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Typology: Tombs

A sealed volume, the tomb has no interior – or if it does, you really don’t want to go there. The exterior, by contrast, is a screen onto which we project our hopes and fears about the other side of life

Throughout its history the tomb has oscillated between ornament and aniconicity: from the mute geometric solids of the pyramids to the mawkish riot of 19th-century cemeteries. As with all formal changes over time, the question arises whether these movements were motivated by forces within or beyond architecture, some hidden motor of style or changing social attitudes towards death. Perhaps it was just fashion, a combination of fatigue and one-upmanship; more likely it was some amalgam of all of these factors.

The earliest tombs were hidden beneath earthworks, a landscape reshaped by the departure of a ruler whose death has caused seismic changes to the place bound up with his body. These are naturalised monuments, camouflaged to the point of invisibility, but they conceal a buried underworld. In the north, this might be a megalithic chamber, or later an entire Viking ship, where the mobile war machine, source of the ruler’s wealth, becomes the vessel eternally rowing him or her towards Valhalla; in China, the tomb of the first Qin Emperor is a vast subterranean palace, only part of which has been excavated to reveal the terracotta army.

Boullée’s 1784

Tombs fluctuate between abstraction and representation. At one extreme, Boullée’s 1784 design for a cenotaph for Isaac Newton (left) is a vast orb that inverts night and day (after dark a huge lamp illuminates the interior, and the dome is pierced with holes that replicate the night sky during the day). At the other extreme, the ‘transi’ tombs of the preceding era visualised death in vivid detail.


Johann Fischer von Erlach, Reconstruction of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, 1721

Johann Fischer von Erlach, Reconstruction of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (c 350 BC), 1721. Source: Ribapix.

Not all tombs are so grandiose, but the monuments of ordinary people tend to be cheaper and hence less durable. With the rise of Greek democracy in the fifth century, however, funerary practices became more modest in general. Commemorative stelae clustered beyond the city limits, many showing touching sculpted farewells where the departed shake hands with family members one last time, forever. Tomb inflation returned in the Hellenistic period, culminating in the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. This eye-popping icon piled a pyramid on top of a temple, a seemingly impossible suspension of mass in space speaking of triumph over the forces of nature (it was the memorial, fittingly, of an incestuous union).

The name, if not the form, was adopted by the Roman emperors, for instance Hadrian, whose colossal mausoleum survives as the Castel Sant’Angelo. The eternal city was reoriented around these monuments: Hadrian also built a bridge crossing the Tiber to his tomb. Meanwhile the merely rich had to make do with crowding the roads approaching the capital with a variety of tomb-forms – cylinders, temples, pyramids and combinations of the above – each crying out Siste Viator (‘Stop, Traveller’) in an attempt to draw the attention of passers-by and hence reanimate the interred, at least in the mind.

Palladio, Mausoleum of Theodoric, Ravenna, c.1540 (constructed 520 AD)

Palladio, Mausoleum of Theodoric, Ravenna (AD 520), c 1540. Source: Ribapix.


Edwin Smith, Tomb of John Fitzalan (1430s) in Arundel, 1965

Edwin Smith, Tomb of John Fitzalan in Arundel (1430s), 1965. Source: Ribapix.

For the early Christians, whose banned faith emerged from an empty tomb, discretion was of the essence. Following Jewish precedent, and in view of the doctrine of bodily resurrection, the pagan practice of cremation was now forbidden. However, Classical forms survived and flourished as the religion drew powerful adherents, for instance in the Mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna – a stern two-storey rotunda capped with a saucer dome carved from a single 200-ton slab. Besides rulers, martyrs were also accorded great tombs, since their bodies were a source of spiritual power – an idea quite foreign to pagans, who viewed the corpse as a corrupting object. This tradition culminated in the cathedrals, which are the tombs of the saints they enshrine. Meanwhile, for private individuals the mausoleum fell from use, as medieval piety prioritised humility over visibility and grave markers shrank to mere slabs. These crowded around or inside churches, status dictating proximity to the altar and its relics.

From the 12th century onwards, the rebirth of the individual, of the artist and of antiquity led to the return of the tomb as an object of craft and as a memorial to an individual life. The most vivid manifestation of this was the invention of the portrait effigy, in which eternal life was visibly manufactured to surmount the decaying body. This duality is occasionally visualised in double-decker tombs with carved skeletons on the lower level; later transi tombs focused on the image of the decaying corpse. The tomb canopy, meanwhile, created a type of diminutive architecture where the imagination of the designer could run riot. In family chapels attached to churches, this was expanded to full-scale interiors of great luxury and perfection; for figures like Alberti or Michelangelo, this was an opportunity to develop ideas that would have a powerful influence on later architecture. However exuberant, these projects were still subordinate to the church, but in some cases churches themselves became princely memorials – and the tradition of the freestanding mausoleum flourished elsewhere, culminating in the grandest of all tombs, the Taj Mahal.

Carlo Scarpa, Brion Tomb, 1970-72, San Vito d'Altivole

Carlo Scarpa, Brion Tomb, San Vito d’Altivole, 1970-72. Source: Ribapix.

In our era of mass democracies such expressions seem somewhat unpalatable, to the extent that the world’s most powerful leaders, the presidents of the USA, choose to disguise their monuments as memorial libraries, and explicit mausoleum building is left to other people’s despots (some of these are impressive structures – Lenin’s, for instance). In the West, tomb building on the grand scale is reserved for war memorials, among the best of which are those designed by Lutyens. More modest yet interesting tombs continued to be built for the rich – as in the case of Louis Sullivan’s eldritch mausolea, Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery, or Aldo Rossi’s Molteni tomb – and for cultural heroes, such as Jacob Epstein and Charles Holden’s notoriously detailed angel for Oscar Wilde. But the era of Victorian kitsch has passed, and most of us will end up under a simple inscribed slab. This laconic attitude towards the formal language of death is taken to a wry extreme in the memorial of artist Patrick Caulfield in London’s Highgate Cemetery: his tombstone simply says DEAD.

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