The Non-Catholic Cemetery

The verdant cemetery beneath the Aurelian Walls

One of the most evocative and moving sites in Rome is its Non-Catholic cemetery. Barely three hundred-years old (a baby in Roman terms) it is still today a place of burial for non-Catholics and non-natives who died whilst living or visiting Rome. When burials first began in 1716 the land in Testaccio was at Rome’s periphery, a pasture land for the Roman people, the extant Aurelian Walls and Porta San Paolo marking the boundary of the city. The expansion of Rome in the nineteenth century saw urbanisation creep right up to the cemetery’s walls, and today, the final stage of this process, gentrification, continues apace, along with the relentless Roman traffic. It makes it all the more tranquil to enter and find this small paradise. One doesn’t leave despondent but uplifted – a rare quality in a graveyard.   

The cemetery is divided into two, the ‘old’ and ‘new’, seperated by a wall with a small entrance. The new slopes towards the Aurelian Walls that surround it, stacked with tombstones and lined by tall cypresses, whilst the old is on a plane with a winding path where there is to be found, as at all Roman sites, a small army of cats (with their own website). Arriving by train at Pyramide, you’ll spot the cemetery easily by the eponymous marble-clad pyramid jutting out from its walls. It is the extraordinarily well-preserved tomb of Roman nobleman Gaius Cestius, a first-century BC magistrate and religious official. No, nobody else had heard of him either: Having visited the spot, Thomas Hardy pondered ‘Who, then, is Cestius? / And what is he to me?’; he concluded he was merely a man ‘who died and was interred / to leave a pyramid’. Hardy saw Cestius’ greater posthumous contribution…

In beckoning pilgrim feet
With marble finger high
To where, by shadowy wall and history-haunted street
Those matchless singers lie…

The entrance to the cemetery on Via Caio Cestio

Those matchless singers, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, continue to beckon thousands of pilgrim feet to the cemetery today, and it is fitting that this spot which has constantly lured artists and painters and poets and writers is the final resting place of two giants of English poetry. Many other artists are buried here, and the cemetery has been a perpetual source of artistic inspiration in literature and the visual arts; Oscar Wilde composed two sonnets for Keats and Shelley after visiting, and Shelley himself wrote Adonais in memory of Keats whose tuberculosis killed him in Rome in February 1821. In his preface to the poem, Shelley gives us an image of the cemetery at this time:

John Keats, died at Rome of a consumption, in his twenty-fourth year…and was buried 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.[1]

The reference to Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale in the final sentence, and the image Shelley constructs of a poet residing in this secluded spot on the outskirts of Rome, contributed significantly to the idea of Keats as the romantic outcast and misunderstood artist. More damagingly for Keats’ reputation, Shelley’s remarks also gave birth to the mistaken but long-held and widely disseminated belief that Keats had been so stung by the critical hostility to his poems that it had killed him (hence Byron’s mock incredulity in Don Juan that such a mind had been ‘snuffed out by an article’).

In fact Keats was slowly dying from a disease that already killed his brother and his mother (and would go on to claim another brother, George, and his wife), which he faced with bravery and stoicism. Tuberculosis, or consumption as it was then known, was not well understood as a respiratory disease, and one of the misguided notions about it was that it was bought on and exacerbated by a weak constitution. The sensitivity and flights of fancy that Keats employed in his poetry did little to dispel the notion that he simply didn’t have the fortitude or the spirit to overcome his illness. Modernity looks on from a far more enlightened position, with the horror for us, when we look at the brutal ease with which this malady could claim so many members of the same family, being the stark realisation that we are being given ‘an insight into the fearful realities of a world without antibiotics’.[2] 

The Pyramid of Cestius seen from the entrance to the old cemetery

Leaving England for Italy and its warmer climate to treat his condition, Keats knew that he would never see his fiancé Fanny Brawne nor his friends nor his homeland again. This agony was compounded by the bitter knowledge that he was not only dying but dying a very young man – and crucially, one whose poetry he feared would not be remembered with admiration. Conservative criticism of Keats’ work had at its centre a snobbery that this cockney upstart had the audacity to claim to be a poet. And it is true that there is no difficulty in finding ways to criticise Keats’ poetry for its self-conscious pleasure in embarking upon flights of fancy. One can’t help but admire, though, the spirit of a man who rejected easy consolation and understood that

Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous
tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among Her cloudy trophies hung [3]

In 1819 aged just 23 Keats composed his great odes, ensuring his legacy. These should have been the poems of his formative years but instead they have proved to be his poetical apogee. Keats left England in the autumn of 1820; after an uncomfortable 31-day journey he arrived in Naples on his twenty-fifth birthday, before leaving for Rome and lodgings at Piazza di Spanga in the English ‘quarter’ (now the Keats-Shelley Memorial House). His health declined quickly in January and at the start of the following month he made arrangements for his burial. He sent his companion Joseph Severn to see the cemetery: ‘When Severn came back, and told him there were sheep and goats grazing among the graves, and early violets and daises growing prolifically, he was satisfied’.[4] As the sun set over Rome on the 23 February Keats ‘clutched at Severn, imploring him ‘Lift me up – I am dying – I shall die easy – don’t be frightened – thank God it has come’’. A little while later, drifting in and out of sleep, Severn awoke suddenly and saw that Keats, lying peacefully as if sleeping, was gone.  


