Death in Rome : The Protestant Cemetery and The Catacombs of San Callisto

One visit I had promised myself on this trip to Rome was pay to a call at the Cimitero Acattolico or, as usually known in English, The Protestant Cemetery at Rome.

pyramid

“The cemetery is an open space among ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think one should be buried in so sweet a place”

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Adonais: an elegy on the death of John Keats (1821)

I checked the website carefully before leaving home and made extra sure that Saturday 14 March was not a holiday and so after taking the train from Tivoli to Rome I made my way to the cemetery. When you emerge from the Pyramide Metro Station you can’t miss the huge Pyramid to Gaius Cestius and the cemetery is right next door: but you risk life and limb when crossing the roads to get to it!

Thomas Hardy wrote a poem entitled

“Rome at the Pyramid of Cestius Near the Graves of Shelley and Keats (1887)”

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.

cemetery

I was not disappointed. It’s truly an oasis of peace and tranquility. It’s divided into sections pre- and post- 1821; which is why Shelley’s ashes are not buried near Keats’s grave.

keats and severn

The Graves of Keats and Severn (and Severn’s son)

‘Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water’ [The only words Keats wished to be on his gravestone]

‘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’ [Words added by his friends Joseph Severn and Charles Brown]

To Shelley's

shelley's

‘Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange’

From Shakespeare’s The Tempest [Shelley was drowned and only his ashes are buried here]

There is an especially good chapter about the cemetery in Peter Stanford’s “How to read a graveyard“.

shop and info

There’s a small bookshop and information office (above) near the entrance and the English guide helped me to pinpoint the grave of a little-known Australian author whose books I enjoy : Martin Boyd.

MB grave

His best-known book is “Lucinda Brayford” but I’ve enjoyed reading his Langton tetralogy lately :

The Langton tetralogy which, though not published as a series during his lifetime, is now referred to as a collective:
The Cardboard Crown (London, England: Cresset Press, 1952.)
A Difficult Young Man (London, England : Cresset Press, 1955.)
Outbreak of Love (London, England: John Murray, 1957.)
When Blackbirds Sing (London, England: Abelard-Schuman, 1962.)

MB headstone

Martin Boyd’s Headstone

Even though the Protestant Cemetery was high on my list this visit I also hoped to walk some of the famous Appian Way, the Roman road that connects Rome with Brindisi in southeast Italy. I read in my guidebooks how to get there and which were the best parts to see then noticed in small inset box this note : Enjoy Rome offers a 3-hour bus and walking tour of the Appia Antica … Call for tour times.

At Catacomb

At the Catacombs

I discovered that the Enjoy Rome office is very near to Termini Station so I bought a ticket for the Tuesday 10am departure. The first stop of the excursion is at The Catacombs of San Callisto. We were able to descend into a maze of tunnels and see various types of burial chambers with and without mural decorations.

entrance

“Ancient Roman law forbade burials, regardless of religion, inside the city walls. San Callisto is one of the most famous of over 60 catacombs in the city area. There are multiple levels of 1900 year old hand-dug corridors, past a mind-boggling number of tomb niches. Christian-themed inscriptions and frescoes, often endearingly simplistic but carrying strong messages of faith, are everywhere in the catacombs.” [Adapted from Frommer’s Rome Day-By-Day] Several Popes were entombed here.

“The Crypt of St. Cecilia: the popular patron saint of music. Of a noble Roman family, she was martyred in the 3rd c. and entombed where the statue now lies. She was venerated in this crypt for at least five centuries. In 821 her relics were transferred to Trastevere, in the basilica dedicated to her.

St Cecilia pc

The statue of St. Cecilia is a copy of the celebrated work sculptured by Stefano Maderno in 1599.
The crypt was all covered with mosaics and paintings (beginning of the IX Century). On the wall, near the statue, we see an ancient painting of St. Cecilia in an attitude of prayer; lower down, in a small niche, is a fresco representing Christ holding a Gospel. On the right side is the figure of St.Urban. On the wall of the shaft is the painting of three martyrs: Polycamus, Sebastian and Quirinus.” [Source]

No photography is allowed in the catacombs but I snapped a couple of postcards showing what it’s like down in the depths!

what it's like inside

Back at the Cemetery the cats are looked after by volunteers and even have their own website.

i gatti

empty cat basket

Empty Basket – Where can they be?

cat 1

cat 2

cat 3

7 comments on “Death in Rome : The Protestant Cemetery and The Catacombs of San Callisto

  1. Tuba says:

    Cats look well fed 🙂

  2. […] trip to The Protestant Cemetery took less time than I had envisaged and I’d booked the Appian Way walk so, as a friend had […]

  3. nilly says:

    I’d forgotten that Severn had made a successful life in Rome and I’d love to see the graves of the two friends. I’ve loved Keats (poems and the man) since I was a child – not so sure I’d bother visiting Shelley’s grave. I’m being much too subjective I know, but I don’t approve of his complicated love life!

  4. Well, nilly … when in Rome … you gotta see ’em all!

  5. […] ‘Catacombs and Roman Countryside Group’ with Enjoy Rome. I’ve written about the Catacombs and Aqueduct visits already. Now its the turn of The Appian Way. You’ll have noticed already […]

  6. […] Goethe on the Via del Corso nearby. I wrote a little bit about Goethe earlier this year. Here is another place of peace and calm and amazingly right on the Via Del […]

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