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Category: History

196. mhn update

Just finished updating the Monumento Histórico Nacional page & it was like writing several posts.

Besides naming all tombs considered part of the nation’s heritage, the list is now ordered by year. Some surprising trends appeared when looking at the list in that way. Reading the decrees also took a considerable amount of time, but it was well worthwhile to compare different governments & their attitude toward Recoleta Cemetery & conservation. Especially bizarre is that since democracy was restored in 1983 not a single tomb was added to the national heritage list until 2007. No wonder the place was falling apart.


195. 242 missing years

Most people eagerly say that Recoleta Cemetery was the first public burial ground in Buenos Aires. While true, much more needs to be explained. The city was founded in 1580 & Recoleta Cemetery opened in 1822, so where were its citizens buried for those missing 242 years? The answer can be found by examining traditions of Spanish Catholics who lived during that time in Buenos Aires.

When Constantine adopted Christianity, he also began the practice of burials inside the church itself. Can’t get much closer to God than that. Over time, sectors developed within the walls to differentiate the poor from the rich. Tombstones cover the floors of churches in southern Europe, & gated chapels sponsored/reserved for certain families are common. With the development of the camposanto (literally, “holy field”) located on grounds just outside the church walls, those who couldn’t afford to be inside were also given a place to rest in peace.

Allocation of church space based on wealth arrived in Buenos Aires along with the first Spanish settlers. Families aligned themselves with various religious orders to secure privileged positions. The exact spot may not have been specially marked, but families always went to a certain location for mass & knelt for prayer. Remember that Catholic churches did not have pews at that time.

A few documents from early Buenos Aires have survived & attest to a great deal of care given to funeral services. A certain amount of exhibitionism appealed to the vanity of the upper class; instructions were given for the funeral procession to follow a specific route past the residence & workplace of the deceased so everyone could say their last respects. Some people left disproportionately high sums to the church for their last rites. And the most requested spot for burial was by the fountain of holy water at the entrance… all the extra drops would land on the tomb of the deceased as a bonus. No kidding.

So who ended up where?

The poorest of the poor, if not left dead on the streets of Buenos Aires, were deposited in the Hueco de las Ánimas (loosely translated as the “pit for wandering souls”) where the Banco de la Nación now sits on Plaza de Mayo. At the opposite end of the spectrum, bishops & VIPs were buried in the crypt of the cathedral. A number of early independence figures are there as well as Virrey del Pino. Archbishops were & continue to be buried in various chapels. Guided visits are the only way to access the crypt:

Crypt, Catedral Metropolitana, Buenos Aires

Other downtown churches have their share important people. The crypt of the Iglesia de San Francisco can be found under where the main altar once stood but no public access is allowed. Approximately 200 people are buried there, mainly Franciscan monks, but former Vice President Mariano Acosta joined them. The adjacent Capilla San Roque also contains a small crypt.

Portuguese ambassador João Manoel de Figueiredo, who first recognized Argentine independence, is buried in the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. The parents of General Manuel Belgrano lie under the side stairs approaching the main altar, & the man himself is buried in the patio of the church for all to see. Prior to the large sculpture, Belgrano was buried just outside the main entrance:

Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Manuel Belgrano, Buenos Aires

Inside the church, an homage written by Liniers to Martín de Álzaga can be found on what is supposed to be his tomb. Most likely he is in Recoleta Cemetery, but two locations other than the Iglesia de Santo Domingo claim to have the remains of Álzaga:

Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Martín de Álzaga, Buenos Aires

During the invasion of 1806, British soldiers killed in battle were buried in the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista in spite of the fact that they were not Catholic. The off-limits cloister served as a makeshift hospital so many were buried onsite.

So 242 years of burials took place in churches, & many important historical figures can be found scattered around downtown Buenos Aires. It just takes a bit of investigation to find out where they are located. Recoleta Cemetery has existed almost since Argentina became a nation… but the city’s history began much earlier.

Some content of this post from Julio Cacciatore’s Las Ciudades de los Muertos lecture on 02 May 2008.

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187. las ciudades de los muertos

Sponsored by the Dirección General Patrimonio & Instituto Histórico, a series of five free lectures about death in Buenos Aires began yesterday. Naturally, I’ll be attending all of the talks… if anyone wants to join me, just send me an email. They take place every Friday from 18:30–20:00 at the Instituto Histórico (Avenida Córdoba 1556, 1º piso). Topics to be discussed are:

May 02 • “Los enterratorios en los siglos XVII y XVIII; las costumbres funerarias de la época” by architect Julio Cacciatore

May 09 • “Vida y muerte de negros y esclavos” by archaeologist Daniel Schávelzon

May 16 • “Los cementerios protestantes” by Dr. Maxine Hanon, “Los cementerios judios” by anthropologist Leonor Slavsky, & “Cementerios olvidados del norte y del sur” by Luis Cortese

May 23 • “Los cementerios de Flores” by neighborhood historian Ángel Prignano & “Los cementerios de Chacarita” by architect Julio Cacciatore

May 30 • “Historia y arte en el cementerio de la Recoleta” by cemetery director Dr. Carlos Francavilla & “Patrimonio narrativo del cementerio de la Recoleta” by Dr. María Rosa Lojo.

Even though some of the lectures do not relate directly to Recoleta Cemetery, I will post my notes since comparison & contrast always provide insight. There were over 50 people present for the first talk, so go a little early to get a good seat. Maybe I’ll see you there!

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179. entrance gate

Entrance gate, Recoleta Cemetery

When founded in 1822, the cemetery grounds were humbler than the miniature city of mausoleums which can be visited today. The main entrance was nothing more than a wrought-iron gate without much decoration, & the area was enclosed by an adobe-cement wall. Buenos Aires mayor Torcuato de Alvear sponsored large urban makeovers of the city & Recoleta Cemetery was on his list. In 1881, plots randomly located among dirt paths gave way to orderly sectors & paved walkways.

Juan Buschiazzo designed an appropriately elegant main entrance. He was the obvious architect of choice for Alvear, responsible for some of the poshest mansions in town. Buschiazzo incorporated the original structure into the new gate, adding columns & a frieze filled with symbols related to Christianity & naturally, death. Click on the links below to discover the meaning of each symbol:

“Rest in peace” in Latin tops the gate, leaving little doubt as to what’s inside. The above symbols are also repeated on the interior façade of the gate along with a small bell & the phrase “Expecatamus Dominum.” Taken from Philippians 3:20, it can be roughly translated as “We await the Lord.”

The gate was listed as a National Historic Monument in October 2007.

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