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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Cimitero Acattolico of Rome

What is the Cimitero Acattolico?

The Cimitero Acattolico is a protestant cemetery with burials of literary icons, including John Keats, Axel Munthe, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

William Wetmore Story Angel of Grief Sculpture at Cimitero Acattolico

Cimitero Acattolico History

Halfway through the novelist Henry James’ collection of travel essays, Italian Hours, he describes an afternoon spent in this quaint Protestant cemetery: ‘I recently spent an afternoon hour at the little Protestant cemetery close to St Paul's Gate, where the ancient and the modern world are insidiously contrasted… Here is a mixture of tears and smiles, of stones and flowers, of mourning cypresses and radiant sky, which gives us the impression of our looking back at death from the brighter side of the grave.’

Cimitero Acattolico, aptly named since the criterion for burial here was to be ‘non-Catholic’, was founded in the early 18th century to provide a final resting place for visiting foreigners who died in Rome. In the shade of these pines and mourning cypresses, many celebrated figures rest. At the northeast corner of the cemetery (an area known as the Old Cemetery) you’ll find the poet John Keats and his faithful friend Joseph Severn, as well as Axel Munthe, the Swedish physician and author of the bestselling memoir The Story of San Michele.

Keats’ tombstone is hard to single out, since it doesn’t actually bear his name. His epitaph reads: ‘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 tombstone: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’

In the New Cemetery lies the tombstone of 19th-century English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, which can be found on the highest ground (at the base of a tower in the walls). On his memorial, Shelley’s great friend and champion Edward John Trelawny had engraved an excerpt from ‘Ariel’s Song’ in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Shelley’s boat was called the Ariel).

Near Shelley’s tombstone is one of the most poignant monuments in the cemetery, the Angel of Grief by American sculptor and poet William Wetmore Story. He died soon after concluding this memorial to his wife and was subsequently laid beside her.

In addition to great literary figures, the cemetery also contains the graves of many ordinary men and women across the centuries who lived or died in Rome. Banked up against the Aurelian Wall, their final resting place is verdantly tranquil, a place of blossom and birdsong, and also a refuge for some of the city’s stray cats.

Genuine mourners pay nothing for entry, whilst tourists are asked to make a small donation. If you’re short of time, you can see Keats’ grave from the outside, through a small window in the cemetery wall at the start of via Caio Cestio, a street named after the first well-known non-Catholic to be buried in the area: Gaius Cestius. Cestius was a Roman senator and general whose imposing pyramidic tomb was constructed as early as 12 BC, hence James’ remark about the ancient and modern being insidiously contrasted. The towering brick and cement structure was freestanding, until, in the 3rd century, like other pre-existing monuments, it was incorporated into the walls that were built to protect Rome from the growing threat of barbarian attack.

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