The Cemetery of Strangers [Cimiteri Acatollico]

by Luke Archer

Funny for such a peaceful place to be encircled by such chaos, but lying hidden in the shadow of the Pyramid of Cestius is my new favourite place in Rome. A graveyard it might be, but solemn it is not.

The graves are all lovingly cared for by a team of volunteers, and guarded religiously by an army of plump cats from the adjoined sanctuary. On my perambulation around the tombs, I noticed that the type of gravestone one has is very telling:

For either the subtle:

Or the simple:

There is a style to suit all.

The graveyard, however, is known for more than the array of its graves. It is the final resting place of some ex-pat comrades, poets Percy Shelley and John Keats.

Shelley died at sea and like a lot of literary icons his demise has been somewhat mythologised. What is certain is that he was on board a ship that sank, what is debated is whether his death was a result of apathy, conspiracy, or poor seamanship. His epitaph has the Latin Cor Cordium (heart of hearts) and a few lines of ‘Ariel’s Song’ from The Tempest, in homage to the watery nature of his death:

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.


Apparently though, not all of him is interred here. Mary Shelley’s desk was searched following her death, and in a drawer there was supposedly found a copy of one of his poems. With the poem, a silk purse was found that contained some of his ashes, and a part of his heart. They don’t make relationships like they used to, do they?

The poem that was supposedly found, Adonaïs, was a particularly celebrated work and funny that it should be an elegy of Keats, poet friend and graveyard neighbour.

Victim of the prolific poet’s illness, tuberculosis, Keats’ grave is on the left, purposefully devoid of his name.  Accompanying the image of the broken lyre is his requested epitaph: “Here lies one whose name is writ in water”. Lovely. The grave on the right is that of Keats’ devoted friend, the artist Joseph Severn. Between them lies Joseph’s son, Henry, who died of cot-death.

From poet to sculptor, my favourite grave is the work of William Wetmore Story. A poignant, physical visualisation of the grief he felt for his wife, this was the last thing he ever produced before joining her beneath the angel’s wings.

Dubbed the Angel of Grief, it is pretty much what it says on the tin. I like it a lot, so here is a profile shot:

Back to the feline inhabitants of the graveyard. As I continued to play the morbid flâneur, I was confronted with my own painfully obvious metaphor:

Ah, a butterfly! (before):

Oh, a cat (after):

No place like a cemetery to have life’s transience thrust into one’s face, I suppose.

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