Beauty at death's door

Famous figures of history lie in one of the Eternal City's most remarkable cemeteries, writes Desmond O'Grady.

THE cemetery for non-Catholics in Rome has been called the world's most beautiful. It rivals Highgate in London and the Pere Lachaise in Paris as an assembly of extraordinary figures, with John Keats the most renowned. Serried cypresses and pines provide shade but the oldest section, where Keats lies, is open lawn. Oscar Wilde called it the holiest place in Rome.

Free of car fumes and noise, the bucolic cemetery is one of the city's most serene sites, which suggests the company of the dead is preferable in Rome to that of the living - at least when they are driving cars.

Box hedges enclose many of the graves, wild violets, daisies and primroses grow in the lawns; there are roses, irises, myrtle shrubs, wisteria and pomegranate trees. Birds sing. Exuberant nature offsets death.

Keats, who died from tuberculosis at 25, only four months after arriving in Rome in 1821, lies next to his faithful companion, Joseph Severn. The tombstone does not carry Keats's name. It states: "This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET"; it also features the couplet chosen by Keats himself: "Here lies One/Whose Name was writ in Water."

Keats has plenty of literary company. Percy Bysshe Shelley, who said it could "make one in love with death to be buried in so sweet a place", joined Keats there two years later - or, at least, his ashes did after he had drowned off the Tuscan coast at 29.

Close by is his memorialist, Edward Trelawny, who has been called "Shelley's jackal". In the vicinity are the graves of Constance Fenimore Woolson, an American novelist, whose death after falling or jumping from a window in Venice greatly disturbed her novelist cousin Henry James; Englishman John Addington Symonds, an early campaigner for homosexual rights who wrote an influential history of the Renaissance; Gregory Corso, a San Francisco beat generation poet; and English film star Belinda Lee, who was married to a Roman nobleman but, at 27, died in a car crash in California.

Two Australian writers lie in the cemetery. Martin a Beckett Boyd spent his last 15 years in Rome, writing four books there before his death in 1971 at 78. On his deathbed at the Blue Sisters Rome hospital, he converted to Catholicism, which means he is out of place in a cemetery founded in 1734 for non-Catholics.

In Rome, Catholics do not have all the best sites. It is often called the Protestant cemetery but, rather, is non-Catholic. Those of faiths other than Catholicism, and of no faith at all, are buried there, including a founding father of Italian Communism, Antonio Gramsci, and Jewish-Italian atomic physicist Bruno Pontecorvo, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1950 and died there in 1993.

Lying near Boyd is an Australian poet, Bertram Whiting, who, at 65, died in the same year as the novelist.

After wartime service in India and bee-keeping close to Melbourne, "Bertie" Whiting settled in Rome with his painter wife, Lorrie, Malcolm Fraser's sister. The Whiting Studio in Rome is now available for Australian writers.

Among the dozen other Australians in the cemetery are a former ambassador to Italy, Hugh McClure Smith, and another diplomat, John Kirtley. Two others who sound as if they would have a story to tell are Catherine Hillcourt of Cloncurry, who died in 1998 at 99, and Dora Olfsen-Bagge, described as a musician, painter and sculptor, who died in 1948 at 70.

The cemetery rewards browsers. In every row are intriguing tombs, such as that of August, the son of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; of Johann Samuel, a grandson of Johann Sebastian Bach; and of eight members of the aristocratic Fersen family, who, at the time of the Russian Revolution, escaped from Yalta, along with thousands of others, on HMS Marlborough.

There are several tombs of the Greek Orthodox Bulgari family, who established Rome's most famous jewellers. There is the tomb of Richard Mason, author of The World of Suzie Wong, and that of Carlo Emilio Gadda, perhaps Italy's leading 20th-century novelist.

There are tombs of three British airmen who died in 1919 while pioneering civil air routes to Asia and Australia.

One of the passengers on their plane, which crashed in Rome, was T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), who was on his way to Cairo to collect material for his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He survived the crash with a fractured shoulder and cracked ribs.

An earlier Rome is recalled by tombs such as that of Rose Bathurst, a beautiful 16-year-old admired by Stendhal, who was swept to death by Tiber floodwaters as she was riding a horse in 1824. Until enclosed by high walls in the 1870s, the river floods caused death and destruction almost annually.

The cemetery is flanked by Rome's only pyramid, a funeral monument to a Roman magistrate, Caius Cestius, who died in 12BC.

A walk along the cemetery wall towards the exit brings you opposite the Rome War Cemetery, which is flanked by the Aurelian Wall. In its spacious, meticulously tended, rectangular lawn, arranged with military precision, are 426 graves of Commonwealth soldiers and airmen who died in Italy during World War II, either in action or as prisoners of war. Four were members of the RAAF.

One is Flying Officer David Murray Gow, 24, who died on May 25, 1944.

The other three died on October 20, 1943, presumably in the same circumstances. They are John Joseph Craner, 21, of Junee; Flight Sergeant Sidney Maynard Close, 29, of South Australia, and Flight Sergeant Ronald Clifford Williams, 22, of Victoria.

Each year on Anzac Day a well-attended commemoration service is conducted at the war cemetery.

Trip notes

Getting there

The two cemeteries can be reached after a short walk from the Piramide Metro station or from the Marmorata-Caio Cestio bus stop. Buses that serve it are 3, 23, 30, 60, 175, and 280, which run beside the Tiber.

Getting in

The non-Catholic cemetery is open daily from 9am (last entry 4.30pm), Sunday and public holidays 9am-1pm (last entry 12.30pm). Main entrance is at Via Caio Cestio 6, +39 6574 1900, cemeteryrome.it.

The Rome War Cemetery is at Via Nicola Zabaglia 50. Opening times vary, +39 6509 9911 for details.

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