Roman poets

Every so often you visit a place with high expectations, and those expectations are exceeded. So it was for me when I visited the Protestant Cemetery in Rome a couple of days ago.

The cemetery is a relatively small plot adjacent to the ancient Pyramid of Cestius, an Egyptian-style tomb built in 30BC that is now incorporated into a corner of the Aurelian Walls that border the site. It is best known perhaps as the location of the graves of the English poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, though many other artists and writers are buried there, including the political theorist Antonio Gramsci, the Russian painter Alexander Ivanov, Goethe’s son, and several friends of the novelist Henry James.

I was fortunate to visit on a clear blue morning with the cypress trees casting long, deep shadows across the densely arranged graves and monuments, organised into neat rows along a gently sloping hill. The cemetery put me in mind of London’s Highgate, but this place has been maintained with greater care and an artful sense of how it has been pictured and described by painters and poets over the centuries. Shelley’s Adonais, for example, an elegy to Keats, describes the latter’s grave as being set in ‘a slope of green access/Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead/A light of laughing flowers among the grass is spread’. And sure enough, an open patch of green, strewn with daffodils, has been kept clear around Keats’s tomb.

Here are some photos that really don’t do this beautiful place justice. I also include a few pictures taken a day or two earlier at the Keats-Shelley House on the Piazza di Spagna. The House, which includes the room overlooking the Spanish Steps where Keats died, gathers memorabilia – letters, drawings, portraits – related to English Romantic poets associated with Rome: Keats and Shelley, and also Byron.

It’s good to note that not all of the material in the collection is sombre: some of the correspondence between the poets recording their observations about the frankly mad fan mail they received is really quite funny. And I liked this note by Shelley asking his friend Edward Trelawny to procure for him ‘a small quantity of prussic acid’ for pain relief:

I need not tell you I have no intention of suicide at present, but I confess it would be a comfort to me to hold in my possession that golden key to the chamber of perpetual rest.

My sentiments exactly…

Please click the thumbnails to see the full version of each image. This gallery is also available on Flickr.