From Earth, From Heaven
When I first visited Staglieno cemetery in 2009, I was overwhelmed after just a few steps by the remarkable statues erected over every tomb. My walk through the galleries, some bathed in sunlight, others shrouded in darkness, was an unforgettable experience.
Surrounded by beautiful and terrible figures, the only sound was the marble moving under the weight of my feet. It reminded me that I wasn't only admiring sculptures created in memory of people who died many years ago, but also standing over their remains.
After no more than a dozen or so metres I wanted to leave. Only then did I remember my camera and the photographs I intended to take, my original reason for being there. But I wasn't prepared for all those faces looking at me, expressing pain, hope, prayer, desperation, resignation, peace…
Rather than retracing my steps, I pointed my camera at a statue of a young woman with her face raised skywards. The grey marble was covered by decades of dust and dirt, in which raindrops falling year after year had formed streaks on her neck, revealing the whiteness of the marble beneath in what seemed like tears, and accentuating a form of pain that the statue elevated to the sky through her gaze. I took my photograph and moved on to the next statue: a young girl and a blind man in front of the tomb of a famous benefactor of orphanages and an institute for the blind. I continued to take photographs, realising that my fear abated as I framed each one, making way for the pleasure of immortalising those beautiful figures.
The hours passed. Every so often in those long corridors and galleries, I met this or that elderly lady, busy tidying a relative's grave. Only rarely did we make eye contact. Some of them, on seeing me taking photographs, came up to me curiously, happy to see that someone was still interested in the beauty of the place, and showed me new sections to discover and statues to admire. My meetings with these people were permeated with profound emotions. My generation rarely demonstrates the devotion to the dead that was perfectly natural for the generation of my parents and grand parents, who cultivated it as an important part of their lives. These women saw that I wasn't just another of the many visitors to the cemetery, because tourists never venture into the darkest and remotest galleries, and so they pointed out other tombstones to me. They were able to tell me the stories of the people who were laid to rest next to their loved ones, as though they had become part of the family, and took care of and placed flowers on their nearby tombs.
I returned to Staglieno several times, taking hundreds of photographs and deciding to concentrate my efforts on the old monumental part of the cemetery, which has almost three hundred chapels and more than four hundred niches (the entire cemetery covers more than 330,000 square metres and more than two million people are buried there).
It took me more than a year to decide on which images to use. And while it was my intention to put together a fairly small portfolio, I nevertheless wanted it to represent one of the aspects that struck me most about this place: its size and the number of statues it contains.
I spent so much time near these sculptures, studying their faces and the epigraphs that accompany them, that only presenting a small selection seemed to me to betray the memory that binds me to them with deep affection. But an important part of our passion for photography is the selection that is an integral part of every project: distilling the essence to better present the content and make its discovery more pleasurable.
This experience hasn't given me just a huge collection of images, but more importantly it has helped discover the power of the drive to do what we love, a force that pushes us to overcome fears, to shine a light on parts of us about which we were unaware and — through our art — to understand the art expressed in works created by other people who may have lived many decades before us, some forgotten by most, but of whom we have the power and the privilege to make their memory live again.
These are twelve pictures from project From Earth, From Heaven.