San Cataldo cemetery

Place: Modena, via San Cataldo

Authors: Aldo Rossi, Gianni Braghieri

Chronology: 1971 | 2011

Itinerary: Architecture for the community

Use: Cemetery

San Cataldo cemetery is made up of two parts: the Monumental Cemetery built between 1858 and 1876 by architect Cesare Costa, and the new part, built by Aldo Rossi with Gianni Braghieri. Rossi conceived the cemetery as a city where “the private relationship with Death becomes a civil relationship with the Institution”. Access to this surreal and dechirican city, with its “bone-like plan”, is cut through a portal into the boundary wall.

The cemetery is a complex of artifacts that includes large green areas. The cemetery is a public building and Rossi and Braghieri interpret it in the same way, making the paths clear and rational. The composition process recalls neoclassical cemeteries, like Costa’s cemetery, but here, the characteristic enclosure breaks and opens towards the countryside.

Rossi and Braghieri designed the perimeter as a continuous wall 13 meters high and 5 meters wide, hosting the burial niches. Each building contains two rows of niches; in the center they are crossed by a straight path about 4 meters wide. All the fronts present square windows at regular cadence, while the pitched roofing is conceived to recreate a both urban and domestic image linked to the Emilia context.

External view of the burial niches. In the competition notice, particular attention was paid to the theoretical-philosophical content. The intention was to create a monument in which the community could mirror itself. Rossi focused his proposal on the themes of memory and oblivion. “Forgetting” is a title that Rossi often used for his San Cataldo sketches, while the act of “remembering” is implicit in the cemetery theme. 

The cemetery by Rossi and Braghieri was built slowly. The first version, later modified, was dominated by a strict symmetry. In the complete version, although not final, the enclosure has a less exclusive relationship with the existing structures. The elements seek an independent relationship both with the periphery and the surrounding landscape.

The cubic block, the first architectural object encountered when entering, is destined for the ossuary and is in visual balance with the common tomb’s conical tower. The cube contains the sacrarium of those fallen in the world wars and in the partisan struggle. It is an open-air volume, brick-colored, perforated with square holes according to Rossi’s syntax. 

The sanctuary interior denotes an at once dramatic and conciliating character. The fractures and incompleteness of buildings, through the shadows, draw a domestic landscape, where everything is full of meaning and becomes a symbol.

In his San Cataldo cemetery design, Rossi refers to the landscape of the cities of Emilia, thus reaffirming the connection between the cities of the living and the dead. 

The idea of the house is present indirectly as a “reflection or shadow,” given the nature of the place. Its “skinned” elements make up spaces that bring back suggestions and deformations. Here, Rossi creates a funeral monument altering the dimensions of household objects. The square, regular windows that mark the whole complex are cuts in the wall without shutters, since the houses of the dead, in architecture, are both unfinished and abandoned.

Text Donatella Scatena
Photos by Marco Introini