Rome at the Pyramid of Cestius Near the Graves of Shelley and Keats (1887)
By Thomas Hardy
Who, then, was Cestius,
And what is he to me? –
Amid thick thoughts and memories multitudinous
One thought alone brings he.
I can recall no word
Of anything he did;
For me he is a man who died and was interred
To leave a pyramid
Whose purpose was exprest
Not with its first design,
Nor till, far down in Time, beside it found their rest
Two countrymen of mine.
Cestius in life, maybe,
Slew, breathed out threatening;
I know not. This I know: in death all silently
He does a kindlier thing,
In beckoning pilgrim feet
With marble finger high
To where, by shadowy wall and history-haunted street,
Those matchless singers lie . . .
–Say, then, he lived and died
That stones which bear his name
Should mark, through Time, where two immortal Shades abide;
It is an ample fame.
The Protestant Cemetery of Rome, now officially called the Cimitero acattolico (“Non-Catholic Cemetery”) and often referred to as the Cimitero degli Inglesi (“Englishmen’s Cemetery”), is located near Porta San Paolo alongside the Pyramid of Cestius, a small-scale Egyptian-style pyramid built in 30 BC as a tomb and later incorporated into the section of the Aurelian Walls that borders the cemetery. The presence of Mediterranean cypress, pomegranate, and other trees, and a grassy meadow suggests the more naturalistic landscape style of northern Europe, where cemeteries sometimes incorporate grass and other greenery. As the official name indicates, it is the final resting place of non-Catholics including but not exclusive to Protestants or British and Americans. It contains the graves of many Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians. It is one of the oldest burial grounds in continuous use in Europe, having started to be used around 1716.
The Cimitero Acattolico di Roma contains possibly the highest density of famous and important graves anywhere in the world. It is the final resting-place of the poets Shelley and Keats, of many painters, sculptors and authors, a number of scholars, several diplomats, Goethe’s only son, and Antonio Gramsci, a founding father of European Communism, to name only a few.
When you visit this cemetery in Rome, one of the first sites you see is the Pyramid of Cestius. I have to admit, the Protestant cemeteries in Rome and Florence were two of the highlights of my research trip to Italy several years ago. Not only are cemeteries a great source of research, but also the gravestones are often more than just markings for the dead, but works of art. One of those pieces of art is the Angel of Grief, an 1894 sculpture by William Wetmore Story which serves as the grave stone of the artist and his wife Emelyn Story. The grave is now used to describe multiple grave stones throughout the world erected in the style of the Story stone.
If you are ever in Rome, you really should visit the Cimitero Acattolico di Roma.