Funeral monument to Isabella Airoldi who died in childbirth in 1889 at the age of 24. The theme of the sculpture is ‘Dream of Death’, showing Isabella sleeping

March 15, 2024

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(Enrico Butti. Monumental Cemetery of Milan, Edicola Casati, 1890. Photo by the author)

By Paola Redemagni

Walking through the avenues of the Monumentale in Milan in these autumn days of an unusually warm October, with the leaves starting to change color and having just started to fall, coloring the gravel of the avenue, one cannot fail to notice the tomb of the beautiful Isabella Airoldi Casati, created by the sculptor Enrico Butti in 1890 (Part V, sp. 86).

In real life love is eternal while it lasts. But it is art that eternalizes love, even better if it is an unfortunate love.

Isabella Airoldi Casati was young and beautiful. She, the beloved wife of Baron Gianluigi Casati, died at just 24 years old in 1889. The girl is represented on her deathbed, her frail bust supported by pillows, her arms abandoned on the bed, while she slips into her final sleep. Behind her, a bronze tondo worked in bas-relief shows a host of angels coming down to take her to accompany her to Heaven.

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The inauguration of the Casati newsstand in a period photo. Civic Museums of Viggiuta.

I don’t know with what words Baron Casati greeted his partner for the last time, but in the collective imagination of the time the girls are all angelic figures: candid brides, examples of virtue and resignation, models of virtuous damsels, delight of relatives , beautiful in appearance and with a kind soul.

The symbolism of the scene contrasts with the accentuated realism of the figure. The facial features are those of the baroness while the female figure is created taking Virginia Sevesi, the sculptor’s favorite model and later companion of the artist, as a model.

The aedicule takes the name Dream of Death and has illustrious precedents, since it is based on the tomb of Countess Zamoyska (1843) created by Lorenzo Bartolini in the church of S. Croce in Florence.

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Lorenzo Bartolini – Tomb of Countess Zamoyska, church of S. Croce, Florence (1843) 

Despite the high artistic quality and the antecedents, when the original plaster was presented at the Brera Exhibition of 1891 it caused a scandal: the presence of the nude was contested, even if it was devoid of any sensuality; the frailty of the figure is criticized, accusing the sculptor of not knowing anatomy; he doesn’t like the union of realism and symbolism. Despite the criticism, the work won the Principe Umberto prize for sculpture.

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Enrico Butti, original plaster for the figure of Isabella Airoldi Casati. 1890. Viggiuta Civic Museums, Enrico Butti plaster cast gallery.

The beautiful original plaster can today be admired at the Gipsoteca in Viggiù, Enrico Butti’s birthplace, together with his other works, while the Casati aedicule constitutes one of the most significant monuments of the Monumental Cemetery of Milan. Today it belongs to the Ambrosian section of Italia Nostra which has designated it to host women who have particularly distinguished themselves in the defense of the environment. Hosting Laura Conti: doctor, partisan, writer, essayist, parliamentarian, among the founders of the League for the Environment, key figure of the Italian environmental movement. Her main commitment was to spread awareness about major environmental problems, in particular after the accident caused by Icmesa in Seveso (MI), and to affirm the need for urgent political action to resolve them.