Rome: where the dead are so much more interesting than the living …

It would seem that a popular pastime among the English upper classes in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries was to go to Italy in search of better health, and then die there.  This presented a problem for the local authorities, because it was forbidden for non-Catholics to be buried in consecrated ground.  In Rome they got around this problem by creating the Cimitero Acattolico, which is often referred to as the English Cemetery, or the Foreigners’ Cemetery.

It’s a beautiful spot – a haven of tranquility in a frenetic city – and I spent a happy morning pottering around celebrity spotting and admiring the beautiful cypress trees, flowers and impressive statuary. When Keats died in Rome in 1821, he was buried here, inspiring his friend Shelley to write, “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”  I know that a poem isn’t quite the same as a living will, but it must have given Shelley’s family some idea of where he wanted to be buried, when he himself died less than a year later.

And it’s not only the graves of the famous that command attention. There are many others that are beautiful, intriguing, tragic – and a testament to how greatly loved these people were. An American sculptor created his last work – a grieving angel – in memory of his wife before he died too, just nine months after her … possibly of a broken heart?

I spent a long time looking at a very realistic statue of a young Bulgarian boy who died just before his eleventh birthday, and admiring the details like his rolled-down socks and lace-up shoes. He’s holding a book, so perhaps he was a consumptive child, too sickly for anything more energetic than reading. His mother has a small grave, placed protectively in front of her son’s, and she died in Rome twenty-seven years later. I wondered whether she’d felt unable to return to Sofia after losing her son, and so she stayed to be near him and to look after his grave.

Another grave sported a statue of Chekov’s Three Sisters, because it was the deceased’s favourite play, and then there were quite a few broken columns, representing lives cut short. A woman who lived to be a hundred had a representation of a shopping basket, a music bag, a skipping rope and a ball on her grave. I wondered if these things represented the secret of her longevity. And finally I came across a rather affected young man, lounging across his tombstone, who has the best name ever … Devereux Plantagenet Cockburn. Someone with such a name really has no option other than to die a romantic death at a tragically young age. Although the inscription does mention his ‘rare corporeal endowments’, so perhaps they also had a hand in his early demise.

It’s not just in the English Cemetery where there are interesting tombs. In the Vatican there’s the sarcophagus of Constantine the Great’s mother, Helena. However, the very masculine, military decoration on the coffin has led scholars to believe that this was the sarcophagus that Constantine had had made for himself, but his mother nipped in and snaffled it before he was ready to make full use of it himself.

Michaelangelo’s grave in Rome doesn’t have the wrong person in it; it has nobody in it at all. After Michaelangelo was buried with great pomp in Rome in 1564, he was removed in the dead of night two weeks later to be reburied secretly in Florence, in accordance with his wishes – but his gravestone remains in the church of Santi Apostoli.

After my trip to Rome, I’m thinking of adding to the famous saying:

See Naples and die … but make sure you’re buried in Rome.