The relief on Keats’ headstone was at his request a broken lyre, along with a phrase taken from a Greek proverb: ‘Here lies one whose name is writ in water’. Often taken as an indication of Keats’ acknowledgement that his name as a poet was destined not be remembered, there is, as Andrew Motion has pointed out, a more hopeful meaning to be teased out: his name was written in water, not on it. The potency of Keats’ verse had transformed it into nature itself.

Keats’ headstone, with Joseph Severn’s son Arthur’s behind it.

A friend of Keats, Charles Armitage Brown, composed the now famous epitaph: ‘This grave contains all that was Mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET Who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraved on his Tomb Stone’. Severn would go on to outlive Keats by six decades. After Keats’ death he continued his career as an artist in Rome, and in 1861 became the British Consul to the city in the culminating years of the Risorgimento. Severn is also buried in the cemetery alongside his son (who rests between his father’s and Keats’ graves) with an easel and brushes depicted in relief on his headstone. The words on Severn’s headstone do that which Keats had refused to do on his own: mention the poet by name.  

Keats’ life and poetry provide a synthesis with the spirit of his final resting place, and he is in some sense representative of all the artists buried there.

The cemetery’s other preeminent English poet, and Keats’ eulogist in Adonais, Shelley would also go on to inadvertently add to the idea of the romantic hero’s early death. Sailing the following summer after Keats’ passing from Livorno to Leici, Shelley along with two companions drowned when their boat sank in the Gulf of Spezia. His cremated remains were interred in the cemetery. The current location of Shelley’s grave, at the top of the slope of the new cemetery near the Aurelian Wall, was chosen by his friend Edward John Trelawny – who is interred next to him – after he found Shelley’s original burial location less fitting for the great poet. Shelley’s son William, who had died in 1819, is buried near Keats.

Cor cordium (‘heart of hearts’) and lines from The Tempest on Shelley’s headstone; expelled from Oxford for publishing an anonymous pamphlet on the ‘necessity’ of atheism, Shelley spent the final years of his frenetic life in Italy. He was dead at 29.

Why despite this history is there something attractive about the Non-Catholic cemetery? It is its beauty, its tranquillity, and the luxuriant abundance of its flowers, shrubs and trees, which combine to produce a place both restful and, in its hosting of those who have left great beauty behind them, somehow restless. Keats’ life and poetry provide a synthesis with the spirit of his final resting place, and he is in some sense representative of all the artists buried there. The hallmarks of Keats’ poetry are an ardent love of beauty and intellectual and spiritual freedom that are never far – in fact inseparable – from melancholy. Keats’ burial place in such a cemetery and the words upon his gravestone reflect that unfinished and eternal life-giving force that was his poetry, a force which dwells within all immortal art. Being laid to rest in such a spot might feel, as Vernon Lee mused, not an ending but more a ‘re-entering into the world’s outer existence’.[5]


Footnotes

[1] Shelley, Adonais

[2] James 2007: 350

[3] Ode on Melancholy, 25-30

[4] Motion 1997: 564

[5] From Nicholas Stanley Price’s The Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome: Its History, Its People and Its Survival for 300 Years


Bibliography

James, C. 2007. Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of my Time. London.

Keats, J. 2007. Selected Poems. London.

Motion, A. 1997. Keats. London.

Shelley, P. B. 2003. The Major Works.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

2 thoughts on “The Non-Catholic Cemetery

  1. Love the place. Do you have a favorite book about Rome. Great ones are rare. The Spirit of Rome is excellent. Here is the post script:

    Yesterday morning while looking through my Romans notes of the last [XXX] years, I felt, with odd vividness, the various myselfs who suffered and hoped while writing them.

    And even more I felt the presence of the beloved ones who, unmentioned, not even alluded to, had been present in those various successive Romes of mine.

    All of them have changed; some are dead, others were never really living. But while I turned over my notebooks, there they were back. Back with their feeling of then; back with presence (in one case the presence of a distant companion, to whom I could show these things only in thought); their complete realization or their half explicit charm, their still unshattered promise. Of all these things I find not a word, barely a name; nothing telling of them to others.

    Only to me, in these sites, impersonal and almost eternal, on these walls which have stood and may stand two thousand more, and these hillsides and roads full of the world’s legend- there appear, visible, distinct, the shadows cast by my own life; the forms and faces of these changed, gone, dead ones, and my own.

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    1. Thank you. The cemetery’s a strangely beautiful place. I have found Christopher Hibbert’s ‘Rome’ to be a brilliant overview and springboard for deeper research. Matthew Kneale’s history on the sackings of the city is also insightful. I started reading Corrado Augias’ ‘Secrets of Rome’ whilst I was last in the city, but haven’t found the time to buy it since I came home.

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