~ Il Cimitero Acattolica di Roma ~
Nearly four months ago when I arrived in Rome, my school provided us with a few helpful hints and guidelines through some orientation sessions. And one of the tid -bits of advice that stuck with me was this: Find a place or two in the city that you enjoy going to to relax or read or picnic. A place you can go to when you need to get away from campus or just need some fresh air whether it be a piazza, park, monument, or museum. Find a place in Rome and make it your own.
And about halfway through the semester, I finally found such a place for myself in a cememetry. Not just any cemetery though. The Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Rome. Its situated right alongside the Pyramid of Cestius and is often referred to as the cat cemetery, because of the many cats that lounge about the space and live in the cat shelter within the cemetery grounds.
The cemetery was first opened in 1716 for the burial of non-Catholic foreigners. The ecclesiastical laws of the Catholic Church say that Protestants can’t be buried in Catholic churches or consecrated grounds, so many non-Catholic cemeteries were created long ago in several parts of Italy that were frequented by visitors.
I first visited the cemetery with my creative writing on-site class, and together we paid a good deal of attention to the well-known writers buried there including John Keats and Percy Shelley, and Gregory Corso (an American poet of the Beat Generation who also taught and mentored my creative writing professor when she was a student).
I find Keats’ life story super interesting, so I’m going to geek out here for just a minute and briefly mention the story behind the inscription on his tombstone. Near the end of his life, Keats’ works were still largely under fire by critics at the time. Understandably, Keats’ was rather bitter at his lack of success as a writer. As the end of his life neared, Keats requested that his tombstone bear no name or date, but only the words, “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.” It’s said that this most likely signifies Keats’ own perception of his place in history: an easily forgotten existence that left nothing worthwhile behind to immortalize his name.
Despite his wish that these be the only words on his tombstone, more words were added as a part of the epitaph. The date, 24 February 1821, was also added to the tombstone though he actually died the 23rd of February 1821. SO interesting, right??
ANYWAY, I was late meeting with my class that day and walked entered the cemetery not knowing what to expect. And I was pleasantly surprised. By stepping beyond the cemetery’s gates, the day’s lesson turned into a visit to a sanctuary, a secret garden almost, a place full of stories and mystery. Perfect for creative writing, no?
The towering trees that stand throughout the cemetery swallow up the grounds in their shade and keep the outside world from infringing on the quietness of the space. Birds echo each other from the treetops and in one visit, you can see a number of cats milling about or sleeping on top of graves. Weaving in and out of the rows, one comes across many beautiful inscriptions, names, and works of art. In the midst of all these resting places are a couple benches for visitors.
I could go on about the beauty of the place, but for now, I’ll let my amateur photography skills attempt to do the talking.
And now, I’ll end with a few words from Percy Shelley himself on the beauty of Il Cimitero Acattolica di Roma:
“It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.” – Percy Shelley