‘I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said— “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley
Recoleta Cemetery has to be the most valuable piece of real estate in the city at fourteen prized acres located right in the pulsing heart of one of BA’s flashiest and most exclusive neighbourhoods. But it is also, in every sense, a ‘city of the dead’.
This uniquely magical cemetery is a dizzying labyrinth of criss-crossing roads, impressive tree-lined diagonal avenues and spooky dark cul-de-sacs, some barely arms-width wide, all hemmed in by the hustle and noisy bustle of Recoleta itself.
The living appear to teeter over the dead from their heaving apartment balconies. The brightly lit, always-on advertising signs seem to attract the longing gaze of flying angels and long-lost heroes.
There’s a feeling of enormous wealth and power here as only the wealthiest Porteños could have afforded such extravagance, with over 6,400 tombs and family vaults built in a dizzying array of styles from gothic piles to ornate Greek temples, miniature baroque cathedrals, church-like tiled domes and a multitude of winged angels and cute-as-a-button cherubs flying towards the heavens.
I wondered why so many of the lesser tombs and vaults were in such a state of shabby disrepair, many with broken glass, cobweb tangles and crumbling rotting doors, some revealing smashed coffins, but for me that all adds to the mystery and intrigue of the place. Though I have to confess, I wouldn’t want to be here after dark. No, only in the blazing sunshine thank you!
I understand that tomb maintenance is the responsibility of descendants of the deceased, which mirrors how local authorities treat footpaths in this city. If it’s in front of your property then it’s your responsibility to maintain, which of course explains why so many footpaths in BA are smashed to smithereens!
Many tombs though are well maintained, I guess by living Porteños with proud ancestry, such as Sarmineto the president, Hernandez the writer, Firpo the boxer (not quite wearing a dressing gown as first thought, more a prize-fight robe) and the many laureates, musical maestros, actors, politicians, doctors and the plain filthy rich who all rest here. Oh, and of course the Peron family with Evita’s self-consciously humble tomb, where queues form in the narrow passageway to file quietly past, cameras whirring away of course.
‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
*I wish I could claim the shot of the cemetery from above as my own but alas I can’t, so offer it only as context to the scale of the site