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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.