Friday, March 19, 2010

Keats in Rome

I was reading about the recent fundraiser for the Keats-Shelley house in Rome, and it made me remember my visit there in 2002. It was on our first trip to Rome, and I was determined to make the requisite literary pilgrimages to the house and Keats' grave. Both surprised me by being rich experiences, filling out my trip in ways I had hardly imagined.

Like Alison, I found the house itself quite evocative, and moving. I drove myself crazy last night trying to remember where I stashed the photos from that visit, and, from what I can remember, the photos from inside the house, of which there were few (this happens when I'm really interested in something, or feel that taking photos might be disrespectful - I think in this case it was both), were blurry, flash-turned-off ones. Sorry, but you can take the virtual tour of the Salone (not for those prone to motion sickness). Alison mentions the view from Keats' window, especially, as bringing Keats off the page as a poet and into life as a real person. I felt much the same way there: somehow, the fact that the house is somewhat musty, cluttered and dark, and does little to play up the sensationalism of Keats' last days (25-year old Englishman tragically dies of TB!), made the scenes all the more powerful.

And, overall, I could hardly ask for a more peaceful, lush and enchanted place to be buried than in the Protestant cemetery. I certainly know where those photos are, since they made it into the album, and are in fact some of my favourites of all of our trips. First of all, you emerge from the Piramide metro station to find it has quite literally led you to a pyramid, now surrounded on all sides by modern traffic intersections. I can still remember the mix of historical vertigo and utter joy I felt when I saw it: hey, Kris, I don't mean to alarm you, but there's a pyramid in the middle of that intersection over there.

The pyramid of Cestius

The Pyramid of Cestius was built between 18 BC–12 BC as a tomb for Gaius Cestius Epulo, and is now one of the best preserved sites in modern Rome. Adding to my delight, it's now smashed right up against the Aurelian wall (well, it actually kind of looks like it ate part of the Aurelian wall for lunch) - this was apparently a cost- and time-saving measure when the Romans were building the wall (why waste precious stones on wall when there is a perfectly good pyramid to keep people out sitting right here?).

Then you get to the cemetery, called the Cimitero Acattolico in Italian, literally, the non-Catholics' cemetery. "It might make one in love with death / to be buried in so sweet a place," wrote Shelley. He's very nearly right. Added to the World Monuments Watch List in 2006, the cemetery, surrounded by a moat, is overflowing with lush trees, wild grasses, and white marble. From this deliciously illustrated magazine article, I learned that the cemetery was set up at the request of the ageing exile, James Stuart (yup, as in heir to the English throne), and that "the Vatican forbade the use of the symbol of a cross on any tombs, and, at least until the late 1870s, epitaphs could not contain any suggestion of “eternal bliss” which was relegated only to Catholics." Here you find epitaphs in English, Italian, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic (and more than ten other languages); artists, scientists, historians, diplomats, exiles, poets, and explorers lie side by side.

I've long been a wanderer in graveyards; it started when we lived in the country, and there were many local graveyards to walk the dog in, contemplate life, and escape the noise and bustle of Main Street (well, it was rue Principale, but you know what I mean). I don't think I ever encountered anyone else on my ramblings, and that was kind of the point. I still have fond memories of exploring the Anglican cemetery at Rougemont, and the cemeteries in and around Bedford and Mystic, and I still sometimes picnic in Macdonald Gardens Park, which I was strangely drawn to before finding out it used to be a cemetery, too. Not that these cemeteries aren't beautiful in their own way, and they all certainly had a sense of peace and reverence that I certainly responded to, but the Protestant cemetery in Rome was like all of these cemeteries on crack, for lack of a better analogy. It was one of the first times that the richness of history in Europe struck me. In Bedford or Rougemont, "old" graves would be those of the 1820s; in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, the earliest graves are only a century older, but the sense of history is amplified by the pyramid, and the Aurelian wall.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say one of the things that delighted me most about the cemetery (hey, when do you see "delight" and "cemetery" in the same sentence?) were the CATS. Yes, I mean felines. Strays, actually. You can see one at the gate above. Rome is known for its mangy cat population, and they really are everywhere, strutting around as though they owned the place, which, with their pus-filled eyes and dodgy hairballs, they kind of do. They have status as "biocultural patrimony" (stop doubting me! As if I could make this up! And you thought the colony at our Parliament was bad?! There's some perspective for you...). The cats stalk the cemetery, unwitting guardians, overseeing the tourists and defying gravity by perching on the wall and pyramid. Their presence adds an air of both gravity (these are cats of a certain lineage, you know) and whimsy.

Just when the smell of wild grass and pine needles overwhelms you, you come across Keats, Severn, and Severn's son (who died accidentally at the age of 1 - much has been made of the presence of an innocent child here, beside the great Romantic poet who celebrated the innocence of youth and barely shook it off himself). Keats has his harp, Severn his painter's palette, and the whole scene is equal parts art and artifice, and yet oddly none the less touching for being both.

Thanks to Alison for tipping off this flood of memories.

Keats' grave

Postscript: the cemetery is in a spot of trouble financially (and that's a bit of an understatement). Read more here.

Post-postscript: I had to take photos of these photos: they are from a non-digital camera, and my scanner is acting up today. That's how much I love you!

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