California Literary Review

Notes From Italy: Cimitero Acattolico

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August 15th, 2007 at 11:29 am

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Cimitero Acattolico, Rome [Photo by Jimmy Renzi]

They came to Rome in the hundreds and even thousands, Americans, English, Danes, Russians, Germans, Swedes, the educated and sophisticated of so many nations. In the old days they came by carriage and on horseback, but the roads were not safe. In 1645 the diarist John Evelyn wrote that when his party left Rome “we were fain to hire a strong convoy of about thirty firelocks, to guard us through the cork-woods (much infested with the banditti).” The dangers did not deter stout travelers. John Aubrey wrote how in the early 1600s a young English nobleman, Charles Cavendish, went on from Italy to Greece “and that would not serve his turne but he would go to Babylon.”

There is however something to be said for traveling in comfort. Many more foreign travelers began to visit Rome when it was finally linked by rail with northern Europe, after the troops of Vittorio Emanuele II put an end to the Papal state in 1870 and Rome became the capital of reunited Italy. After 1870, too, the city began to grow. Big apartment buildings and busy avenues replaced zones of quiet vineyards.

Though modernity had arrived there was still a season in which one visited Rome, and that season was decidedly not summer. In summer the days were hot and there was a miasma, a mal aria, that sickened and killed many people, both visitors and residents. It had been so for centuries. In the floor of the church of Santa Prassede is the tombstone of a certain Peter, who died on a visit in Rome in 1400. He is shown as a youngish man, wearing a pilgrim’s cockleshell and holding a pilgrim’s staff. I have always suspected that my namesake died of fever–of malaria. Certainly Henry James’s heroine Daisy Miller did so in the 1870s; she got “Roman fever” after going–foolishly, said the author–to see the Colosseum by moonlight. (It was indeed foolish; but people still did not know that it was the mosquito that spread the fever.)

If the foreigners who died in old Papal Rome were not Catholic, they could not be buried in a cemetery; cemeteries were for Catholics alone. (The Jews, however, had a burial ground in Trastevere and then, after 1645, on the Aventine hill where the city’s rose garden now stands.) In the 1600s and even later, one sometimes saw a coach leaving the city in the evening, to drive out into the empty campagna, to bury some poor Protestant body.

In a painting by Johann Tischbein we see great Johann Wolfgang Goethe lazing in the campagna for a few minutes, as painter and poet were making their way to Naples in 1787. It was a pretty place to lie, not just briefly but forever, where only sheep and a shepherd sometimes came by and the green Apennines rose in the distance. But one had to be buried there deep and without trace, given the wolves and the grave robbers.

Eventually, in the eighteenth century, the Papal authorities relented a little on non-Catholic burials. The authorities decided that they would not object to such burials if they took place at a certain quiet place at the southern edge of Rome, a city now much reduced in size from what it had been in the age of the Emperors. There was a gate there in the great city wall built by Aurelian in the third century after Christ. The gate was for the ancient Via Ostiense. Paul had probably walked out this road, before the wall was built, on his way to execution on the orders of Nero. By the gate there was, and still is, a white marble Pyramid a hundred feet high, the tomb of a rich praetor named Gaius Cestius who died in 12 B.C. Surely Paul gazed at this pyramid as he walked to martyrdom.

Nearby, and near the Tiber, stood that strangest of Roman hills, the Testaccio–a mound a hundred feet high, composed of many thousand broken amphoras that in ancient times had contained grain, wine, and oil shipped up the Tiber to the city. In later centuries cool wine-cellars were dug into the side of the Testaccio, and in the 1700s lower-class Romans went there to drink and make merry. It was not a good part of town. (Today there are nightclubs in the hillside.)

In 1738 came the first burial by the Pyramid that we know of, that of a young Oxford graduate named Langton. After him a number of other non-Catholic foreigners were buried there, and not just English people; there is a record of a student from Hannover being buried there a few years later. But while the Papal authorities now tolerated the non-Catholic burials, they had to take place at night, probably to lessen the possibility that the local folk would mock if not attack the foreigners’ funeral processions. (As late as 1854 a small mob tried to assault a Protestant clergyman who had officiated at the funeral of the wife of a German diplomat.)

In 1786 Goethe visited the burying-ground. The Papal authorities had still not permitted it to be fenced off and protected, but it was a green and peaceful place and the poet thought perhaps he might one day end here:

May Mercury lead me hereafter,
Past the Cestian monument, gently
Down to Hades.

As it turned out, Goethe’s only son, August, was buried here in 1830. Goethe himself died in Weimar two years later and was buried there.

Grave of John Keats [Photo by Jimmy Renzi]

In November 1820 the young English poet John Keats came to Rome, a sick man, and moved into an apartment by the Spanish Steps. Two years earlier, at twenty-three, he had hiked over six hundred miles in Scotland and climbed Ben Nevis–but that year, too, he had begun a sonnet with “fears that I may cease to be/Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain.” There was tuberculosis in the family; it had killed his mother when he was fourteen, and later his brother Tom. Within a month of his arrival in Rome it was clear that Keats was dying. He sent his friend Joseph Severn to visit the little cemetery beneath the pyramid of Caius Cestius. Severn recalled that when he came back to Keats, “He expressed pleasure at my description…the grass and the many flowers, particularly the innumerable violets–also about a flock of goats and sheep and a young shepherd–all these intensely interested him. Violets were his favourite flowers, and he joyed to hear how they overspread the graves. He assured me that he seemed already to feel the flowers growing over him.” Soon enough they did; and they grow there today.

