brazil & his mother died after being near a grenade explosion while visiting his position. He considered joining his father & returning to Paraguay, but in the end became a politician/military man in Buenos Aires. A long friendship with Bartolomé Mitre, begun in Montevideo, influenced his career for the rest of his life.
During Mitre’s presidency, Gelly y Obes was named Minister of the Army & Navy but resigned to lead troops in person during the War of the Triple Alliance. When Argentine forces began to sack Asunción, he stepped down based on family connections there; some Paraguayans even wanted him to be their next President. In the end, he continued service in Congress in Buenos Aires & was reinstated in the military in 1877… to be removed again in 1880 after participating in a revolution with Mitre. Amazingly, this pattern would repeat itself when Julio Argentino Roca reinstated Gelly y Obes only to be dismissed again after supporting the Revolución del Parque in 1890.
Later reinstated, Gelly y Obes served on Argentina’s top military council & supported the modernization of the military under General Pablo Riccheri. He passed away in 1904 at the age of 89 after a lifetime of service with no equal other than perhaps that of his friend Mitre! This Neogothic mausoleum sits near the rear wall of the cemetery & declared a National Historic Monument in 1946.
Born in Poland in 1839, Jordan Czeslaw Wysocki graduated from a technical/engineering school & began his professional life by helping design the railway connecting Warsaw to St. Petersburg. Later in life on the losing side of an uprising against the Russian empire in 1862-63, he sought refuge in France. After work on the Paris-Bordeaux rail line, a Polish coworker suggested that Wysocki should go with him to Argentina & try his luck there. In 1867, he & his wife & daughter arrived in Buenos Aires.
Wysocki would later design the main building of the botanical park in Buenos Aires, also located in Palermo:
Minister of War Adolfo Alsina promoted Wysocki to Sergeant Major & commissioned a topographic study of the Pampa… as preparation to build a 374 km trench used to keep territory away from the Mapuche tribe. Continuing work in Trenque Lauquen in the Province of Buenos Aires, much of his subdivision of the fertile grasslands is still used today.
After several more promotions, defensive projects & even receiving a medal of honor, Wysocki passed away in 1883 at the age of 44 with a rank of Lieutenant Coronel. He had traveled all the way to the border of Patagonia to help delineate & give order to a vast, growing nation. Unfortunately the location of his grave in a closed section of niches in Recoleta Cemetery makes his legacy to Argentina less visible & accessible to the visitor.
Born in 1866 in Lanciego —a small town in the southern Basque region of Álava, near the border with La Rioja— Lorenzo Fernández de Viana began his artistic career as a cabinet maker… but soon moved on to bigger & better things. After obtaining grants to study in Madrid & Paris, he returned to the local capital of Vitoria to open the only sculpture workshop in the city. As a result, his art decorates the new cathedral & he even taught aspiring students.
Viana left it all for Argentina in 1912, accompanied by his three daughters. His timing could not have been more perfect, with Argentina booming & numerous cities requesting European artists to decorate the nation. Viana’s stay in America was brief, but he left behind works in Mar de Plata & Buenos Aires. Gaze up to the Constitución train station to find representations of Agriculture & Commerce… fitting since this was the gateway to the Pampas (photo below). On their return to the Basque Country in 1916, his family moved to Bilbao where Viana passed away ten years later in 1926.
During the height of the pandemic, the Museum of Fine Arts in Álava found this blog & requested to use photos from the tomb of Adolfo Alsina in an upcoming exhibition. Viana was responsible for several reliefs depicting scenes from Alsina’s life. Always happy to assist, I was pleased to contribute & receive a catalog. If you’re in Vitoria, visit the free exhibition because they’ve done a wonderful job in rescuing the memory of such a great artist (runs until 20 Mar 2022).
Chano Moreno Charpentier —the music world knows him as just Chano— headlined the popular Argentine group Tan Biónica from 2002 until their break up in 2016. For over a decade they have released hit after hit, enjoying phenomenal success. Chano publicly distanced himself from the group & embarked on a solo career but has been surrounded by scandal. Among the more publicized cases are: physical & psychological abuse of an ex-girlfriend, attempted robbery, car accidents & being shot after attacking police with a knife under the influence of drugs. Quite the role model.
Chano recently turned 40 & is making a comeback once again. YouTube algorithms picked up on this & have been showing me older videos of Tan Biónica when then it appeared… our second music video filmed in Recoleta Cemetery. Although just a lyric video, all scenes for “Víctimas” were shot with a hand-held camera inside the cemetery & highlight some of the more famous sculptures:
Perhaps the most difficult issue to overcome is access to previous publications about the cemetery. Print runs in Argentina are notoriously small, often around 3,000 copies… in a capital city with almost 15 million people & a national population of 45 million! During the 14 years I lived there, I’d scout bookstores each month with the hope of obtaining new resources before they disappeared from sight. Much like a treasure hunt —fun but not practical for most researchers.
Libraries presented another problem: source material spread across the entire city with incomplete collection catalogs. After finding a good publication, I would scour the bibliography for additional leads. However, sources mentioned were often unavailable, in private collections or worse, completely missing. Also, most library staff had insufficient knowledge of holdings or lacked initiative to help users discover additional information. Budget cuts also affected operating hours. Navigating the system took more time than actual reading!
Fortunately the digital age has improved the availability of early texts about Recoleta Cemetery. A recent search on Scribd revealed two gems from the 1990s that I never found in physical form…
Although without a publication date, Recoleta: Cementerio, Arte e Historia contains a prologue signed by Fernando de la Rúa… acting as head of the Buenos Aires city government. That means this 36-page booklet had to be published sometime between 1996 & 1999. Also oddly missing is the author’s name; credit goes to a large number of public officials.
What a shame this publication was not reedited or reproduced in later years! I would have loved an introduction like this on my first cemetery visit. After a brief overview, a hand-drawn map —with correct dimensions— marks 50 tombs of interest. If the route were followed by number, quite a bit of backtracking would be involved. But that’s a minor issue.
Text for each point of interest is brief but with good & surprisingly neutral information about people who were often anything but neutral 😉 Interesting photographs accompany most descriptions. An updated version of this guide in several languages would have been a best-seller at the cemetery entrance gate during the tourism boom of the early 2000s:
Unfortunately this publication has been delegated to the city government’s library & will likely never return.
Issue #5 published by the Board of Historic Studies of Recoleta (Junta de Estudios Históricos de La Recoleta) had a complicated title… something akin to “Recoleta Cemetery: Unraveling its Sites”. The 1970s witnessed a birth of local historical associations, often composed of self-appointed elite who supported a particular vision of their neighborhood. Cemetery heritage director Carlos Francavilla co-authored this 42-page booklet with architect Victor Villasuso. 63 points of interest dot their map marked with a very clear walking route:
Descriptive text & photographs do not mingle; each have their own dedicated pages. In general, mausoleums receive elaborate architectural explanations —so much so that a glossary is included at the end— while occupants & their deeds are secondary.
While interesting for its choice of mausoleums (several of which are rarely mentioned in other guidebooks), overly simple design makes this publication difficult to use as does such grandiloquent language. Oddly cropped photographs also fail to highlight the beauty of mausoleums. Consider this a secondary resource for those interested in lengthy architectural descriptions rather than a practical guide.