Modena Cemetery by Aldo Rossi: The Incomplete City of the Spirit

Modena Cemetery

You can call it Modena's Sagrada Familia. It's San Cataldo Cemetery, designed by architects Aldo Rossi and Gianni Braghieri in the 1970s, that after decades from its birth, is still incomplete.

But despite that, this abandoned city is still a masterpiece you need to visit.

The blue of the sky: a new cemetery for Modena

In 1971 the Municipality of Modena publishes a call for proposals for the extension of the San Cataldo cemetery.

Cesare Costa had designed the previous neoclassical cemetery between 1860 and 1875. The new project will rise next to it, in agricultural land.

50 designers take part in the competition to build the cemetery.
The winning project is "The blue of the sky", by architects Aldo Rossi and Gianni Braghieri.

The city of the dead: the project by Rossi and Braghieri

The idea of this project was that the things, the objects, the constructions of the dead are no different from those of the living - Aldo Rossi

The architects' idea is to create a real city of the dead.

Both the dimensions and compositional elements are traditional and recall the neoclassical cemetery of Costa.

The innovation is in the internal parts: they are inspired by the Emilian cities, like the porticoes of Bologna, the squares and the architecture of the shadows.

The city of the dead is a mix of elementary geometric shapes. Cubes, triangles and circles, like inside a De Chirico painting.

But it has also the shape of a labyrinth and a game of the goose, with the central part as the endpoint of the tour.

The prevailing color inside the structures is the gray of the plaster. In the outside instead, the use of colour is much more evident, as it highlights the different roles of the buildings.

Modena Cemetery Moma drawing Aldo Rossi

Aerial perspective drawing of Cemetery of San Cataldo, Modena by Aldo Rossi. 1971, courtesy of MoMa

The cube: the house with no windows

One of the most important and most impactful elements of the Modena Cemetery is the cubic block, the first structure encountered when entering.

It is an open-air volume, brick-coloured, perforated with simple square holes with no windows.

In the original project, it had to contain the sacrarium of those fallen in the world wars and in the partisan struggle, but it was later transformed into an ossuary.

Rossi defines it as "the house of the dead, an unfinished and abandoned house".

Like a life broken during its journey, of which only the memory remains.

Modena Cemetery Ghirri

The brick-coloured cube of Modena Cemetery in a photo by Luigi Ghirri - 1985. Courtesy of Archivio Luigi Ghirri

The cone: the church of all religions

From the cube, the central spine of the ossuaries arranged in a triangle generates an optical illusion that captures the viewer and directs him like an arrow.

The destination is the conical tower, the most symbolic element of the Cemetery.

This truncated cone-shaped building has a unique natural light coming from above.
It's a monument to the dispossessed and the common grave that houses the remains of the abandoned dead.

Inside the cone, there's a chapel called the church of all religions. Like a Pantheon without symbols, this is the place to celebrate the deceased regardless of their faith.

The cone represents an open bridge to the spirit, to the divine.

But the bad news is that this bridge is still to build.

Modena Cemetery drawing Aldo Rossi

Aldo Rossi drawing of San Cataldo Cemetery - 1982

The miss: the incomplete city of the spirit

The construction site of the Modena Cemetery began in 1976.
Over time, many construction companies, with the use of different techniques and finishing, have worked on it.

The last works date back to 2011, but at the moment only about 40% of the project has been completed.

It certainly doesn't help that locals of Modena prefer to bury their dead in the provincial cemeteries, which have had to be enlarged.

Aldo Rossi's Cemetery is not just an aesthetic masterpiece born from the vision of an architect.
It is a democratic Cemetery, where all the dead have the same dignity. There are no opulent chapels or funerary monuments, like in Certosa Cemetery in Bologna, celebrating past glories.

A minimal and geometric Sagrada Familia, a city for the spirit waiting to be lived.


Cimitero di San Cataldo
Via San Cataldo, 41123 Modena
Tel. +39 059334103

Sources and references

- La lezione di Aldo Rossi, Bononia University Press 2008
- Aldo Rossi, Autobiografia scientifica, Pratiche Editrice, Milano 1999
- Fondazione Aldo Rossi
- Interview with architects Gianni Braghieri and Rossella Cadignani

Cover photo: Elena Margherita Colli

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