A fading epitaph in Rome

Uncertainty at cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried

Barbara McMahon

ROME: The cemetery in Rome where the Romantic poets Keats and Shelley are buried has long been a place of pilgrimage for tourists and a haven from the noise of Italy's capital city. But now its future is uncertain after the Dutch Ambassador who has been in charge of its administration prepares to retire and warns that nobody else is willing to take on the unpaid, volunteer position.

The five-acre graveyard next to the Pyramid of Caio Cestio in the Testaccio area dates back to at least 1748, when papal land was donated as a last resting place for people, mostly Protestants, from northern Europe, who were not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. Since 1945 it has been run by a foundation with a rotating president from the countries whose citizens are buried there. For the past four years, Ambassador Ronald Loudon from the Netherlands has served as administrator, raising money with other volunteers and overseeing the work of the eight staff that keep the grounds clean and maintain the 2,520 tombs. Maintenance of the cemetery is paid for by money collected from tourists, private donations and from fundraising events. Mr. Loudon is due to return home in October and says he has been unable to find a successor. More than 10,000 people a year visit the cemetery. The graves of Keats and Shelley attract the most interest.

Simple tombstone

Ravaged by consumption, John Keats died in Rome at the age of 25 in 1821 and he is buried in a quiet corner of the graveyard with a simple tombstone. On it is written the epitaph: "This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet, who on his death bed, in the bitterness of his heart at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraved on his tomb stone. Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

Percy Bysshe Shelley was in Italy during the same period as Keats and spent the last years of his life travelling around the country with his wife, the author Mary Shelley. He composed many of his greatest poems in Italy and Keats' death inspired his elegy Adonais. In the preface he describes the final resting place of his friend: "It might make one in love with death to know that one should be buried in so sweet a place."

In 1882 Shelley was drowned while sailing in a storm off the shore of Lerici, near Pisa. After his cremation, Shelley's ashes were brought to the cemetery for burial.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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