Non-Catholic cemetery of Rome
A few steps from the Pyramid of Cestius, there is a small secular jewel, to remind us that we are all passing through: it is the Non-Catholic cemetery of Rome, where – among others – the poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley are buried. But also Antonio Gramsci and Carlo Emilio Gadda.
Here, among statues of pained angels and a well-fed community of cats, you will surely find peace (not eternal!). Built in the early 18th century, this cemetery was intended to house the bodies of non-Catholic strangers who could not be buried in Roman land. It is an oasis of peace away from the hustle and bustle of Roman roads.
Since the norms of the Catholic Church forbade burying non-Catholics – including Protestants, Jews and Orthodox – in the consecrated ground, as well as the suicides and the actors, these, after death, were “expelled” from the Christian community and buried outside the walls (or at the extreme edge of the walls).
The burials took place at night to avoid manifestations of religious fanaticism and to preserve the safety of those who participated in funeral rites. An exception was made for Sir Walter Synod, who in 1821 managed to bury his daughter in the middle of the day and, to be protected from incursions by fanatics, he was accompanied by a group of guards.
A cemetery dedicated to the actors, for example, was outside Porta Pinciana, where it now runs via del Muro Torto; the Jewish cemetery instead was on the Aventino hill in front of the Circus Maximus – now there is the municipal rose garden.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the area of the non-Catholic cemetery was called “The meadows of the Roman people”. It was an area of public property, where cattle grazed, and wine is preserved in the caves created in Monte dei cocci, where the Romans used to go to leisure. The pyramid of Caius Cestius dominated the whole, which for centuries was one of the most visited monuments of the city.
They were the same non-Catholics to choose those places for the burials and this was allowed by a deliberation of the Holy Office in 1671 that consented to the “non-Catholic Lords” to die in the city were spared the shame of finding burial with the prostitutes and sinners in the cemetery of the Muro Torto.
The first burial of a Protestant of which we have news – but others almost certainly had to precede it – was that of a follower of the exiled king James Stuart, named William Arthur, who died in Rome where he had come to escape repression following the defeats of the Jacobites in Scotland.
Other tumults followed, which did not concern only the courtesans of the sovereign Stuart who had meanwhile established himself in Rome. The chronicler Francesco Valesio reports for 1732 the news that the treasurer of the King of England, William Ellis, was buried at the foot of the Pyramid, hinting at a consolidated use. Over time the area had in fact acquired the cemetery status of the British, although the buried not only came from the United Kingdom.
The first burials were not highlighted by any sepulchral memory, which took place in the second half of the 18th century.
Thus, for example, it happened for that of an Oxford student, called Langton, who died in 1738 at the age of 25, violently beating his head when he fell from his horse. According to a rumor, Langton held an interview with the Pope, in which he expressed a desire to be buried in Rome at the Pyramid of Cestius. When, in 1928, excavations were held at the Pyramid of Cestius, Langton’s tomb was found, with the same inscription that is now affixed to his tombstone.
Although many believed to identify papal concessions, the burial ground developed without any official recognition and only at the end of the eighteenth century the authorities took it upon themselves: the secular authorities in the figure of the Capitol Conservatories and the ecclesiastical ones were invested with functions, Vicar of Rome and Vicegerent. Very mild controls for the truth and only in the twenties of the nineteenth century the Government commissioned a guard to monitor the area and the cemetery functions.
The public disinterest was above all determined by the fact that in the current mentality, where Catholics conceived the only burial in the churches, the availability of a cemetery that provided for burial in the bare earth was not considered a privilege.
In 1803 he was buried one of the sons of William von Humboldt, a minister of Prussia to the Holy See, who had asked for a plot of land to bury himself and his family. This land, which in ancient times was delimited, is now inside the cemetery area and some pillars of the fence have remained. Later the minister’s wife also found burial there.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century only holly appeared in the cemetery, and there were no other shelters for the graves scattered in the countryside, where the flocks were grazing. The cypresses adorning the cemetery were later implanted.
In the twenties of the nineteenth century the original part of the burial ground was closed and a new “enclosure” was built, delimited by walls, which was then followed by other extensions.
