John Keats died at Rome of a consumption, in his twenty-fourth year, on the [23rd] of [February] 1821; and was buried in the romantic and lonely cemetery of the protestants in that city, under the pyramid which is the tomb of Cestius, and the massy walls and towers, now mouldering and desolate, which formed the circuit of ancient Rome. The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to Adonais: An Elegy upon the Death of John Keats
Before we set out on our trip, our friend David jotted down a few suggestions of places we might visit. Here’s one:
The English Cemetery by the Pyramid of Cestius, partly for Keats and Shelley graves but also for the peaceful atmosphere of the whole. Check opening times – erratic. And approach or return by my favourite walk, up and over the Aventine including Santa Saba and Santa Sabina and the lovely park with orange trees.
David’s suggestion took us exactly to the sort of slice of Rome we’d been seeking but didn’t know how to find.
The cemetery, lovingly tended by knowledgeable staff, is variously known as the “Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners” and the “Protestant Cemetery.”
The Cemetery population is both exceptionally diverse and exceptionally rich in writers, painters, sculptors, historians, archaeologists, diplomats, scientists, architects and poets, many of international eminence. In addition to the significant number of Protestant and eastern Orthodox graves, other faiths that are represented include Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Tomb inscriptions are in more than fifteen languages – Lithuanian, Bulgarian, Church-Slavonic, Japanese, Russian, Greek and Avestic, often engraved in their own non-Roman scripts. [cite]
At the time of our visit, I was in the midst of reading That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, set in Rome. Turned out its author, Carlo Emilio Gadda, was among those interred in the maze of cemetery rows. When I asked one of the staff, a British ex-pat, where to find it, he was delighted to oblige and led me straight to the spot.
I found the novel imponderable and entertaining in equal parts, and it seemed only proper to give Gadda, or anyway his gravestone, a tip of the hat. In 1966, reviewer D. J. Enright captured the experience of reading the novel with élan:
The mess in question is primarily the gruesome murder (though not, as some reviewers have understandably supposed, the rape-murder) of a genteel married lady, in Rome in 1927. Extra mess is provided by a case of commonplace robbery in the same apartment house. Carlo Emilio Gadda’s mess, piled up behind these messes, seems to be Mussolini in particular and human life in general. And his novel is a fine mess indeed, though its impact at this moment (it was written in 1946) is somewhat lessened by the fact that the mess-novel has been with us for some time now, an extremely arty art-form which justifies itself by appealing to the natural messiness of life. [cite]
Italo Calvino had a more philosophic take on the “mess” in his introduction to the English translation:
The murder story was inspired by a crime that had recently been committed in Rome. The philosophical inquiry was based on a concept announced at the novel’s very outset: nothing can ever be explained if we confine ourselves to seeking one cause for every effect. Every effect is determined by multiple causes, each of which has still other, numerous causes behind it. Every event, a crime for example, is like a vortex where various streams converge, each moved by heterogeneous impulses, none of which can be overlooked in the search for the truth. [Preface, p. v.]
The friends of the cemetery put out a quarterly newsletter, three of which I was given when we left. In each, prominent space is given to articles piecing together stories of those buried who are not at all well-known—like Jacques Auquier, a French silk-worker from Uzès. [Newsletter No. 43, Summer 2018]
While at the cemetery, in similar vein, I took photographs not only of graves of those whose names I knew, but also sometimes simply because a person’s image on the gravestone was somehow evocative, like Carstens, who seemed the epitome of a génie romantique.
Once back in the US, I happened to pick up a remaindered book, “The Romantic Revolution.” Lo, a few pages in, Asmus Jacob Carstens made an appearance as an artist sticking his thumb in the eye of academic authority:
[Carstens] was also aggressively individualistic and vehemently opposed to the academic ethos. Orphaned at fifteen, he passed up the chance to be apprenticed to the famous Johann Heinrich Tischbein, court painter at Kassel, because he could not stomach also being a servant, whose duties would have included standing outside at the rear of the carriage while his master sat inside. So he found himself apprenticed to a cooper instead. [The Romantic Revolution, p. 14]
Carstens wrote, to the Prussian minister of education, no less:
When nature brings forth a genius (and that happens very seldom) and when that genius forces his way past a thousand obstacles into the light of day, then he ought to be supported. Posterity will honour a monarch as much for supporting a genius as for winning a battle or conquering a province. [The Romantic Revolution, pp. 14-15]
A more recent inhabitant of the cemetery is Belinda Lee. I had no idea who she was, but found her monument intriguing. I still don’t know what’s intended by the monument, but there was definitely intrigue in her short life (she died in a car crash at 25):
Of all the Rank Organisation’s starlets, Belinda Lee stands out as the most notorious, yet paradoxically anonymous, British actress of the 1950s. . . . The studio was keen to raise her profile but struggled with its direction. . . . During her time in Italy she started an adulterous affair with aristocrat Prince Filippo Orsini, which resulted in international scandal when the two of them made a suicide pact. . . . [cite]
Well, you can just imagine the endless stream of stories the cemetery has the potential to yield. From our visit, here’s one with a focus on the cemetery’s cats, here’s another about beat poet Gregory Corso, and here’s a third about Sarah Parker Remond, an African-American abolitionist and physician.
