Cemetery of the Week #8: The Protestant Cemetery of Rome

Shelley’s gravestone

Il Cimitero Acattolico di Roma
called the Protestant Cemetery of Rome
Via Caio Cestio, 6
00153 Rome, Italy
Telephone + 39 06 574 1900
Email: mail@cemeteryrome.it
Established: 1738
Size: 5 acres
Number of Interments: 2500 – 4000 graves
Open: Monday-Saturday: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Last entrance is at 4:30.) Sundays and holidays: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (Last entrance is at 12:30.)

Prior to 1738, the Vatican forbade burial of unbelievers and foreigners inside Rome’s city limits. Bodies of Protestants either had to be transported to Leghorn, 160 miles away, or buried with the prostitutes below the Pincian Hill. That changed only after a British ship captured one of Napoleon’s vessels and returned its cargo of looted treasures to the Vatican. In gratitude, the pope set aside a field beside the old pyramid for the burial of non-Catholic foreigners.

Until 1870, a Vatican commission reviewed every monument proposed for Il Cimitero Acattolico di Roma. Since they believed there could be no salvation outside the Mother Church, they forbade the epitaph “Rest in Peace.” In addition, according to Permanent Italians, crosses could not adorn gravestones. The limitations led to a beautiful graveyard like no other.

It’s easy to find John Keats’s grave beneath the elderly shade trees in the parte antica, the old section of the graveyard. Keats came to Rome in September 1820, already suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him five months later. As he lay dying, Keats sent his friend Joseph Severn to visit the graveyard. Severn wrote later, “On being told about the anemones, violets, and daisies, the poet whispered that he could already feel ‘the daisies growing over me.’” (I wonder if this is where we get our euphemism “pushing up daisies.”)

Twenty-five-year-old Keats published the poems for which we know him over a period of four years. He felt he was dying without leaving a mark on the world, so the epitaph he chose for himself claimed, “Here lies One whose Name was Writ in Water.” A lute with missing strings illustrated his tombstone.

Keats’s name doesn’t appear on his own monument, but is carved into Joseph Severn’s beside him. Severn, Permanent Italians says, was an undistinguished painter, but a terrific schmoozer. An artist’s palette, down-turned brushes thrust through its thumbhole, decorates his gravestone. Severn called himself “devoted friend and deathbed companion of John Keats who he lived to see numbered among the immortal poets of England.”

Keats’s grave brought distinction to the burial ground. It isn’t too much to claim that Keats made the Protestant Cemetery the exquisite place it is today.

Signs point up to Shelley’s grave at the back of the graveyard. At the foot of the crumbling brown wall, his ashes lie far from Mary and separate from their son William, whom they’d buried in the old section. Shelley’s Latin epitaph translates to “Heart of Hearts.” His heart was all that remained of him, unconsumed by the flames, but it doesn’t lie here.

In July 1822, Percy Shelley disappeared off the Italian coast while sailing the Don Juan — named for Byron’s poem. Two weeks later, Shelley’s body washed up on a beach near Viareggio. Despite the flesh of his face having been eaten by fishes, Edward Trelawny, another literary adventurer, identified the corpse because Shelley had books by Aeschylus and Keats in his pockets.

Per Italian law, anything that washed ashore had to be buried immediately, as a precaution against the plague. A month later, Trelawny, Byron, and Leigh Hunt exhumed Shelley’s body. An errant mattock blow cracked open his skull. Byron wanted to keep the skull as a memento, but the other poets forbade it.

They doused the body with wine and set it afire. The corpse split open in the blaze and Trelawny snatched out the unburned heart, which he later presented to Mary. When she died in 1851, the shriveled heart was found in her writing desk, wrapped in a copy of Shelley’s poem “Adonais.” Mary wanted to be buried in Rome with Shelley, but her parents wouldn’t allow it. Instead, she lies in St. Peter’s Churchyard in Bournemouth. Shelley’s heart was buried with her.

Near Shelley’s grave knelt an angel you might recognize: the original “Angel of Grief Weeping over the Altar of Life.” Sculptor William Wetmore Story’s last work was made to mark the grave of his wife Emelyn in 1895. When Story died later that same year, he joined her there. Their son Joseph, named for his grandfather, was also re-buried there.

The cemetery has a wealth of lovely sculpture. It can be visited any time during its open hours (see website below) for a small donation. Although not necessary, tours in a variety of languages can be booked by contacting the cemetery at mail@cemeteryrome.it.

Useful Links:

The cemetery’s official website.

Aerial photograph of the cemetery.

The cemetery needs help.

Other cemeteries in Rome worth visiting:

Cemetery of the Week #15: the Capuchin Catacomb of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #29: the Pantheon

Cemetery of the Week #32: the Mausoleum of Augustus

Cemetery of the Week #67: the Catacomb of St. Sebastian

Books I’ve reviewed that reference the Protestant Cemetery:

Permanent Italians

The Protestant Cemetery of Rome: A Guide