In 1824 a moat was erected that surrounded the ancient part of the cemetery. In ancient times crosses or inscriptions were forbidden, as in all non-Catholic cemeteries, at least until 1870. In 1918 burials were forbidden.
For some time there have been common graves divided by nations: Germany, Greece, Sweden and Romania (destined for stateless Orthodox Romanians).
In 2011 the custody and management of the cemetery was entrusted to foreign representatives in Italy.
The large, centuries-old cypress trees, the green lawn that surrounds part of the tombs, the white pyramid that stands behind the fence of Roman walls, along with the cats that sunbathe and walk undisturbed among the gravestones written in all the languages of the world, give this small cemetery an inimitable style. As usual in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, there are no photographs on the tombstones.
Burials of Italians
As the official name indicates, the non-Catholic cemetery of Rome is destined to the extreme rest in general of foreign non-Catholics, without distinction of nationality. Because of the limited space available and to keep the character of the place intact, it is only exceptionally granted the burial to illustrious Italians who, for the alternative culture expressed in life (“foreign” compared to the dominant one), for the quality of their work, or for the circumstances of life have been somehow “foreign” in their country. Among them, the politicians Antonio Gramsci (as husband of a Russian woman) and Emilio Lussu and others who received the concession, as the writer and poet Dario Bellezza, the writers Carlo Emilio Gadda and Luce d’Eramo, and a few others. Currently it is very rare that new graves are added, even for foreigners.
Among the numerous tombs of famous people is that of the English poet John Keats (1795-1821). Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome.
His epitaph, which he does not mention by name, was commissioned by his friends Joseph Severn and Charles Armitage Brown: This tomb contains the mortal remains of a YOUNG ITALIAN POET who, on his deathbed, in the bitterness of his heart, facing the evil power of his enemies, he wanted these words to be engraved on his tombstone: “Here lies one whose name was written on the water” .
Not far away, a marble slab, in response to this sentence shows the following: Keats! If your dear name was written on the water, every drop fell from the face of those who cry.
Keats’s friend, Joseph Severn, in his letters accurately indicates the date and time of Keats’s death. The poet would have died around eleven o’clock on the evening of February 23, 1821. The inscription on his tomb, however, shows the date of February 24, 1821; it is not, however, an error of the engraver.
In Rome, at that time, the new day began when, in the evening, the bells rang the Ave Maria, and in all the churches the Angelus was sung or recited. This happened about half an hour after sunset, so the beginning of the song could also vary depending on the time of year.
Severn kept to the English method of calculating the beginning of the day, whereas for the Roman authorities the day of 24 February had already begun when Keats died, and therefore the date of 24 was recorded in official documents.
Shelley (1792-1822) was an English poet who drowned in the sinking of his vessel off the Tyrrhenian coast between Portovenere and Tuscany and was cremated on the beach near Viareggio, where the waves had pushed his body. His ashes were buried in the Protestant cemetery; his heart, which his friend Edward John Trelawny had snatched from the flames, was kept by his widow, Mary Shelley, until his death and was buried with her in Bournemouth. The epigraph, referring to his death at sea, takes three verses of the song of Ariel from the “Tempest” of Shakespeare: Nothing of him dissolves but undergoes a marine metamorphosis to become something rich and strange.
Tomb of Elisabeth Wegener-Passarge
In a niche created in the Aurelian Walls is the sarcophagus of Elisabeth Wegener-Passarge (1884-1902), a German girl who died of typhus at the age of eighteen. She was engaged (or perhaps married) with the German sculptor Ferdinand Seeboeck, who carved the sarcophagus himself. The epigraph is in Italian and German: The noble traits / Immortalized in this marble / The boyfriend. / Ferdinand Seeboeck
The girl is portrayed asleep at the bedside, her legs covered by a sheet, dressed in an embroidered bodice. The left hand is laid half-closed under the chest. Often visitors to the cemetery usually leave a flower in the left hand of the statue. This seems to be linked to a tradition according to which the deceased girl grants a wish to anyone who offers her a flower as a gift.
How to get there
If you fear the atmosphere too quiet, do not worry: the Non-Catholic cemetery of Rome is located in Testaccio, a neighborhood famous for its nightlife! Address: Via Caio Cestio, 6. Open every day from 9:00 to 17:00, Sunday from 9:00 to 13:00. Admission € 3.
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