From the cemetery, we wandered up Aventine Hill toward the Basilica di Santa Sabina and neighboring Basilica dei Santi Bonifacio ed Alessio.
As we neared the churches we spotted a flower girl, still in her wedding garb. A wedding—or perhaps more than one, as we saw a pair of brides and grooms in nearby Giardino degli Aranci—had recently occurred, and the wedding party was just beginning to disperse.
More wedding-evidence appeared in the Basilica di Santa Sabina, the floor of which was bedecked with white and pink roses.
As we strolled in the garden and took in the view over Rome, time seemed to slow down. Here, for the first time on our Roman sojourn, there weren’t throngs of tourists. Rather, we slipped—we hoped unobtrusively—into the rhythms of a neighborhood whose inhabitants were simply going about their day.
It was time for lunch, so we struck out in search of a simple sandwich. This proved elusive, but while in search, we stumbled upon something even better—a large and lively green market.
When we travel, we try to stay in apartments, shop locally, and cook most of our own meals. Wen in a place like Rome, it’s hard not to fantasize shopping in a place like that Gadda described in That Awful Mess:
[Blondie] moved slowly in front of the lambish stands, passed carrots and chestnuts and adjacent mounds of bluish-white fennel, mustached, rotund heralds of Aries: then in short the whole herbarian republic, where in the contest of prices and offers the new celery already led the field; and the smell of the burnt chestnuts, at the end, seemed, from the few remaining braziers, the very odor of winter in flight. On many stands yellowed, now without time and without season, the pyramids of oranges, walnuts, in baskets the black Provence plums, polished with tar, plums from California; at the very sight of which water rose in the back of his mouth. Overwhelmed by the voices and cries, by the shrill comminations of all the lady vendors together, he reached at last the ancient, eternal realm of Tullus and of Ancus where, stretched on carving boards, prone or, more rarely, supine, or dozing on one flank at times, the suckling pigs with golden skin displayed their viscera of rosemary and thyme, or a knot here and there, green-black, within the pale and tender skin, a leaf of bitter mint, set there as if to lard, with a grain of pepper which the cry praised in the hubbub . . . [Gadda, pp. 354-355]
The reality for us was different, needless to say: we shopped in a supermarket tucked in the basement of a clothing store. The selection was ample, but certainly not the stuff a traveler’s dreams are made of . . .
So now, here we were, looking for a sandwich and finding a cornucopia of produce, cheese, pasta, and much more. We chose simple, freshly prepared, lunches, sat at a trestle table, and tucked in.
Refreshed, I did that thing I can’t seem to resist, which is to try and see “just one more thing.” The one more thing, in this case, was the Capitoline Museums. They’re most famous for ancient sculpture, but what captured my attention was the promise of a Caravaggio or two.
As we climbed the Capitoline Hill, the vista of a grand ruin appeared. What we’d stumbled on, after the previous day’s failed effort, was a magnificent view of the Roman Forum, far from the madding crowd.
Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller proved a bit anticlimactic, an earlier work without the dramatic use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism I associate with his art. It does, however, have its own sly charm:
Early critics praised The Gypsy Fortune Teller for its naturalism: the convincing encounter between the calculating fortune teller and the naïve young dandy. Yet Caravaggio creates the scene from his imagination, inspired by popular plays and literature of the time that both romanticized gypsies and warned about their frauds. He shows the sly young woman running her fingers enticingly across the youth’s palm, reading his future as she looks into his eyes. Smitten by her beauty, he is blind to her deception as she slips the ring (now barely visible) off his finger. On seeing one of Caravaggio’s gypsy paintings, a contemporary exclaimed: “I don’t know who is the greater sorcerer: the woman who dissembles, or you, who painted her.” [cite]
Among paintings by Veronese, Domenico Tintoretto, and a seductive (if you can imagine) St. Sebastian by Bottega del Garofalo, Ludovico Carracci’s affecting Portrait of a Young Man caught my eye.
While we knew there was much more to see, we also knew it was more than we could take in. We strolled across the Tiber, stopping for gelato, back to our Roman home away from home after a wholly satisfying day.
Andrew Norman, Sabina, (2008-9) (scored for solo violin or viola or cello, duration 8 minutes)
Norman wrote of Sabina:
In October 2006 I visited the ancient church of Santa Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill. I entered very early in the morning, while it was still dark, and as I listened to the morning mass I watched the sunrise from within the church. The light in Santa Sabina is breathtaking; the large clerestory windows are not made of glass but of translucent stone, and when light shines through these intricately patterned windows, luminous designs appear all over the church’s marble and mosaic surfaces. As I watched the light grow and change that morning, I was struck by both its enveloping, golden warmth and the delicacy and complexity of its effects. I sketched the material for this piece soon after that unforgettable experience. [cite]
Norman subsequently composed The Companion Guide to Rome (2010), for string trio. Sabina is incorporated into that work as its last movement.
Credits: Sources for the quotations are at the links in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.