The Protestant Cemetery


John Keats is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. I knew that. One way and another, Keats has been with me since I first became interested in poetry. A few months after visiting the Keats House in Hampstead, I was in Rome, making plans to visit the house by the Spanish Steps where he lived for a short while and where he died. I also intended to visit his grave.

It was from Wentworth Place (now the Keats House) that Keats set out in September 1820, accompanied by his friend the painter Joseph Severn, to Rome on what was to be his final journey. He was seeking some relief in the kinder Roman climate but as a doctor he knew he was desperately ill and that death could not be far away. A tortuous passage, poor weather and an enforced quarantine in Naples meant they didn’t arrive in Rome until November, so missing the best of the weather. This, coupled with the ministrations of a Dr James Clark with his good but misguided intentions, did little but hasten Keats’ end. Joseph Severn had agreed to travel with Keats, though up until then he had been only an acquaintance. However, he quickly became a good friend and a dedicated nurse and it was in Severn’s kind arms that Keats died on 23rd February 1821. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery and had left instructions that his headstone should bear no name nor date. However, Severn, together with Charles Brown (a mutual friend), decided to add, under a relief of a lyre with broken strings, the now famous legend:

This Grave
contains all that was Mortal
of a Young English Poet
on his Death Bed
in the Bitterness of his Heart
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies
these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone
“Here lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water”
Feb 24th 1821

The reason for the inaccuracy of the date of his death is unknown.

Severn had a mixed career as a painter. He started well, he had his miniature of Keats accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1819 (now in the National Portrait Gallery) and he continued to exhibit and sell portraits with moderate success. His paintings can be found  in Tate Britain and The Victoria and Albert Museum among others. In 1861—amid the turbulence of the Garibaldi led Risorgimento—he re-established his ties with Rome when he became British Consul there. He died in 1879 aged 85. And it was there, in the Protestant Cemetery, adjacent to the grave of his friend John Keats that by public subscription he was buried, his headstone similar in design to Keats’. There is an added poignancy to this story. Between these graves a tiny headstone marks the burial place of Arthur Severn, Joseph’s son who died in infancy.

It was not until this visit that I realised how many other stories this fascinating place has to tell. And it was the point at which I realised that this is more than a protestant cemetery; its correct title is Il Cimitero acattolico—the non-Catholic cemetery. Buried here are people of many religions and none: Orthodox and other denominations of Christian; Jews; Muslims; Zoroastrians; Buddhists; Atheists. I’d gone there on a Keats pilgrimage but found myself listening to many other voices. Shelley—who, when he drowned off the coast of Tuscany and his body cremated there on the beach had his remains (minus his heart, which resides in the crypt of a Bournemouth church) interred here. While his body was being prepared for the pyre a small volume of Keats’ verse was found in his pocket. Edward Trelawney, a friend of Shelley’s had the ashes exhumed and reburied in a more favourable site near an ancient wall and marked by a tomb stone with the legend Cor Cordium—Heart of Hearts. Close to Shelly’s grave is that of the American ‘Beat’ poet, Gregory Corso, buried there at his request. The Italian political thinker Gramsci lies here, as does Goethe’s only son. This is an extraordinary place: to wander here—among the famous and the not so famous; between the grandiose and the understated; the proud and the modest; with the forgotten, the half-remembered and the celebrated—is to be with a silent crowd. Many of the occupants of these graves have travelled the world to end here. One sarcophagus, however, has in a sense returned itself to the world: Angel of Grief. This sculpture by William Wetmore Story serves as the gravestone of both the sculptor and his wife. It has become a widely recognised piece of modern funereal art and has been reproduced in one form or another in cemeteries across the world: from Canada to Cuba, from the United Kingdom to the United States.

An unexpected find for me was the grave of a British actress, Belinda Lee. Lee was born in Budleigh Salterton, Devon to a hotel-owning family and spent her childhood there in a cottage overlooking the red cliffs of this small, genteel coastal town. She went to RADA and was spotted in a production there and signed by Rank Studios. She soon graduated from her early demure rôles to playing ‘sexy blondes’ in lightweight British productions. She was married briefly to a photographer Cornel Lucas but when the union started to crumble she moved to Italy. While she managed to escape playing ‘sexpots’ in more Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill films she nevertheless still appeared as a voluptuous temptress albeit in more dramatic productions. It was in Rome that she embarked on a much publicised affair with an Italian Papal Prince while they were both still married to others. They both survived alleged suicide attempts only for her to perish in a car crash in California shortly after: she was not yet 26. Her ashes are interred in the Protestant Cemetery in a grave bearing the legend ‘BELINDA’. An extraordinary life for a young woman from the town where I now live. There are still people there who recall the family, fewer, though, who now remember the remarkable trajectory of the brief life of this beautiful young woman: from Budleigh Salterton to London and then to Rome; to California and then on her final journey, back to Rome, to the Protestant Cemetery. And so it was: I’d travelled to Rome with the spirit of John Keats only to return with the ghost of Belinda Lee, to the town where I live, the town where she was born.

© Don Oldham 2017

One Thought on “The Protestant Cemetery

  1. Mary Stephenson on August 3, 2017 at 11:38 said:

    I read your protestant cemetery piece – fascinating! And particularly poignant for me as I once spent an evening with Gregory Corso and didn’t know he had died. It was when the Beat Poets were performing at the Royal Albert Hall in the 60s and they were staying in Notting Hill, in a flat above where a close friend of mine lived. I was, at the time, still living at home in Wimbledon with my parents and so in order to go to parties in the centre, I would stay with my friend Ros. I had known Ros since we were kids and, her father being a Naval officer like mine, my parents knew Ros and her family so approved of my staying with her after parties. I doubt they’d have been terribly happy to know what we got up to together.

    Anyway, Ros – with whom I am still in touch and saw recently – was great fun, petite and beguiling so all the blokes fell for her. The poets – I know Allen Ginsberg was one of them and Gregory Corso – quickly introduced themselves to Ros and her flatmate and on the Saturday night (they weren’t performing, maybe it was after their gig at the RAH) we heard of a party at Blackheath which we could crash. Ros, her then boyfriend, another blonde called Mandy, myself and Gregory Corso piled into a car and headed off for the party. I don’t remember whether the party was any good but Ros disappeared with her bloke (who I think owned the car) and Mandy, Greg Corso and I walked back to Notting Hill together in the early hours of the Sunday morning. Greg clearly fancied Mandy but she was desperately shy and so he and I chattered away very happily and although he was hoping to end up with Mandy in his bed (he didn’t!), he apparently remarked to Ros the next day that I had ‘a terrific personality’ which I was very happy with. I hadn’t wanted to end up in bed with him either so his preference for Mandy suited me well! I see it is about 12 miles from Blackheath to Notting Hill and I remember it was a very long way but passed very pleasantly. Allen Ginsberg hadn’t joined us but I found him rather creepy. I think they left soon after.

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