After living in Rome for a year, I have come to love the small non-touristy niches in this great city. One of those places is the Protestant Cemetery adjoining the Pyramid of Cestius.
Now don’t think of a huge cemetery outside of Rome with acres of graves. This cemetery is right in the middle of Rome. Its not much bigger than a neighborhood park, but within its walls lies the remains of two of the great personages of English Literature. The name of the cemetery in Italian means that its the cemetery for non-Catholics, but those in the know refer to it as the Protestant Cemetery.
John Keats, the great Romantic poet is buried there and Percy Bysshe Shelly, another important poet from the Romantic era.
You probably were required to read some of Keats sonnets in High School Literature Class. Remember “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “When I Have Fears?” Or, maybe you have seen the fine movie released in 2009 called “Bright Star!” after another one of his odes which includes the words: “Bright Star! Would that I were steadfast as thou art.”
At the apparent peak of his creative genius John Keats died from tuberculosis in 1821. He was twenty-five years old. His remains were laid to rest in this cemetery by his friend, Joseph Sevren. But, don’t look for Keats name on any of the tombstones in the Protestant Cemetery. He has a marker but
he requested that his name be omitted and that his tombstone refer to his bitterness and then end with these words:
“A young English poet-Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
Keats thought that he would not be remembered and as he lay dying he was still stung by criticism of his first book of poems. They were actually received quite well by the public but he was sensitive to criticism in the press.
Keats more recent poems and some of his finest poetry was still at the printer when he died. His epitaph reflects his sadness that he would “cease to be before his tongue had gleaned (his) teaming brain.” (See his poem “When I have Fears.) He thought he would be forgotten.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was a great friend of Keats but was better known and appreciated at the time, although he was considered a rebel and a free-thinker.
The year after Keats was buried, Shelley was sailing along the coast of Italy when his sloop was caught in a squall. He perished and when his body finally washed up on the shore most of his features were gone. The body’s identification was assured, however, when those who found him discovered Keats latest book of poems in his back pocket.
Shelley was cremated on the beach and his ashes taken to Rome. However, Mary Shelley, his wife kept his heart which had been rescued from the flames. She pressed it into a copy of Adonis, the poem her husband had written in honor of his friend, Keats and kept it for the rest of her life.(www.poetsgraves.co.uk)
You won’t have any trouble finding Shelley’s grave. His name is inscribed boldly on the white slab covering his grave. The words “Cor Cordium” in large letters means literally “the heart of my heart,”
They likely reflect Mary Shelley’s influence, although she knew where his physical heart was. It’s kind of a play on words for those who know that she kept his heart with her for the rest of her life.
Joseph Severn, the painter and Keats good friend was buried next to him in 1879. Severn also served for a time as British consul to Rome. Other diplomats, artists, sculptors and painters also have their final resting place there in that oasis of green and peacefulness.
In 2006, The Protestant cemetery was placed on World Monument List of the most endangered sites on earth.
If you get to the Protestant Cemetery and the gate is locked, just ring the bell there and hold a five Euro note over the high gate. You will feel it slip from your hand as the porter lets you in and tells you a “half-hour” –but, don’t worry, it means an hour in Italian. If the gate is open, entrance is free, although a donation is appreciated.
The easiest way to get to the cemetery (and the cheapest) is to hop the Metro and get off at Pyramide.
The entrance is on Via Cestio.