Tag Archives: Protestant Cemetery

What cemeteries have you visited on vacation?

Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague

I’m the sort of person who arranges her vacations around cemeteries I haven’t visited yet.  Do you also go out of your way to see a new graveyard?

I tried to limit this poll to the most likely tourist destination — one per country — in the European Union.  Another poll will follow that explores graveyards farther afield.

Please feel free to vote for more than one in the following list.  Add any that you’d recommend in the comments.

This poll doesn’t record your identity, so no worries there.  I will not spam you, either.  I’m just curious to see how widely traveled readers of this blog are.

Beautiful if Muddled Collection of Cemetery Photos

Beautiful Death: The Art of the Cemetery (Penguin Studio Books)Beautiful Death: The Art of the Cemetery by David Robinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This odd book is put together backwards. Rather than open with Robinson’s explanation of what he was doing taking these photographs (and his rambling explanation of why the book is called “Beautiful Death”), the book begins with an essay by Dean Koontz. Koontz seems to have glanced over the photos before he began to write, but the subject of his text — the loss of his long-suffering mother and the final, blessed end to his abusive father — bears no connection with the pictures of sentimental European grave markers.

In a way, Beautiful Death is a book in three pieces. First, Koontz puts forth a theory that cemeteries are much less frightening than living people. He refutes the title of the book by describing the Death that took his mother as having “a heart of maggots.” He disputes our hope that the monuments we erect in graveyards will immortalize our loved ones, admitting that the truest memorial is the love we feel in our hearts, which vanishes with our own passing. Even markers of stone will be wiped away by an ice age or flood. Monuments in words are as fragile as the paper which holds them. Nothing survives this world, Koontz says, so he hopes for reunion in the afterlife.

It’s an excellent essay, obviously deeply felt, but its relevance to the book it introduces is not easy to fathom. Beautiful Death’s argument is disproved before it can be made.

The largest section displays the photographs. Robinson does some wonderful work playing two-dimensional stained glass against three-dimensional sculpture, creating powerful hyperreal beauty. He has a fascination for hands that reach out of graves to clutch their mates or silken flowers. It’s never made clear whether he brings his own props or simply documents offerings where he finds them.

The photos I like the best are the more artistic views: the vivid light from a stained glass window brightening a cold gray stone, or the cemetery beyond reflected in the glass of the memorial niche. Too many of the pictures (for my own taste) are strictly documentary. Anyone could have taken them. In fact, I have taken a number of them. Without commentary by the photographer, I can only place the photos in my own experience. I would rather know what he thinks.

Another drawback for someone who collects images of graveyards is that several of the photographs also appear in Robinson’s book Saving Graces. If you claim to have taken 10,000 photographs — and you’re only able to publish a limited number of them — why repeat yourself?

The final third of the book is Robinson’s meditation on his work. He felt drawn to cemeteries in order to explore the sentiments there displayed. He sees them as expressions of hope — for reunion, for immortality. Only after he discovered a deathbed photo on a grave in Rome did he realize that all the memorial pictures he had seen so far were of living people. “In the cemeteries,” he says, “death was much talked about but seldom seen.”

Robinson’s own parents were, by their own choice, cremated. He never collected their ashes. He has created this book to be their monument. It is a grand sentiment, worthy of Pere Lachaise.

Despite the problems with the book (which I admit I have because it’s not the cemetery book that I would put together), it is truly beautiful and a worthy addition to the collection of mortuary art.

This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #1.

Copies are still available on Amazon: Beautiful Death: The Art of the Cemetery (Penguin Studio Books)

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A lovely old guide to the Protestant Cemetery

The Protestant Cemetery in Rome: A Guide for VisitorsThe Protestant Cemetery in Rome: A Guide for Visitors by Johan Beck-Friis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this wonderful little book on eBay, so I have no idea how easy it might be to come by. All I know is that this morning, as I write this, neither Amazon or Goodreads has a listing for it.

The book contains several black-and-white reproductions of paintings of the Cestius pyramid at the edge of the graveyard. I enjoyed comparing my memories of it to the empty pastoral landscapes in the paintings.

The book also includes crisp photographs of the more recent gravestones. I especially like the photo of Keats’s grave, taken when the trees were bare to counteract the shadows that fall over the Parte Antica. There aren’t as many photos as I’d like, of course, and the black-and-white doesn’t do justice to the lush green grass or the huge chrysanthemums lying on Shelley’s stone, but it’s still a lovely book anyway.

The text summarizes the cemetery’s history and highlights some of its noteworthy denizens. Brief essays discuss Keats’ burial and Shelley’s funeral. Toward the back of the book, a fold-out map is keyed to an alphabetical list of permanent residents.

This guidebook is a find and well worth seeking out. I bought my copy on ebay, but you may occasionally find one on Amazon: The Protestant Cemetery in Rome: The cemetery of artists and poets

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An Antipasto of Italian Graveyards

Permanent Italians: An Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of Italy (The Permanent Series)Permanent Italians: An Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of Italy by Judi Culbertson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another of Culbertson and Randall’s cemetery guides, Permanent Italians spans Rome, Florence, and Venice, with quick trips to Naples, Padua, and beyond. For English-speaking travelers, this is your introduction to several millennia of grave monuments in Italy.

Permanent Italians gave me a greater understanding of the history encapsulated by the Tomb of Augustus and encouraged me to visit the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which is full of amazing skeletal memento mori artwork. In fact, the book is wonderful for adding things to your itinerary as you travel.

That said, however, Permanent Italians, because of its brevity, sometimes lacks depth. The Protestant Cemetery of Rome gets a scant 14 pages, when a whole book would do. Milan’s Cimitero Monumental (where the authors say, “You could shout for joy at the beauty of the sculpture around you”) only rates 11 pages. My advice is to take Permanent Italians with you as you travel, but plan to consult deeper resources when you return.

Finally, like all cemetery guides pre-GPS, the directions inside graveyards can be confusing. I relied on Permanent Italians’ suggestion to follow the signs to Ezra Pound’s grave, but even though the Reparto Evangelico of Venice’s San Michele Cemetery isn’t large, I couldn’t find him anywhere. A photo of the headstone would have helped. That’s my major complaint about this book: its photos only hint at the artwork jamming Italian cemeteries. It focuses on famous people, while slighting the beauty of the monuments of total strangers. (So I suppose my criticism is that this is not the guidebook I would have written. I agree: this is not entirely fair.)

Permanent Italians is wonderful for what it is: an appetizer. I think of visiting the cemeteries as the main course, but you may want to add some dessert afterward.
The Amazon link: Permanent Italians: An Illustrated, Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of Italy

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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