This place is a real beauty. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got off the bus in the afternoon, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Actually, I was blown away. But it was a very slow build up that once I was in the throes of it, I was really overwhelmed. This is a huge cemetery, and the map at the entrance doesn’t really tell you much. There’s no English signage here, as there are few tourists who come, unlike Milan’s and Genoa’s cemeteries. As I went through the gate I saw a little nook with gravestones and statues, and it appeared to be a small English (Protestant?) cemetery. I took a few photos and then walked towards the colonnade on my left, which would occupy me until I ran out of film late in the day.
The cemetery at Certosa is huge, and is in fact, like a huge maze. A huge Italian villa maze. If you have been to Bologna, then you know that it is famous for it’s 38km of porticos, and this cemetery seems to have the same amount(!). While there are open spaces (mostly for wall tombs), there is portico after portico of tombs and monuments. But it’s not as simple as that. As you walk along one wall (in my case thinking, I’ll loop around, then go to the next one) you’ll find a doorway into another room, which has doorways into other rooms. It’s squares within squares within squares. Squared multiple times. I suppose there could be a systematic way to see them all, but I couldn’t figure it out. I just followed my nose and found so many monuments within the warm glow of the walls. Because Certosa, unlike the other great monumental cemeteries, is built and coloured like Bologna.
So there are no pale marble walls in the background, it is all umber and ochre (reddish browns and dark yellows) and shades in between. Since most of the porticos and galleries have sky lights, every hallway, every room, just seemed to have this wondrous glow to it. I was kicking myself for not bringing any colour film to capture this beautiful light, although my iPhone did come in handy when I remembered to use it. The very last section of the inner porticos that I found were what I called the “yellow rooms”. Unlike the other walls, none of the paint here was peeling or faded, and the statues were not covered in layers of dust. I had not planned two trips to see this cemetery, but once I knew what was there I knew that I had to go back with more film, including colour.
The most moving section of the cemetery was an outdoor courtyard of children’s graves. It was sad and moving, yet very serene and peaceful amongst the chirping insects and fluttering butterflies. The mementos that people left behind here were very moving.
In terms of people, there were a number of mourners there to visit the graves of loved ones, but they were not in the old section (the porticos) – obviously the newer graves are out in the open, which is the area I didn’t explore. There were a few tourists like me, just there to see and photograph the monuments, but I only came across a handful over the course of the entire afternoon. I saw one older man there who was shooting large format – 4×5 or 5×7 (with tripod) – I didn’t talk to him because I didn’t want to disturb him while he was taking photographs (I always hate it when people do this to me. Come talk to me AFTER I’ve clearly finished what I’m doing, but don’t try talking to me while I’m figuring out my settings, or counting off an exposure, or whatever. I’m working and the light could change at any moment.) I did try to work around him, intending to have a brief conversation with him afterwards (assuming he could speak English), but I got lost in the maze and never found him again. Perhaps the light got too dark for him, even with a tripod, and he decided to call it a day.
Quality of Monuments: Excellent. Of course, the overall quality is not as high as Staglieno’s, but there are still some stunning monuments. There are lots of tombs and this really does feel like you are exploring an indoor city/villa, with all the current residents. Some of the monuments are in rougher shape than others, there are broken tombs throughout the grounds, but it all adds to the atmosphere of the place.
The Cemetery Grounds: Beautiful. As I’ve mentioned above, this is like walking through an Italian villa and it is full of colour and light. The grounds are extensive, with plenty of porticos to explore – very much like a maze. You could easily spend a whole day here, although half a day would be recommended. Because of the porticos and sky lights, coming here on a sunny day is not a problem since it fills all the rooms with light without the sun shining directly on them. There are some nice statues outside, however, different times of day will result in different kinds of light and shadow.
There are several layers at play here – there are tombs underground (you can see dimly lit passageways below) and tombs on the 1st floor, although I think they are all slab tombs. Sometimes there are monuments outside, behind walls. It really adds a depth I haven’t seen at other cemeteries.
Visitors: Minimal. There are mourners come to visit loved ones, and a few tourists, but overall there are very few people here.
Photographer notes: As I mentioned earlier I did see an older gentleman shooting with a large format camera, but I don’t know if he had permission beforehand or not. In any event, it’s probably best to contact them in advance.
The light here is amazing and I think one can get some really beautiful photographs in colour or in black and white.
Overall Satisfaction: High. This far exceeded my expectations and I was really pleasantly surprised by what I found here. In fact, it was kind of fun going through all the porticos and galleries and trying to find my way out again. Every new room was a surprise.
Cemetery: Il Cimitero della Certosa di Bologna
Location: Bus 19 or 36 (or 14, 20, 21) from the centre of Bologna will take you out to the cemetery on the edge of town. It’s about 13 stops (give or take, depending on where you get on) – there are announcements on the bus, but they are hard to hear. However, I listened really hard for “Certosa” which did manage to come through. Cross the street and go a little to the right and then you will find the main entrance. Going back to town, take the #39 bus at the bus stop just outside the cemetery – it will take you very close to Plaza Maggiore. (There are other bus options too, a little further out).
Hours: 7:00-18:00 (summer), 8:00-17:00 (winter)
Closed: Open daily