Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Protestant Cemetery - 'the holiest place in Rome'

"It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place".                         Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Protestant Cemetery in Rome, or more accurately the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome (il Cimitero acattolico di Roma), is located near to the Aurelian Walls, the defensive structure constructed by the Emperor Aurelian in the third century AD to protect Rome from the barbarian hordes; and to the pyramid of Caius Cestius, dating from between 18 and 12 BC. It is close to the Porta San Paolo, the best preserved of the gates of the Aurelian Walls.

The pyramid viewed from the cemetery
with Porta San Paolo to the left
The cemetery came into existence from a need to create a burial place for non-Catholics in Rome, who, under the ecclesiastical laws of the Catholic Church, were not permitted to be buried in the consecrated grounds of Catholic churches. It began to be used around 1730, when it became known as the English Cemetery because of the large number of English people buried there, the first of which was a young Oxford student by the name of Langton.

The most famous tombs, and far the most visited, are those of Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. Shelly was drowned off the coast of Livorno in 1822 and his body cremated on the beach near Viareggio in compliance with quarantine regulations. The ashes were later interred in the Protestant Cemetery. Keats died in Rome on the 23 February 1821 and three days later the funeral took place before daybreak as required by the law. He made a wish that his epitaph should bear the stark words: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'. But his friend Charles Brown was having none of that, and insisted on adding words linking his death to 'the Malicious Power of his Enemies'.

The grave of John Keats (left) in the Protestant Cemetery next to that of his friend Joseph Severn who journeyed with him to Rome
In the shadow of the pyramid, among cyprus, pine, myrtle and bay trees, the Protestant Cemetery in Rome is a place of peaceful repose and is the final resting place of around 4000 souls, of which three-quarters Europeans (mainly British and German) and one-quarter North American. Oscar Wilde called it 'the holiest place in Rome'.

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