Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Lack of financial support threatens Roman burial ground

A tiny paradise slips away - Europe - International Herald Tribune: "Rome's tiny Non-Catholic Cemetery possibly contains the highest density of famous and important bones anywhere in the world, the cramped final resting place of the poets Shelley and Keats, dozens of diplomats, the Bulgari family, Goethe's only son, and Antonio Gramsci, a founding father of European Communism, to name a few.

The site, also widely known as the Protestant Cemetery, although it contains the graves of Jews and other non-Christians, is also the oldest burial ground in continuous use in Europe, conservationists say.

More than that, it is hard to think of another urban site quite so glorious - cemetery or no - with towering cypress trees protecting a hodgepodge of elaborate and eclectic graves and monuments, nestled on a hill in the shadows of the Pyramid of Cestius (12 B.C.) and a section of Rome's ancient Aurelian wall.

'It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place,' wrote Shelley, several years before he drowned and was buried here.

But today, this precious bit of paradise is decaying and in financial crisis, recently added to the World Monument Fund's 2006 Watch List of the 100 most endangered sites on earth. Many of its important monuments are crumbling like the bones they mark, damaged by pollution and years without archeological maintenance. The landscape is overgrown, waterlogged by poor drainage.

'It looks romantic and lovely, but the stones are falling apart,' said Valerie Magar, a conservation specialist at the United Nations International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, which conducted a 10-week assessment of the cemetery last summer.

'This is a site that requires a lot of treatment. There is a considerable amount of work that needs to be done and the price is way over the cemetery's budget.'

Part of the problem is that the cemetery, which was founded in 1734, has always been something of an outcast in this Roman Catholic country, where the Vatican traditionally paid most of the costs of public works. For centuries it was the only place in Rome where non-Catholics could be legally buried; the Vatican assigned it land outside the city walls since non-believers could not be buried on Rome's consecrated ground.

Even in decay, however, it remains a unique testimony to the sometimes inexplicable love affair that so many foreigners - artists, philosophers, bankers, diplomats, wayward nobleman - have had with this city, each fading monument a statement by someone who chose to die and be buried here, rather than go home.

Given that Rome has long been a magnet for expatriate aesthetes it should not be surprising that the monuments tend to the exotic: cosseted with angels, decked with laurels and draped with words.

Shelley's tomb, which clings to a small hollow in the Aurelian wall, bears an inscription from Shakespeare's "The Tempest": "Nothing of Him that Doth Fade, But Doth Suffer a Sea Change, Into Something Rich and Strange."

Just down the hill is the gorgeous sculpture "Angel of Grief," created by the American sculptor W.W. Story for the grave of his wife, Emelyn. An iconic portrait of mourning, it depicts a huge winged angel, with head and arms draped over the grave. (A replica was erected at Stanford University as a memorial to the victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.)

"The cemetery is filled with beautiful funerary sculpture and has a great concentration of artists, writers and diplomats from all nations," said Catherine Payling, director of the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, reeling off a partial list of interesting residents: Johan Ackerblad, the 18th-century Swedish diplomat and archaeologist who helped decipher the Rosetta Stone; John Bell, an important 18th-century Scottish surgeon; Josef Myslivecek, the 18th-century Czech composer who inspired Mozart and is credited with inventing the string quintet; Belinda Lee, a British actress who died in a car crash in Southern California in 1961 at age 27; Karl Pavlovich Briullov, who died here in 1852, the first Russian painter of international standing; Gregory Corso, the American beat generation poet.
Although many of the more famous or newer graves enjoy foundation or private funds for upkeep (the Keats-Shelley House maintains those of the two poets), about half receive nothing at all, Payling said.

And the decaying tombs of those long dead often tell the most mysterious and interesting stories: There is the simple tomb of William Harding of Scarboro, who died at age 31 in 1821, "while making a tour through Italy to see its curiosities of nature and art, ancient and modern," his marker explains.

There is Elizabeth Phelps, an American, who fought for women's suffrage and Cuban independence in the 19th century, buried here because she wanted to rest near the poet Shelley.
Perhaps most striking is a large monument bearing a relief of an angel collecting a teenage girl, erected by a grieving mother to house the body of her 16-year-old daughter, Rosa, and honor the memory of her husband, Benjamin. Its apex is now held together by a bungee cord.
Rosa drowned in the early 19th century while riding her horse by the Tevere River during a flash flood, "owing to the swollen river and the spirited state of her horse," the monument explains.

Benjamin disappeared on a "special mission" to Vienna. "Who may pause to peruse this tale of sorrows let this awful lesson of the instability of human happiness sink into thy mind," the monument warns, in English and Italian.

All this, and the cemetery has only one conservator and, occasionally, a carver. "There are many stones there that have never been treated and we're at risk of losing them," Magar said.
Stubbs said there was dire need for inspection and conservation of the graves, many of which needed to have their joints sealed and stones repaired. A wall that divides the cemetery - built by foreign embassies in the 19th century to keep Catholic fanatics from desecrating the non-Catholic graves - should probably be removed, he suggested. Until 1870, gravestones in the cemetery were not allowed to carry religious symbols or references to redemption, since that was a path for Catholics only.

I found a wonderful piece in the Literary Traveler about a visit to the cemetary.