The Non-Catholic Cemetery is one of the least publicized Rome attractions around. Hidden in the shadows of the great Pyramid of Cestius in Piazza Porta San Paolo – itself a tomb – the Cemetery is a wonderful repository of history, tranquility and cats. Over the years, artists, statesmen, diplomats, aristocrats and other famed individuals have been buried here, in recognition of the fact that they were not of the Catholic faith.
It is often nicknamed the Protestant Cemetery, although Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians are also interred on its green slopes; but its resonances with English poetry saw it called the English Cemetery for many years and it has remained a site of literary pilgrimage. August von Goethe (1789-1830), the only child of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s five children to reach adulthood is buried here, but its most famous sons are arguably Keats and Shelley.
John Keats (1795-1821) set off for Rome in 1820 after coming down with tuberculosis, but would never see the shores of England again. The journey was wrought with problems and Keats and his friend Joseph Severn didn’t reach the city until November 14th, by which time the weather was already turning chilly. He illness grew steadily worse until his death on February 23rd 1861 aged just 25 in the villa he had taken on the Spanish Steps, now the Keats-Shelley House. He asked that his grave should be marked only by the words “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water”, which Severn honoured, but an epitaph was added under a relief of a lyre with broken strings:
“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: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), one of Keat’s greatest champions, immortalized his fellow poet seven weeks after his funeral in the poem Adonaïs. “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place,” he wrote. Tragically, Shelley himself died just 14 months later. On 8 July 1822, weeks from his 30th birthday, his schooner Don Juan was sunk off the coast of Viareggio on a journey from Livorno to Lerici. According to custom, his ashes were cremated on the beach and later interred next to those of Keats. Legend had it that when Shelley’s body was burned, his friend Edward Trelawny took the ashes of his heart and kept them himself, or actually seized the whole heart from the pyre, but that it was eventually buried with Shelley’s son Sir Percy Florence Shelley. Those remains now lie in the vault in the churchyard of St Peter’s Church, Bournemouth.
Other famous graves include that of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian philosopher and organiser and co-founder of the Italian Communist Party. In literature, Henry James buried the eponymous heroine of his novella Daisy Miller here and Oscar Wilde called the cemetery “the holiest place in Rome” while on a private tour of Rome.
While the cemetery is open daily, its cemetery chapel is not open to the public but is used for funerals and ceremonies. On All Saints Day in Rome, November 1st, it is the location for an annual Anglican service to remember the dead taking place at 11am. The cemetery’s cat sanctuary feeds homeless felines and welcomes donations from visitors, as does the cemetery itself.
The Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome
Via Caio Cestio 6, 00153 Roma
Monday-Saturday from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm (last entrance: 4.30 pm)
Sundays and public holidays 9.00 am to 1.00 pm (last entrance: 12.30 pm)