The Bernocchi family monument in Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale stands out both because of the height of its spire and the figures that adore it. The work of the architect Alessandro Milani and the sculptor Giannino Castiglioni, the structure was built in stages between 1931 and 1936 to serve as the tomb of Antonio Bernocchi (Castellanza, 17 January 1859 – Milan 8 December 1930), a textile entrepreneur who had since his death lain in a rather more modest tomb.
In accordance with the wishes of the profoundly religious Antonio Bernocchi, the sculptural decoration of the tomb is a Via Crucis rising in a spiral = an iconography that was traditional among the Franciscans and in some ways echos the Tower of Babel. Drawing an analogy between the Old and New Testament stories, both clearly have a parallel tragic meaning: the Via Crucis recounts the death of Christ at the hands of men who “know not what they do”, while the Tower of Babel story tells of God’s curse upon men who had dared to defy him and to match their human pride against divine grandeur.
In a less obvious sense, this tomb also reflects the Scala Coeli (Ladder of Heaven) in that it portraits the progression from an unsanctified state (represented by the figure of a man prostrate beneath the weight of the entire sculptural ensemble) to the state of initiation in which the individual finally casts casts off the old vestments of his profane existence (represented at the top by the winged horseman preventing the man on the ground from proceeding any further. Ending abruptly, the spiral also creates the impression that it continues invisibly up into the sky, thus further exemplifying the purpose of the monument as a whole: a place of burial for mortal remains, this is surmounted by a spiral of eternal souls in search of spiritual resurrection, having followed the Way of the Cross through the moral afflictions that we all must face here on Earth.
Just like the Tower of Babel, the Via Crucis embodies the stages of spiritual initiation for humanity, which has one sole hope: ascension to the Heavenly Jerusalem. There the angels of the Celestial City will welcome all such as Antonio Bernocchi, who will be judged to have been true and faithful to both Man and God.
If you are ever in Milan, it is really worth a visit to Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale to see this extraordinary family monument – it is a sculptural marvel and something of unique beauty.
(Adapted from Secret Milan by Massimo Polidoro, published by JonGlez)