This is the second of two posts on the extraordinary cemetery where John Keats is buried. Look here for the first.
The English poet John Keats, age 25, died in Rome in February 1821. In April of that year, another English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley—far more acclaimed at the time than Keats, and of course far more notorious—learned that Keats was dead. Shelley threw himself into writing for him one of the great elegies in the language, Adonais. In the preface, he mentioned that Keats now lay . . .
. . . in the romantic and lonely cemetery of the Protestants in that city, under the pyramid which is the tomb of Cestius, and the massy walls and towers, now mouldering and desolate, which formed the circuit of ancient Rome. The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.
Shelley would know. Two years earlier, he and his wife, Mary—recent author of Frankenstein—had buried their infant son here. Then Shelley himself, just a year after Keats’s death, drowned off the Tuscan coast near Viareggio. On the beach, Shelley’s friends—Lord Byron among them—made a bonfire of Shelley’s remains. They sent his heart back to Mary in England, but interred his ashes in the Protestant Cemetery—here, in what he called “so sweet a place.”
This is what I came to Rome to see. I’d been here once before, and it seemed to me then the sweetest place in the world. It still does.
Others have felt much the same, particularly people in the arts and sciences for whom Rome has always been irresistible. Since Keats’s and Shelley’s day, when the cemetery was sparsely occupied, some four thousand people—a quarter of them American—have been buried here. Wander among the graves and you will find inscriptions in fifteen languages. Serbian painters and Finnish sculptors, Russian aristocrats who fled the Revolution, Italian doctors and German bankers, Scottish writers, Goethe’s son, Mendelsohn’s uncle, countless people from countless places—every one, it seems, with a story—who found their way here, as if they had heard there was a cocktail party that was not to be missed.
The Pyramid of Caius Cestius—an otherwise forgettable Roman magistrate–still towers beside it. One hundred eighteen feet tall, gray and monolithic; an oddity. I wonder if, when he ordered this everlasting monument to himself, he imagined it would someday lend its name to the nearby Pyramide Metro station. The length of Aurelian wall that Shelley described is also here; it runs along the back of the cemetery. The rest is now walled-in, too, with an unmarked, salmon-colored wall behind which, looking at it from the outside, you might think they stored junked autos, the way they do across the street from here. The neighborhood is charmless and gritty; the traffic rumbles.
But pass through the gates, and here is “so sweet a place.” The ground gently rises, terraced with innumerable graves and monuments and crypts and temples, close upon one another, no two alike, adorned with carved angels and images of the deceased and crosses of differing shapes and styles and busts and plaques and inscriptions cut into the stone that remind you that the dead who are gathered here were not just creative or accomplished—they were loved. They lived; they live. It is a lush world they inhabit. A riot of birdsong. Two sweet-tempered gardeners tend the roses and camelias, the boxwoods, the orange trees. You’ll find those violets and daisies still growing.
As I mentioned last week, time and time again in Rome, you step off a busy street into a sacred space. But the grander spaces—the ruined temples, the stunning churches—often strike me not so much as monuments to God or to the gods as to the people who commissioned them—their wealth, their place. Big projects. But in the cemetery the scale is more humble, the connection is intimate, the purpose is not to instill awe, but rather to comfort. To create joy. When you stare skyward, you do not see a dome, you see the sky. You see the spreading crowns of lofty Roman pines, the tall deep-green cypress trees, the startling, semi-tropical palms that remind you that you’re not up north anymore. As Keats wrote, O, for a beaker full of the warm South. This is where the pale and bitter chill—the English poets, the Swedish painters—came for warmth and sun, and where some of them stayed forever. Once, they would have visited one another at their studios on Via Margutta, or gossiped at the Caffé Greco on Via dei Condotti. Over time–one at a time–they congregated here.
Maybe that’s the heart of it. The Non-Catholic Cemetery was never a “project.” No one planned this fraternity of extraordinary souls. The cemetery started out, in a kind of ad hoc way, as a place to bury those who could not be buried in Rome’s sanctified ground. A tiny collection of fugitive graves. Then it grew—and still grows—grave by grave, like coral. Someone new was interred. Someone added a stone with a seraph, a tomb with the bust of her father, someone else built a little temple or planted his wife’s favorite roses. The Roman sun shines on all of them; the clouds roll over; the years anneal them.
I spent 10 days in Rome this past spring and I visited the Non-Catholic Cemetery nearly every day. I got to know some of the people who keep it going. The paid staff is very small—a half-dozen or so. Twenty or twenty-five volunteers help out. They run the little gift shop, work on the website, help compile the data bases of those who are buried here. This is the kind of place to which certain people will devote themselves. I know the impulse, and I admire them and am grateful to them.
Five years ago, the cemetery was added to the World Monument Fund’s 2006 Watch List of the 100 most endangered sites on earth. It has no steady or predictable source of funds. Half the graves no longer have someone to pay for their maintenance. I made a contribution. I felt very humble, and wished I were wealthy.