“La Villetta” cemetery was built from 1819 onwards at the request of the Duchess Marie Louise of Austria – Napoleon’s wife – in San Pellegrino and according to a project carried out by the municipal engineer G. Cocconcelli. The cemetery takes its name from the place chosen for its construction: as a matter of fact, the area which became a graveyard in 1817 was initially occupied by a suburban villa owned by the Jesuits.
The perimetric octagon was realised directly on the enclosed ground, bought by the Council with the direct participation of private citizens. At the same time, church burials were banned. The general idea and choice of location brought to an end a debate dating back to 1750, of which there are still drawings and a report.
The graveyard presents neatly organised areas and objects, and in addition to a social hierarchy, it shows its urban communities and their values. It is, in short, a city within the city, where physical divisions and typological characteristics mirror those of the society of the living. Burials are separated according to class, creed and reasons of death.
The neoclassical influence is clearly identifiable in the architectural style, which is also commonly found in many representative buildings erected by Marie Louise as well as in other cemeteries of Italy – i.e. in Turin and Genoa. In such places, the composite rules are based on symmetries and give birth to geometrically designed structures .
In Parma too, the elements characterising the new cemetery are the following: a surrounding wall, a small building at the entrance and a funerary chapel initially intended for the centre of the graveyard. In such a project – dated 1817 – the typical forms of the Enlightenment tradition leave space for the new neoclassical architectures. The final project signed by Cocconcelli suggests a shape inspired by courtly typology – an octagon with a portico which alternates four long sides and four shorter ones, with “the Chapel in front of the entrance, so that the global view of the cemetery is clearer (…)”. The perimetric portico is made of 156 bays with pillars and round arches, and destined for religious and lay brotherhoods, the city’s aristocracy. Only in part, were these owned by the council which could lease wall niches in perpetuity or for a limited period of time.
Brought to an end in 1823, the surrounding wall was the first part to be built. After that, little by little, arcades and crypts were added – the first being those along the entrance and the chapel. The work continued gradually and the whole structure was completed in 1876, thanks to the help of the owners and according to a common architectural scheme. Although subjected to the authority of a special committee, the internal decoration was free, provided a free passage along the porch was maintained.
Along the octagon we can find functional architectures, the death chamber and the Oratory.
The Oratory is dedicated to St. Gregory Magnus and is a square-plan building with a central octagonal space – which recalls the surrounding cemetery wall – and a tetra-style Doric pronaos with a neoclassical gable. It was realised along the perimeter of the octagon in the middle of the west side, in line with the main entrance, with a view to creating a scenic perspective which could regulate the angular balance of the enclosure. Dating back to 1818, the project was carried out between 1819 and 1823 and can now be found at the State Archives. The inclined shorter sides and the square-shaped surrounding wall, limited to the octagon, form four triangular spaces that were to serve four different functions: the south-east section accommodated the ossuary; the south-west part Jewish and evangelical burials; the north-west section all those who were condemned to death and who had committed suicide – an area of this section was also reserved for the executioner and his family; and, finally, the north-east section sheltered, as in limbo, stillborn children or unchristened ones.
The fundamental lay institution of the cemetery was adapted to the people’s creed – mostly Catholic, which later determined a specific feature of the city of Parma. As a matter of fact, the area dedicated to “those who do not follow our religion…” had an independent entrance, with respect to the other three spaces and to what was actually decided in the initial project. Although the French government had granted Jews the liberty to reside in the city, non-catholic communities had not yet been fully integrated.
The area was soon insufficient for the needs of non-catholic communities. Therefore, in 1865, a project was presented for a new Jewish cemetery. It was intended to be built outside the squared enclosure of the Villetta, near the modern non-catholic section. It is in this area that, still today, we can find the most ancient graves – dating back to 1870 – 1910. In 1875/76 the Jewish sector was separated from that of the Protestants by a wall.
The growth of the cemetery, from the primitive octagonal porch, had started long before the arcades had been completed.
The interior is divided into four yards by two perpendicular boulevards and was intended to accommodate common people’s tombs. Monuments, as well, were to stand on the two sides of the main boulevard – linking the entrance and the Oratory.
The cemetery regulation issued by Marie Louise also defined the tree species allowed to overshadow the graves: in particular those which grew perpendicularly, such as cypresses and Lombardy poplars.
In 1862 the cemetery was linked to the closer city door by a boulevard, “a superb alley flanked by cypresses” designed as an element of continuity between the city and the cemetery. Also, its magnificence could provide the path with an adequate decorum with respect to the importance of its architectural destination. At the same time, it contributed to the solemnity of the funeral rites.
