Amid Italy's art gems, artists' tombs inspire, too

Published on NewsOK Modified: June 10, 2014 at 10:43 am •  Published: June 10, 2014
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ROME (AP) — For the painters, musicians, sculptors and writers who have inspired this art-loving country for centuries, their works are the truest memorials, whether concertos of Antonio Vivaldi still regularly performed in the Venice church where he served as violin master or Michelangelo's masterpieces that pack crowds daily into the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.

As Leonardo da Vinci once said, "A work of art dies not."

Still, artists do die — and what may surprise a visitor to Italy is how accessible, and how moving and beautiful, are the tombs and other formal memorials to artists that Italians dutifully and sometimes touchingly maintain.

Some of these we sought out during a recent visit, but others my wife Lucy and I virtually stumbled upon — such as the spot in a chapel of Venice's Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari where the composer Claudio Monteverdi rests under a marble marker on which some music lover had laid a long-stemmed white rose. In the Pantheon in Rome, similarly, an admirer had left a fresh laurel wreath at the gleaming tomb of Raphael, Michelangelo's rival.

A comprehensive list of such memorials would require an encyclopedia. Instead, here's a glance at sites in Florence, Venice and Rome.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring expression of Italians' reverence for their departed artists is Florence's cavernous Basilica of Santa Croce. As in London's Westminster Abbey, legends of the art world share space here with statesmen and other notables.

So, for instance, Santa Croce honors Galileo, sculpted grasping his telescope. His remains were grandly re-entombed here after being kept elsewhere for nearly a century following his death, because his astronomy was deemed unbiblical.

Along another wall, Niccolo Machiavelli, the political theorist and writer, is buried. At composer Gioachino Rossini's handsome sarcophagus, his overture to "William Tell" (or the "Lone Ranger" theme) inevitably plays in a visitor's head.

Those conjurings change to mental images of hell and purgatory nearby, where the epic poet Dante Alighieri peers sternly at passing visitors. This, however, is a memorial, not his tomb, which is in the city of Ravenna.

Facing it stands the ultimate artist's resting place.

It's a near-riot of marble panels, vivid paintings and sculptures with downcast expressions, all of it rising to a pinnacle far up the stone wall. Completing the tribute are a bust and a tablet identifying the deceased: Michelangelo Buonarroti.

"Did he create that himself?" asks someone crowding in for a look.

The answer takes you to a museum attached to Florence's great Duomo cathedral: It houses the sculpture that Michelangelo actually planned for his tomb, a somber depiction of Christ being lowered from the cross.

The story is that the sculptor, then in his 80s, became displeased with it and, in frustration, smashed part of it with his hammer before abandoning the work. The fragments were gathered and later reattached, and today you can clearly see the cracks. (Several artists collaborated on Michelangelo's elaborate Santa Croce tomb.)