If you approach Rome from the west, following the valley of the Tiber, the road takes you through a series of residential areas with graffiti on the walls, bins in the streets and an occasional stray cat asleep on a wall. It’s a fairly typical slightly run-down urban scene.
Then suddenly you turn a corner and the spectacular Basilica of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura rises magnificently from the suburban sprawl. This is the Church of St Paul, a vast ecclesiastical complex conceived as a suitable final resting place for Paul ‘the apostle’. Here just outside Rome’s city walls is a temple-style church, with pillars, portico and sparkling mosaics illuminating the entrance. Somewhat improbably palm trees fringe the site. This is one of the most important churches in Rome, after St Peter’s. Visually it is an oasis of calm and tranquility, surrounded by a sea of traffic, and urban cacophany. A glimpse of this basilica is the start of a rich treasure trove of exceptional historic buildings. Two minutes later the Pyramid of Cestius built around 12 BC comes into view. This Roman pyramid was built as a tomb and memorial to Caius Cestius. He was a magistrate and important Roman citizen. Several centuries later, the pyramid was incorporated into the Aurelian Walls, built by the Emperor Aurelian between 271 and 275. The adjacent Porta San Paolo, originally called Porta Ostiense was also incorporated into the new city walls. Porta San Paolo was the principal entry point into the city from the west and from the Roman port of Ostia. By the end of the 3rd century visitors to Rome would have seen a brand new city wall, part of which was the even older Pyramid of Cestius. To gain entry to Rome, visitors would have waited at the Porta San Paolo to be checked and accepted, or rejected, by the guards.
Next door to the Pyramid, Roman Walls and Porta San Paolo is the Protestant Cemetery, originally known as the Cimitero Brittanico. This burial place, just outside the city walls was inaugurated in 1716. It was a place for non-Catholics to be laid to rest. As tourists began to arrive in Italy, in increasing numbers, travelling on the Grand Tour, it was inevitable that some of them would never make it home. As British tourists were generally Anglican (Church of England) this meant that they could not be buried in a Roman Catholic cemetery. Henry VIII had put paid to that. So the city of Rome allocated a site, outside the city walls for the non-Catholics to be buried. It’s important to note that cemeteries and burial sites were always located outside the city walls, to ensure that any disease in the corpses of the dead would not affect the living.
The Protestant Cemetery has been in continuous use for 300 years. Within its walls there are tall trees, shaded pathways and a feeling of peace and tranquility even on the hottest summer day. This is the final resting place of some of the foreign visitors who came to the end of their days whilst in Italy. The romantic poets John Keats and Percy Shelley are both buried here. Keats was buried here in February, 1821. He’d died a miserable death in Rome as a result of tuberculosis. His grave stone is engraved as follows: 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 / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821. Poor John Keats was still in his twenties when he died. His friend and fellow poet Percy Shelley died a year or so later. He was drowned at sea, off the coast of Livorno, his ashes were then buried in the Protestant Cemetery, not to far from Keats tomb, in December 1822. Both great poets died very young. Keats was just 26 years of age when he died. Shelley was 30.
The pathos and romantic melancholia to be found in this ‘little bit of England’ was not lost on the many Grand Tourists, both British and American, who made their way to this romantic and leafy spot. Here they found not one but two of the greatest romantic poets. If you conjure up the image of a British historical mini series on TV, with fabulous costumes, great settings and a tearful heroine, lamenting lost love then the Protestant Cemetery, Rome is the perfect setting. The fact that Keats and Shelley are both buried here adds to the drama. In fact Henry James, the great American writer, in his novella Daisy Miller, has his heroine dying tragically young whilst visiting Rome. Daisy is a free spirit and delights in the company of the gentlemen that she meets whilst travelling in Europe. Having visited the Colosseum at night, with an Italian suitor, she succumbs to malaria. Several days later she dies and is buried in the Protestant Cemetery.
A few days ago I visited the Protestant Cemetery. Sitting on a bench close to the tomb of Keats was a tall, handsome young man with a slightly androgynous look. As I walked towards the bench, I couldn’t help thinking that Keats himself was sitting there surveying his own final resting place. We started to chat, he was an English Literature student and passionate about the ‘romantic poets of the 18th century’. I’m sure that both Keats and Shelley would be flattered, and probably very pleased to know that their legacy is still remembered today and by such a very handsome young man.
