Rome has always been the place of Christianity, of worship, of dogma and the destination of the faithful from all around the world. But where history and faith join in an indissoluble union, few know that Rome has always been the center of an artistic freedom that has crossed every border and every religion. Artists and free thinkers who encountered State-imposed limitations or religious constraints traveled to the “cradle of the popes” to find, in a fantastic paradox, that freedom that was not granted them in their native lands.
We are, therefore, ready for a hypothetical journey into the still-present past, in search of milestones of non-Catholic art.
People who dare, people who have a gift that allows them to protest by proposing changes that make history. This is what we are talking about today, about the eclectic personalities who have come to Rome and left their mark. They have told their own story, described their own century, the Eternal City or the whole of Italy without sparing themselves. They did not only relate all this, they actually made a difference. And it is precisely for discovering the daring artists who subverted the rules, that we go to the Non-Catholic Cemetery, to wander through the “crosses” in search of stories of “delight.”
We are in a corner of the city between Testaccio and Ostiense, in the neighborhoods where Roman-ness and protest are manifested with all the angry force of street art, where the sacred Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls mixes with the profane of nocturnal worldliness, in the shadow of the industrial architecture of the Centrale Montemartini. Next to the Pyramid of Cestius, the enormous monumental tomb of Caius Cestius erected in honor of the plebian tribune over 2000 years ago, the Non-Catholic Cemetery holds the mortal remains of those who, not being Catholics, could not be buried in the city. In the coolness of the age-old cypresses, Protestants, Jews, Orthodox Christians, and then suicides and actors, mostly foreigners, have found worthy burial, with tombstones in every language, in what has rightly deserved the title of “cemetery of artists and poets.”
Among the illustrious “unconventional” Italians, Carlo Emilio Gadda stands out. He lived between the late nineteenth century and the 1970s, and was the writer who changed the rules of the traditional structure of the novel, masterfully mixing dialects and neologisms, narrating in a critical and lucid manner the reality of his time. Often censored, he was a true innovator in the field of literature.
Much better known as “the Englishmen’s cemetery,” walking through its lush greenery we find the tomb of John Keats, who died from tuberculosis at the age of 25, at the turn of the 19th century. We read on his tombstone “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.” It was the English poet himself who chose these words to define himself and his work: floating, and elusive.
The same sensation can be felt in his house in Piazza di Spagna. Open to the public since 1909, the Keats-Shelley House is home to letters, manuscripts, portraits and relics of Romantics and followers of Keats such as Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman.
“The fountains are enough to justify a trip to Rome!”, wrote the great English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley after his stays in Rome, referring to fountains like Bernini’s Barcaccia at the foot of the Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti, where he lived. Anti-conformist and idealist, he was as much denigrated in life as loved by literary followers for centuries to come. The remains of this Romantic poet are also found in the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome, with the exception of his heart, buried in Bournemouth next to his widow, Mary Shelley. He who weaved his Ode to the Western Wind in the style of Dante, she who imagined a Gothic creature, destined to become the symbol of love and fear for all eternity with the name of Frankenstein.
The funerary epigraph recalls his terrible death in the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea with verses from the “Tempest” of Shakespeare: Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea change, into something rich and strange.
Close to these illustrious English poets, Lord George Byron only lived 22 days between Via Condotti and Via Borgognona. No plaque at No.66 of Piazza di Spagna reminds us of this other innovator of literature, whose brief “exile” coincided with Shelley’s visit to the Roman residence of Keats, ready to fill their works with the most romantic emotions, inspired by the ruins of the Eternal City. It was the year 1817 and, at the end of a Grand Tour, Lord Byron plunged into the Roman atmosphere, the aristocratic theatres, the cultural salons and bizarre rides on horseback in the moonlight. Eccentric and melancholic, the ancient past emerges, vivid and powerful, from his nostalgic writings on lost classicism, the same that he found in nocturnal walks. Amidst the incongruities of the magnificent, sumptuous palaces and the small plebeian squares, Rome was the perfect place for finding inspiration to write of his Romantic Heroes, fearless adventurers in perpetual balance between good and evil.
To admire the Roman panorama and to write poetry, he went as far as the hills of the Castelli Romani where he wrote “Lo, Nemi! navell’d in the woody hills.”
Let’s return to the Non-Catholic Cemetery and stop in front of what is perhaps its most famous emblem, the Angel of Grief. It is a marble sculpture by William Wetmore Story, the 19th-century American sculptor buried here with one of his sons and his wife, to whom he dedicated the weeping angel lying across the tomb.
In the mid-1800s, William Wetmore Story moved to Rome and his apartment in Palazzo Barberini became a salon of cultural exchange for Italian and foreign writers, musicians and artists. The works and the very burial of an American artist in the English Cemetery symbolized the entrance of New World culture into the Old World.
Last but not least, we would mention the tomb of Romeo. No, don’t think of romantic stories like that of Romeo and Juliet, you don’t understand… Romeo is a cat! Emblem of the characteristic communities of cats seen almost everywhere in the capital, Romeo’s small grave is found next to that of Antonio Gramsci and recalls the friendly cat, loved by visitors and given a typically Roman name, with a tombstone bearing a plaque with his lovely silhouette.
These artists, each in their own way, had the courage to effectively change history, they told of a different world, they were moved and, in turn, have moved generations of writers and readers. Now it’s your turn to “toast tonight and laugh out loud, because tomorrow you might be under a cypress tree”!