Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Protestant Cemetery

It has been raining pretty much non-stop here for the last week.  Fortunately, Rome looks good in the rain.  And cemeteries always look good in the rain, in that melancholy kind of way.

On Sunday, a hearty group of us slid down the cobblestones of Trastevere and over to Testaccio and the "non-Catholic" cemetery, founded in the 18th century just inside the walls, by the Pyramid of Caius Cestius.  We were fortunate to have as our guide the pre-eminent historian of the cemetery, Nicholas Stanley-Price, formerly of the Getty Conservation Institute and ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property).  Anyone interested in the history of this cemetery, where the likes of Keats, Shelley, and Gramsci are buried (not to mention dozens of other important figures from 19th and the 20th century cultural life of Britain, the United States, and Italy) should look at Stanley-Price's brand new book

We dutifully paid homage to Keats, whose stone inscription has to be the saddest of any I have seen.

He only wished for this:

Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water

But his friend, Joseph Severn felt it important to add a swipe at Keats' critics: 

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

Nearby, is a simple column, with an important footnote:  it is one of only two standing works designed by Piranesi (the other being the small church, Santa Maria del Priorato).

I was pleased to be able pay homage to the founder of the Italian Community Party and one of the greatest leftist intellectuals of the 20th century, Antonio Gramsci.  It was the anniversary of his birth on January 22, so the gravesite was well-tended and festooned with flowers -- red, of course.

Perhaps the last monument we saw evoked the most discussion long after we had left.  The pollution of this part of Rome has made it near impossible to keep the stones (and even the nearby pyramid) clean for any length of time.  The statue below was cleaned not a century ago, but just over a decade ago.  We left wondering if perhaps the effort should be given up, and the monuments should be let gracefully fall into Ruskinian ruin.  

To deepen our thinking about the layers of the past in this city, we had lunch in a restaurant built into Monte Testaccio, the hill created beginning about 2000 years ago, as amphorae (the plastic bottles of their day) were broken and stacked up.  At the back of the restaurant, glass reveals the careful piles of the amphorae, resting for nearly two millennia.

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