The Cemetery is still a beautiful, leafy, romantic place, with its haphazard selection of tombstones, often in gleaming white Carrara marble. It’s interesting to think about the people who came in the past to visit the tombs of Shelley and Keats, characters like Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, Henry James and many more. In the 19th century William Bell Scott visited and painted the memorial stones of Keats and Shelley. These paintings now hang in The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
My favourite tomb sculpture is ‘The Angel of Grief’ a white marble statue of an angel, contorted with grief and slumped over the gravestone of her beloved. The angel is a 19th century addition to the cemetery. The sculptor was an American, William Wetmore Story, who carved this eloquent life size statue, in pure white marble, on the death of his wife, Emelyn Story. He was so devastated on his wife’s departure that he created the ‘Angel of Grief’ or the ‘Weeping Angel’ as a tribute and also as a means to attempt to overcome his own paralysing grief. It’s full title was ‘The Angel of Grief Weeping Over the Dismantled Altar of Life’. This was Story’s last major work prior to his death just a year later. In fact the ‘Angel of Grief’ has been copied several times and similar examples of such an expression of grief can be found in California and also Brooklyn, New York.
When it comes to grief, melancholia and the romantic notion of death the Protestant Cemetery is brimming with emotions. The presence of Keats and Shelley, meant that the cemetery was an essential place to visit on the Grand Tour. Visitors wrote about their impressions of the cemetery, Oscar Wilde proclaimed it ‘the holiest place in Rome’. Whilst Thomas Hardy wanted to know more of Cestius and the pyramid. William Bell Scott painted the tombs of Keats and Shelley, whilst Henry James used the cemetery as the burial place for Daisy Miller. Many of these visitors were influenced by the cemetery and its eclectic collection of tombs. By Victorian times the fashion for sentimentality reached its zenith with the grieving angel!
So the visitor to Rome approaching the city from the south-west encounters the Basilica San Paolo fuori Le Mura, Pyramid of Cestius, Porta San Paolo and the Protestant Cemetery before they even make it into the actual city of Rome. This demonstrates perfectly the richness of this city and the vast treasure trove of architecture, history, culture and art waiting to be discovered. There’s always something new and fascinating to discover in Rome. Don’t delay – visit soon.
- The Pyramid of Cestius has been recently restored. It is constructed of brick-faced concrete covered with slabs of white marble standing on a travertine foundation. The pyramid measures 100 Roman feet (29.6 m) square at the base and stands 125 Roman feet (37 m) high. The origins of the pyramid were largely forgotten during the Middle Ages. Local people thought that it was the tomb of Remus and that a second pyramid near the Vatican was the tomb of Romulus. Legend has it that Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus, two brothers who were abandoned on the hills outside Rome and were suckled by a she-wolf. The fable says that the twin boys were exceptionally strong and brave as a result of their ‘surrogate mother’. The true age of the Cestius Pyramid was discovered in the 17th century when Pope Alexander commissioned a clear up of the area and various Roman inscriptions on the pyramid were revealed. Today – The pyramid is open to the public every second and fourth Saturday of each month. Visitors must arrange their visit in advance.
- The Cimitero Protestante, Rome – article by Nicholas Stanley-Price / Apollo Magazine – June-July 2016 – https://www.apollo-magazine.com/theres-still-a-lot-more-to-learn-about-this-haven-in-rome/
- Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, the little Cemetery was something of a pilgrimage site, revered by authors. Daisy Miller, the heroine of Henry James’s eponymous novella, was buried here. After an audience with Pope Pius IX in 1877, Oscar Wilde visited the Cemetery, proclaiming it “the holiest place in Rome.”
- Discover more at The Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome
- Some detail about the ‘Cimitero Acattolico’ in Italian. Il Cimitero Acattolico di Roma risale almeno al 1716, stando a documentazione che riporta il permesso concesso da Papa Clemente XI, per membri della Corte Stuart in esilio dall’Inghilterra, ad essere sepolti di fronte alla Piramide. Il permesso fu esteso ad altre persone non cattoliche, molte di loro giovani nel compimento del Grand Tour. Oggi come allora, il terreno è a ridosso di due antichi monumenti: la Piramide di Caio Cestio, risalente circa al 12 a.C., e le Mura Aureliane, che fanno da cornice di sfondo al Cimitero.
- La tomba più antica e di cui si sono trovate tracce è quella di George Langton, laureatosi ad Oxford. I suoi resti furono trovati durante degli scavi effettuati nel 1929, coperti da una placca a forma di scudo in piombo recante una iscrizione. Il primo nord americano fu sepolto nel 1803 (la diciottenne Ruth McEvers) e nello stesso anno, il Barone Friedrich Wilhelm von Humboldt, ministro della Prussia e residente a Roma, vi seppellì suo figlio Wilhelm di nove anni. Tra il 1738 e il 1822 trovarono sepoltura più di sessanta persone.
www.educated-traveller.com is the travel blog of Janet Simmonds. I write here about Italy, France, The Alps and travel experiences I’ve had over the years.
www.grand-tourist.com is my tailor-made travel company offering unique and specialist travel in Italy for groups and individuals. Especially, Italian travel with a focus on history, art, culture, food and wine.
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