England lost another fine poet when Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned off the coast of Italy in 1822, when his schooner foundered. The following year his ashes were interred near Keats’s grave.

Grave of Percy Bysshe Shelley [Photo by Jimmy Renzi]

For decades the Papal authorities would not permit construction of a wall to protect the cemetery, where there were an increasing number of fine marble stones and tombs. Nor could the tombs use the symbol of the Cross, or bear inscriptions like “God is love,” since extra ecclesiam nulla salus–outside the (Catholic) church no salvation. Eventually, after the end of the Papal state in 1870, a wall was built and crosses permitted. To oversee the cemetery a committee of foreign ambassadors was formed, in which the German envoy usually presided.

As the number of American visitors to Rome increased, so did the American presence in the cemetery. Richard Henry Dana, Jr., who had left Harvard in 1834 to go to sea, and later wrote Two Years Before the Mast, died in Rome in 1882 (of influenza, not malaria) and was buried there. The same year saw the death and burial of George Perkins Marsh, who had written the first great American work on the environment, Man and Nature, during his record 21-year term as the American envoy to Italy. Henry James’ friend, the famous American sculptor William Wetmore Story, died in Rome in 1895; he and his wife lie in the cemetery beneath his marble “Angel of Grief.”

Eventually it was decided to end burials in the older part of the cemetery, the parte antica. In 1898 the Germans gave the cemetery a simple but gracious funeral chapel. Other nations, too, began to bury their dead at what became known officially as the Cimitero Acattolico or non-Catholic cemetery. The Americans and English usually called it the Protestant cemetery, but there were Armenian Christians there, and many Orthodox, most notably the Russians. Walking past the Russian tombs one sees the names of famous pre-Revolutionary families, including a Yusupov–the father of the man who in 1916 killed that insidious gray eminence, Rasputin, in St. Petersburg. (Curiously, there is a fine marble tomb of a Soviet soldier said to have been killed while fighting alongside Italian partisans in World War II. Who paid for his tomb?)

Few Italians are buried in the cemetery. One is Antonio Gramsci, a founder of the Italian Communist Party, who had first been imprisoned by the Fascist regime in 1926 despite his immunity from arrest as a Member of Parliament, and who died of illness in Rome in 1937. His burial in the cemetery was permitted apparently on grounds that his Russian wife was non-Catholic. Benito Mussolini commented not long after Gramsci’s death that while Gramsci–who had once been the Duce’s Socialist comrade–had died peacefully in Italy, if he had gone to the Soviet Union, as earlier proposed, he would have been executed in Stalin’s great purges.

Almost three decades later, in 1964, the Italian Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti died, of sickness, in the Soviet Union. He was one of the many Italian Communists who had gone to the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s, and many of them had indeed been shot in the purges. Not Togliatti; to the contrary, as a Comintern leader he had signed off on the arrests of many fellow-countrymen. (Giancarlo Lehner, journalist and historian, has recently published three volumes, based on Soviet archives, that tell the piteous story of the Italians who sought exile in the Land of Socialism only to end with an NKVD bullet in the neck.)

When Togliatti died, the Soviet ambassador to Italy flew to Moscow to accompany his body back to Rome. Togliatti, the ambassador told the press, would be buried in the Cimitero Acattolico along with Antonio Gramsci.

Not so, said G. Frederick Reinhardt. Mr. Reinhardt, a career officer of the U.S. Foreign Service, had been the American ambassador to Italy since 1961, and he chaired the committee of ambassadors overseeing the cemetery. When the Soviet ambassador heard of Reinhardt’s stand he asked to see him; unfortunately the American was too busy to receive him. An Italian official told an American embassy officer informally that the government hoped the burial could be permitted; the Communists were a large party in Italy, and why cause trouble? (The American suggested that if Togliatti were so important, perhaps he could be put in the Pantheon alongside the two kings of Italy who lie there.)

Eventually the Soviet and American envoys spoke. Reinhardt reminded the Russian that as a rule Italians could not be buried in the cemetery. Perhaps, however, there was a way. Reinhardt had served in the American embassy at Moscow during World War II, and he recalled that the Soviet government had granted Soviet citizenship to Palmiro Togliatti. If, said Reinhardt, the Soviet ambassador could just send him a note confirming that the Italian Communist was actually a Soviet citizen, Togliatti could be buried immediately at the cemetery. The next day Togliatti was buried in the main Rome cemetery.

Mr. Reinhardt, who died in 1971 at the age of sixty, lies in the parte antica. His family and his friends were outraged when in 1999 the then Italian supervisor of the cemetery agreed that it might serve as the locale for a show of modern art, with loud music, poetry readings, and a bar serving drinks. Rome’s Mayor, Francesco Rutelli (who is Italy’s Minister of Culture today), had agreed with the proposal. The show opened. It was made clear to the organizers that they were making more enemies than they could imagine. The show closed.

Today the Cimitero Acattolico seems safe from future art shows. It has been neglected; it needs money; in 2006 the World Monuments Watch listed the cemetery among its 100 Most Endangered Sites. There is however revived interest in the cemetery on the part of the oversight committee and its new chairman, the ambassador of Switzerland; and there is a group of dedicated volunteers. What may in the end endanger the cemetery more than anything else is the ever-increasing flow of visitors to the Eternal City.

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