John Keats is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome (Known also as the Cimitero acattolico or the Campo Cestio Cemetery). 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 23rdFebruary 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, Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water
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; buried there are people of many religions and none: Orthodox and other denominations of Christians; 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 those buried here 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.
However, an unexpected find for me was the grave of a British actress I remember from my adolescence, Belinda Lee. A neighbour had told me she 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. But I wanted to know why she was buried here in this extraordinary place and how that came about.
Belinda Lee went to RADA where she was spotted 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. There she managed to escape playing ‘sexpots’ in more Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill films, nevertheless, she was still cast 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. And this is where her ashes are interred, in the Protestant Cemetery in a grave bearing the simple legend ‘BELINDA’.
An extraordinary life for a young woman from the town where I now live. There are people here who still recall the family, fewer, though, who remember the remarkable trajectory of the brief, tragic 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 2018
A version of this post was published in the Western Morning News on 8th September 2018.