The Protestant Cemetery

I have been reading about the Romantic poets in Italy–as one does (when one is pretentious)–and so, armed with a most instructional and amusing guidebook, I set off to pay homage at the gravesides of two of the most vaunted of that number: John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The two poets are buried in Testaccio, in the shadow of the burial pyramid of Caius Cestius–an ancient Roman magistrate with delusions of grandeur–in a cemetery variously known as the Non-Catholic Cemetery, the Cemetery of Poets and Artists, and, most commonly, the Protestant Cemetery.

The Pyramid of Cestius, built in around 12 B.C.

In the old days, according to ecclesiastical law, non-Catholics could not be buried in consecrated ground. This was obviously a problem for the many non-Catholics (mostly Protestants from northern Europe) living (and dying) in Rome at the time. There is no definitive word on where their remains ended up although the guidebook posits that they were sometimes laid to rest at the foot of the old town wall near Piazza Flaminia alongside the prostitutes who plied their trade nearby (and who also were not welcome on consecrated grounds). In the early 18th Century, the Church handed over some papal lands adjacent to the pyramid and the Aurelian Wall. Burials had to be carried out at night so as not to provoke the fanatically religious Romans who liked to beat up non-Catholics.

There are over 4 000 people buried here, hailing from many countries and many religions.

I have a great affection for this spot. It’s lovely and peaceful. My first apartment in Rome was nearby and I used to hang out here, reading. That may sound a bit creepy but I like graveyards. I grew up near a graveyard and we used to play and ride our bikes around there all the time. I was a morbid adolescent and my compositions were always about death. And my senior thesis in college was about death and burial in the Roman Empire. Okay, so maybe it is a bit creepy.

Among the famous and semi-famous people buried here are Goethe’s son, the father of Italian Communism Antonio Gramsci, and the Russian Prince Jussupoff, father of the man who killed Rasputin.

But back to Keats and Shelley. The former moved to Rome in 1820 with his friend Joseph Severn in a failed attempt to stave off tuberculosis in the warm Italian climate. Bitter (because he was dying and because nobody liked his poems) and suicidal (ditto), he died here (horribly) a year later. He was 25.  Keats was so peeved at the world that he ordered that his tombstone not bear his name but these words only: “Here lies one whose name was writ on water.” Later, Severn added these sentiments to really rub it in: “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”.

R.I.P. John Keats

Shelley came here in 1818 with his wife Mary (the author of Frankenstein) to meet up with his mate Lord Byron. He drowned off Viareggio in Tuscany in 1822. He was 29. He was cremated on the beach and his friend Edward Trelawny snatched his heart from the pyre and gave it to Mary Shelley, who kept it all of her life. Yuck. The rest of him is buried in the Protestant Cemetery.

Shelley’s final resting place. His epitaph quotes Shakespeare’s Tempest. 


5 responses to “The Protestant Cemetery

  1. What has Keats and his epitaph to do with genomic stability? A friend of mine wrote a paper linking the two. Here is an excerpt:
    “When I lived in Rome I used to take refuge from the incessant
    traffic noise in the cemetery for foreigners in Trastevere. Buried
    there is the young English poet, John Keats. He died some two
    hundred years ago and so I suppose the inscription on his
    gravestone was carved then. Now it is nearly illegible due to
    erosion of the stone. That which is carved in stone is not so
    permanent. The famous inscription, “here lies one whose life is
    writ on water”, may give us a clue to other forms of stability
    that have more permanence. Indeed the parallel evoked by this
    inscription is apt to our discussion because the medium upon
    which we might say “life is writ” is DNA and that is chemically
    quite unstable. In every cell of our bodies the bases in the DNA
    are being replaced at the rate of about 100 every minute
    because they have become damaged. The genetic code for our
    very existence is constantly falling apart and being rebuilt.
    Here is stability based on dynamics.” In case you are interested, the full paper may be found at

  2. This was the first spot I visited when we came to Rome about 20 years ago– mostly because we had just arrived and it was right around the corner from your apartment and we were waiting for you to come home from work and play with us!
    I’ll never forget how hushed and mysterious and evocative the cemetery was, and there were cats everywhere.
    I totally loved it.
    Hey! We live around the corner from a cemetery too- you may have seen it…

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