A forbidding perimeter wall protects the dead of the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. The entrance to the necropolis is a Doric-columned portico, beyond which the great and powerful of Argentina’s history lay at rest; cast members in a silent theatre.
Former presidents, military generals, artists and, most famously, Eva Perón, are buried here in fabulous mausoleums of stone and bronze crowned by cupolas and crying angels. There are more than 6,400 tombs in this city of the dead, densely packed against one another along narrow alleyways and leafy avenues.
It is great theatre, the city of the dead. Walking its labyrinth, one encounters a silent opera. Look and you spy a cherub, cast in white stone, dancing on a street corner. Crying widows, fashioned from stone, suckle infants on the steps of tombs. At the doors to great mausoleums, hooded virgins stare forlornly downwards, palms spread in mute, anguished supplication. Grieving mothers shaped from marble lay prostrate on the lids of stone caskets. This is hushed, thrilling theatre, almost mocking in its silence. Atop cupolas, winged angels, hair in tresses, hark and blow trumpets. Their blasts go unheard.
The fabulous tombs of the Recoleta Cemetery stand as vainglorious monuments, in death, to earthly success and ambition. They are symbols of Buenos Aires' 1880-1930 golden age, when it was one of the world's richest cities. Its social elite commissioned Paris' finest architects to build their mausoleums in the image of the great palaces of the Recoleta district they inhabited. They built a city within a city; one that mirrored the opulence of the neighbourhood surrounding it.
The cemetery's oldest tombs are its entrance. They are grandiose Greek temples, Roman cenotaphs and Egyptian obelisks; symbols of the Republican spirit then prevalent in Argentina. They are free of religious iconography, which was linked to Spain and the colonial yoke.
Walking deeper into the necropolis one discovers a resurrection of Catholic influences amid dizzily eclectic architecture. Bombastic mini-palaces here stand adjacent to darkly Gothic vaults. Whimsical Art-Nouveau tombs rub shoulders with sharply classical designs. Perhaps most beautiful is the tomb of José C Paz, founder of La Prensa newspaper. Cast from white stone, it is a vivid allegory of the immortal soul and depicts an angel hoisting the soul heavenwards while discarding the earthly body. Rubenesque angels guard the tomb's entrance.
Such evocative imagery fires the imagination. One pictures this silent necropolis suddenly bursting to life as a chaotic staging post on the well-travelled route to purgatory and paradise. Stone wings begin to flutter. You hear the creak of caskets opening, the tap of tiny feet as cherubs dance excitedly, and the clanking of cast-iron doors as angels go about their business on narrow lanes lined with weeping widows. It has all the commotion of a medieval city, and the cemetery's oppressive silence, for a moment, is gone.
Yet amid the silence there is pathos. The tomb of Admiral William Brown, founder of the Argentine Navy, features a mast painted the colours of his native Ireland. His daughter lies buried alongside. Wearing her wedding dress, she drowned herself in the River Riachuelo after learning of her fiancée's death under her father's command.
The sepulchre of Rufina Cambaceres is a beautiful Art Nouveau work depicting a young woman tearfully opening heaven's door. The daughter of a writer, Rufina was mistakenly pronounced dead on her 19th birthday following a cataleptic attack. Buried alive, she died trying to escape her coffin.
Other tombs inspire reverence or hatred. Carlos Pellegrini was president of Argentina in 1890 and steered the country through a financial crisis. His magnificently sculptured tomb sets him atop his coffin, issuing orders. A female figure and child, symbolising the Republic and its future, wait at his feet.
Colonel Falcon was Chief of Police when assassinated by anarchists in 1909. Crying widows kneel at the base of his tomb, which is topped by an allegory of law and order triumphing over chaos. It shows a muscular hero slaying the beast. Anarchist graffiti is scrawled across Falcon's tomb. Contemporary Argentina is never far from chaos.
Eva Perón's family vault is close to the cemetery's heart. There Evita lies embalmed beneath tonnes of reinforced concrete - dumped there to protect her from crazed body snatchers and desecrators. Plaques and freshly picked flowers adorn her tomb. An inscription famously reads "I will return and be millions!" She wanted to smash the power of Argentina's elite. In death, she lies in its opulent bosom.
For tours of the Recoleta Cemetery, contact tour agency Eternautas.
The article 'The Recoleta Cemetery: silent theatre and city of the dead' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.