The Design Observer Group

Posted 04.15.10

Jessica Helfand

Every Poem an Epitaph: The Protestant Cemetery in Rome

The Cimitero Acattolico in Rome

Predating Pere Lachaise and other great classic cemeteries, the Cimitero Acattolico in Rome is believed to have the largest concentration of well-known graves in the world, which sounds suspiciously like 
a typical Italian claim: hyperbolic and endearing but in all likelihood,
 debatable. Nevertheless, it sits across from the Pyramid of Cestius (dated
between 18 and 12 B.C.) and is divided into an old and a newer area, its principal
 draw being the graves of Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, the latter having come to Rome in
 the winter of 1820 hoping to recover from tuberculosis, where he succumbed to the 
disease only months later. Keats is buried next to his good friend Joseph Severn, a painter, who was apparently so poor at the time of his own death that
 a posse of friends paid for his internment. (An impressive crowd that included
 Gabriele Rossetti, all of whom are duly credited on the back of his tombstone.)
 Wedged between these lies a marker that could only belong to a child, and which turns 
out to be Severn’s son, who died accidentally in his crib as an infant.

Such woeful narratives are common in cemeteries,
 and the Acattolico is no exception. If Rome has rightfully earned its name as the 
eternal city, it is perhaps at least in part due to the dramatic stories on the 
sides of stone plinths such as these — tales 
expressing the infinity of grief, the interminability of mourning, a gloom so 
profound, it can only be reflected in a series of grey tablets, protruding from the 
earth with a kind of deep, solemn grace. That we visited on an overcast morning 
in early spring only added to the mystery: fragrant wisteria in bloom, trees
 just beginning to leaf out, a poignant backdrop to the inert stones and the 
stories they held. And here, you can’t help but be affected by the countless biographical 
fragments, stories that remind us of our own mortality
 (how could they not?), just as they gesture poetically to a time, long ago, when
 war and disease claimed young mothers and soldiers, grieving parents, even children 
in their cribs.

The famous are buried here, as well as the 
not-so-famous: what they mostly share in common is the fact that they were, for
 the most part, foreign-born. None were Catholic — there were Jews, Protestants 
and others — and no crosses were allowed on tombstones before about 1870. The 
graves themselves range from early neoclassical to full-tilt baroque, with no
 shortage of simple, minimalist, even neo-facist gravestones, barely more than
 geometric motifs in this otherwise densely plotted park. Some include typos — 
as in the case of the grave shared by two of the deceased children of the
 American sculptor William Story — which, I confess, seemed perfectly logical to 
me: after the loss of two children, how could you possibly remember 
how to spell February? 

Tombstone of Joseph Story

When it came time to bury his beloved wife, Story
 spelled everything correctly, and placed a weeping angel on her grave. Breathtaking, 
it can be seen from nearly every corner of the otherwise monochromatic site — a
 smoothly polished white winged creature, bent over the grave in eternal grief.

Tombstone of Joseph Story's wife

The social history here is evident in everything
 from the inscriptions to the names of the deceased — Elspeth Passarge, Horace
 Belshaw, and the inimitable (and scarcely pronouncable) Barronness Elsa
 Pfafferott. The dates, too, are telling, particularly when the life represented
 is, like Charles Dark (who “died for love”) such an abbreviated one.

Tomb of Elsbeth Passarage

Tombstone of Horace Belshaw

Tombstone of Elsa Pfafferott

“It might make one in love with death, to think 
that one should be buried in so sweet a place," wrote Percy Shelley, shortly before his own death. His first son, William, who died tragically at 
the age of three, probably of cholera, is buried here, as are the poet’s ashes.

Tombstone of William Shelley

Death, of course, eventually awaits us all. And who 
among us would not want to be remembered for being “noble in dignity” as the 
sculptor John Gibson; or for her “cultivated taste and cheerful Christian
 spirit,” as Elizabeth Susan Percy; or as the young Charles Duncombe, “a most 
dutiful and affectionate son and a rare example of piety purity of morals and 
goodness of heart.”

Tombstone of John Gibson

Tombstone of Elizabeth Percy

Tombstone of Charles Duncombe

One does not have to be a poet to write 
heartbreaking words on a piece of eternal stone. Or perhaps the opposite is 
true, that all such memorials are lyrical remembrances — that every poem, as T.S. 
Eliot once observed, is an epitaph.

Tombstone of Derrick Plant