In the Deliberation of Marie Louise dated 31st August 1819 – article 8, we can read that the construction of the arches inside the octagon was to begin at the same time in the two parts near the entrance, but that it should be financed entirely by the citizens. “Those who require an arch must personally declare they arewilling to build it at their own expense, and only after the first notice received by the Potestà. If they fail to do that within three days of receipt of the notice, they will lose their right and have to reproduce another declaration anew”.
The construction continued according to the initial project: “The arcades will be uniform and built according to the intended project – registered at the Potestà’s offices and communicated to the participants along with the estimation of expenses”.
In articles 6 and 7 we can read that the arcades have to be built completely at the applicants’ expense. The applicants can decide to commission the work as they like, as long as an architect of the municipality is responsible for the work: each applicant is required to pay to the municipality a sum of 14.9 lira – a third of the area devoted to the construction of the portico, according to the survey carried out”. Therefore, inside the portico, everyone was free to decide the type of ornaments they preferred, as long as they left a free passage from one arch to the other and provided that they submitted their project for its approval to the President of the home office, who will only return it after getting the approval from the School of Fine Arts.
Whoever wanted a porch in the cemetery for a “particular grave” had to declare his wishes to the office of the Potestà for them to be registered there. Today, in one of the remaining registers, there is still some trace of the names of these owners – both private citizens but also Orders, Brotherhoods, Guilds and the Municipality. In July 1820, 21 arches had already been built at the request of the Constantine Order of St George, the Benedictine Monks, the Canonical Section of the Cathedral, the Consortium of the Cathedral, the Priests’ Board and the University…
In order to meet with the growing demand for new graves, as soon as the porched octagon was finished in 1876, the first surrounding wall of the Jesuit house was demolished. A first series of enlargements began.
The project designed by Sante Bergamaschi (Head Engineer of the Office of Municipal Arts) in 1872 projects the construction of two twin galleries with a Latin cross plan, placed northward and southward along the transverse axis of the octagon. These could be reached from the enclosure by means of two openings in the central arches of each portico. The above-mentioned galleries were constructed in different decades and, consequently, their height varied. In fact, today we have two different images and spaces: the southern gallery, built between 1876 and 1884, is mostly neoclassical and has a lower barrel vault. The norther gallery, based on a project dated 1893 and finished in 1899 but built only in 1905, shows the peculiarity of eclectic stylistic elements, such as rounded arches.
The two galleries, along with the octagon and the entrance, constitute the four pivots of the new cemetery, inside of which the enclosure still has the role of a regulating structure. In 1905 a project for the two risalits of the entrance was carried out. These were later built in 1913 – to be refurbished in 1980. Today, they accommodate the porter’s lodge. In 1909 the building surveyor Ennio Monieri designed the mortuary chamber, next to which a modern post-mortem death chamber was added in 1935.
At the beginning of the XX Century we have the first burials in the yard around the two main galleries. In 1921 a decision was taken to enlarge the cemetery towards the little river Cinghio’s bed. The last enlargement, strictly linked to the octagon, was carried out in 1931 with the construction of the south-east gallery. This was placed in a triangle formed between the inside of the octagon and the squared enclosure of the arcade. The project was realised by the Eng. Angelo Bay and shows a cross-plan building, with two identical wings and an octagonal tambour on the cross.
The interior shows an eclectic taste, whereas the external, all in plastered masonry, shows some more modern decorations, especially belonging to the late Art Nouveau style.
Nonetheless, the need for new graves was not even met with the construction of the south-east gallery,. In actual fact, new enlargements were carried out in the following years,. the majority of which were was designed to be independent from the monumental octagon: the perametric northern gallery (1934-39), the southern yard, the A section (1962-66), the B section (1967-77), St Joseph (1978), St Peregrine (1979), up to the most recent enlargement project (the construction of the new St. Peregrine (2008).
Therefore, some building was carried out in order to meet the need for new graves. Among these interventions, we find the reconstruction of the north-west triangular area (originally designed to accommodate those who were condemned to death, who committed suicide, executioners with their families) into what is today known as the Cloister of Padre Lino (1947) (photo below). Subsequently, the cemetery started to expand southward, with the construction of columbaria and southern yards (1950-60).
…the one commemorating the partisans…
the grave of the actress Paola Borboni
the one of Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa
and the grave of Niccolò Paganini
At the beginning of the 20th Century we saw the first constructions of monuments for the burial of entire families. This phenomenon soon turned the grassy lawns into diversely and densely built-up areas. The period between 1925 and 1940 saw the greatest fervour in building new graves: this is clearly evident by observing the chapel’s style. It is also possible that the granting of new land to private citizens had supported the northern enlargement, which occurred more or less in the same years……
I know someone could call me weird, but I’ve always find it extremely peaceful and relaxing walking through a cemetery, especially the monumental ones. I visited cemeteries all around Europe, so different and so alike at the same time….after all as someone once said it’s the livings we should be afraid of, not the dead ones…..