I got my job through sheer good fortune. I had come to Rome intending to pay the rent by teaching English. I left my CV at the Keats-Shelley museum in Piazza di Spagna and two weeks later the curator asked me if I would be interested in working at Romes Protestant cemetery instead. The offer appealed both to my literary taste and to that part of me that has always wanted to be a temple priestess, oracle or other hierophant guardian of mortals.
Most of the day-to-day work done in the cemetery is gardening; a staff of six gardeners tends both the communal grass, trees and flowers and the plants on individual graves. There is also a designated stonemason, whose workshop, according to an old plan of the cemetery, was once the autopsy room. He incises new inscriptions as well as re-cutting those that are worn. My job was rather less technical: I merely had to open
the gate to people and help visitors find specific graves usually
the obvious, famous ones, but also relatives and subjects of
January was decidedly cold, tramping the 20 metres between the office and the huge gate. A Russian Orthodox service of blessing, with swinging incense burners smoking into the frosty air, a black-clad and bearded priest and Slavic incantations, made a perfect picture of winter desolation. The cats, from the sanctuary under the pyramid of Caius Cestius, congregated about the office and made frequent and daring sorties into the warmth. The high point of each day was steaming chickpea soup and highly sugared espresso cooked up in the gardeners kitchen.
With the spring came a shiny new electric gate, which broke down frequently but generally left me free to help with the secretarial running of the cemetery, which is private and generates much of its income from yearly bills for the upkeep of graves. These are usually paid by the relatives and descendants of the deceased. There is about one funeral a month, and the cemetery is presided over by a rotating committee of foreign ambassadors.
Protestant is in fact a misnomer. The cemetery is more properly called the Cimitero Acattolico per gli Stranieri. In theory, since 1953 burial here has been restricted merely to foreign non-Catholics, resident in Rome at the time of their death, although Antonio Gramsci slipped through a loophole into the family plot of a sister-in-law, and other Italians have also found their last resting place here. Residents include Jews, Muslims and members of the Orthodox faith, not to mention agnostics and atheists. The poets, artists, politicians, diplomats, historians and sculptors among the 4,000 people buried here bear witness to the perennial magnetism of the Eternal City and the diverse talents of the community it attracts.
Prior to the 18th century, non-Catholics in Rome had usually been buried under the city wall, along with prostitutes, suicides and other such undesirables. However then came an influx of foreign aristocrats and diplomats, epitomised by young northern Europeans on the Grand Tour, and with them a pressing need for a more respectable burial site. The boundaries of the cemetery were eventually established and fenced off in 1824. The first person known to have been buried here was an Oxford graduate by the name of Langton, who died in 1738 at the age of 25; the second was Werpup, a student from Hanover, who died in 1765, also at 25, in a fall from his carriage. Although foreign non-Catholics were now given decent burial next to the pyramid, the ceremonies were not unproblematic. Papal authorities decreed that funerals could only take place at night (with few exceptions); perhaps to protect them from outraged Catholic citizens or as a symbol of the darkness and flame into which the non-Catholic souls were doubtless descending.
The flower-covered open countryside (as it then was) set under the sublime and desolate ruin of a lost classical civilization proved a heady mixture for poetic imaginations. Goethe expressed the wish that Mercury might lead him down to Hades from here, a desire fulfilled in the next generation by his son, Julius. Shelley in his luminous preface to Adonais opined that it might make one in love with death to be buried in so sweet a place. The graves of those most beloved of English Romantic poets, Keats and Shelley, are the ones most frequently asked for. People constantly bring flowers, particularly for Keats, and leave notes and poems like votive offerings on his grave. One generous soul even brought daffodils from England, leaving them with a note: The first English daffodils for a young English poet.
The cemetery is a peaceful, garden-like place, enclosed within high walls, well watered even in high summer. Daisies and camellias bloom together over this gentle resting place for the dead, which is an inspiration to the living; whether Henry James, who described the exquisite summery luxuriance of the spot, or the contemporary acting student who told me he had spent all day lying on the grass in the old part of the cemetery with a mock paper gravestone at his head that he might be metaphorically reborn. The cemetery is a kindly sanctuary for many, as well as
for the cats that wander, like pilgrim souls, over the visited and
Cimitero Acattolico per gli Stranieri,
Via Caio Cestio 6, tel. 065741900.
Picture: Poetic imaginations have been inspired for centuries by the picturesque cemetery.