The Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome

August 1, 2009

writ in water

Yesterday I hopped on the 75 bus to the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Testaccio, a neighborhood just south of the Circo Massimo, most known these days for its techno clubs and for one of the best delis in Rome — Volpetti. After eating far too much, I trudged past the shuttered nightclubs to the real local attraction: the resting place of Keats and Shelley.

I’ve always had a special love for wandering in graveyards. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s for all the expected reasons — the tranquility, the aesthetics, an attraction to morbidity — but I also like strolling the aisles and reading the names and dates, inventing stories and situations for the deceased. I admire the simplicity of some markers and the shocking ornateness of others. I like calculating how close to one other an old couple died. And I’m interested in the graves of children. [Hm. Reading over that last sentence, I don’t think I’ve ever written anything so creepy.] Anyway, this particular graveyard is reserved for non-Catholic foreigners who die in Rome. Both Keats and Shelley are interred there [even though Shelley died up in Tuscany], along with scores of lesser-known artists, archeologists, expats, and other decomposed citizens of the world.

non-catholic cemetery

Keats’s grave was somewhat mobbed when I arrived, and my sentimental reflexes were acting up, telling me that I should wait for a lull in the crowd before stepping up to the famous tombstone for the first time. I didn’t want the voices of heat-stroked tourists murmuring in my ear as I stood at the sacred site. I’d scribbled down some lines from Shelley’s “Adonais,” his elegy for Keats, which I had in my pocket and planned to mumble before the tomb:

Go thou to Rome, at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shattered mountains rise,
And flowering weeds and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation’s nakedness
Pass, till the spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread.

So I kept my distance for a while, steering clear of the other tourists, and went to find Shelley’s resting place, which was surprisingly deserted. I guess poor Percy has fallen out of fashion.

Shelley's tomb
Shelley drowned off the Italian coast, so his nautically themed epitaph is quite fitting. It’s from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, sung by Ariel:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.

Finally Keats’s tomb cleared out, and I claimed that corner of the cemetery. His epitaph is also Shakespearean, inspired by Henry VIII; the original lines read: “Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues / We write in water.” Buried beside him is his buddy Joseph Severn, the man who drew the death-bed portrait I included in the post below. The best thing about Keats’s headstone is that his name appears nowhere on it. Either he was arrogant enough to consider it unnecessary, or he was too humble. I like to believe the latter. Old Joe Severn, though, he couldn’t wait to splash his famous friend’s name on his own headstone — and in all-caps, no less. Now we’re talkin’.

Keats and Severn
Despite my indelicate tone, this really is an enchanting place. I plan to visit regularly while I’m here. Oh, and if my travels take a wrong turn and I die in Rome, somebody please shovel me out a little plot of land in the non-Catholic cemetery. And keep my tombstone simple.

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