Postcard from Rome, Italy: “Graves are all too young as yet to have outgrown the sorrow”

Stop and consider! life is but a day;
A fragile dew-drop on its perilous way
From a tree’s summit.

“Sleep and Poetry,” John Keats, 1816

For someone raised Catholic, visiting the Non-Catholic Cemetery in a city with such an incredible wealth of churches meriting attention seems almost heretical. But I am drawn to cemeteries.

This one has a reputation as a particularly soothing one, one where cats choose to live out all nine of their lives. And, as an act of advance penance, I posted a “genuflection” to Santa Maria Maggiore first.

The Non-Catholic Cemetery is a pilgrimage must for many because here lie the remains of John Keats (1795-1821). Plagued by tuberculosis, the medically trained poet traveled from England to Italy in hope the climate would result in a cure. Some believe he was self-prescribing unsafe dosages of mercury at the time, perhaps to treat venereal disease. The combination proved lethal, and Keats died in Rome at age 25.

Shortly after Keats’ death, his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) penned “Adonais” as an elegy:

… Go thou to Rome, – at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shattered mountains rise,
And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation’s nakedness
Pass, till the spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread;

And grey walls moulder round, on which dull Time
Feeds, like slow fire upon a hoary brand;
And one keen pyramid* with wedge sublime,
Pavilioning the dust of him who planned
This refuge for his memory, doth stand
Like flame transformed to marble; and beneath,
A field is spread, on which a newer band
Have pitched in Heaven’s smile their camp of death,
Welcoming him we lose with scarce extinguished breath.

Here pause: these graves are all too young as yet
To have outgrown the sorrow which consigned
Its charge to each….

“Adonais,” Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1821

The ashes remaining from the scandal-ridden life of this productive young poet joined his friend Keats amongst the young graves scarcely more than a year later.

In the summer of 1822, the Courier, a leading Tory newspaper in London, carried a brief obituary that began: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned: now he knows whether there is a God or no.” From this moment on, the dramatic death of Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Gulf of Spezia was set to become one of the most powerful of all Romantic legends. And also perhaps the most misleading.

“Death and Destiny,” Richard Holmes, The Guardian, January 24, 2004

Shelley had been sailing during stormy weather with two others aboard his small racing schooner, The Don Juan, on a return trip to Lerici from Livorno after visiting Lord Byron (1788-1824), who, too, would perish at an early age. But we have killed off enough romantic poets for one day, and Byron’s bones do not reside within the shelter of these walls.

Shelley’s death left a young widow, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), behind. Although their marriage was a rocky one, some claim Mary sentimentally and literally retained Shelley’s heart, which sounds nightmarishly apocryphal save she is the literary birth-mother of Frankenstein.

Why did I not die? More miserable than man ever was before, why did I not sink into forgetfulness and rest?

Death snatches away many blooming children, the only hopes of their doting parents: how many brides and youthful lovers have been one day in the bloom of health and hope, and the next a prey for worms and the decay of the tomb!

Of what materials was I made, that I could thus resist so many shocks, which, like the turning of the wheel, continually renewed the torture?

But I was doomed to live….

Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1818

*And the incongruous presence of a pyramid by the graveyard? Things Egyptian became fashionable in Rome after the conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C. (No, I am not getting waylaid by the story of Anthony and Cleopatra.) At 118 feet-tall, this pyramid of marble-clad brick and cement is the tomb of Gaius Cestius Epulo, a wealthy Roman who died about 15 B.C. The unlikely landmark survived all the subsequent years of development in Rome possibly because of its incorporation into the city’s fortification walls.

Postcard from Bologna, Italy: My taphophobia trumps my taphophilia*

I afterwards went to the beautiful cemetery of Bologna, beyond the walls; and found, beside the superb burial ground, an original of a custode, who reminded me of the grave-digger in Hamlet. He had a collection of capuchins’ skulls, labelled on the forehead; and taking down one of them, said, This was Brother Desidero Berro, who died at forty years, one of my best friends. I begged his head of his brethren after his decease, and they gave it to me. I put it in lime and then boiled it. Here it is, teeth and all, in excellent preservation.

Baron George Gordon Byron, Letter and Journals of Lord Byron: With Notices of His Life, published posthumously in 1831

According to Lord Byron’s guide, more than 50,000 people already inhabited the Certosa di Bologna two decades after its establishment, so its population almost two centuries later must be significant. These new residents rest atop a former Etruscan necropolis. The original grounds and initial buildings were part of San Girolamo di Casara, a former Carthusian monastery established in 1334 but closed by the order of Napoleon in 1796.

When the city of Bologna staked its claim to the land for its cemetery in 1801, it declared it to be a “monumental” one with palaces for the dead designed as suitable lodging for Bologna’s nobility. The wealthy responded by providing employment to artisans and noted sculptors to create lasting tributes to their dynastic glories.

The site quickly was promoted as a must-see destination for visitors, with tours offered soon after its founding. Lord Byron described an interesting monument pointed out during his tour:

In showing some of the older monuments, there was that of a Roman girl of twenty, with a bust by Bernini. She was a Princess Barlorini, dead two centuries ago: he said, that on opening her grave, they had found her hair complete and as yellow as gold.

With only Lord Byron as our guide, we wandered seeking ancient graves, ones predating 1800. His instructions were not specific, however, and the population of the cemetery has increased.

We never found any of the earlier graves, but our urge to search was dampened by the hovering presence of one bird cawing ominously as he seemed to follow us around.

I scare easily. I’m always the one in horror films to say don’t open the door to the basement; don’t go upstairs to the attic; and no, no, no, Wendy, whatever you do, do not peek at what Jack is typing…. So, of course, I heeded the bird’s warning.

We might have been able to find them if I had been willing to take any of the stairways leading into a dark and damp maze of catacombs underground. I had no bread with me to leave a trail of crumbs, and, in my mind, crumbs only would have been consumed by some unfriendly creatures scurrying around below. Leaving us lost among the dead. Forever.

Instead, I assured the Mister my taphophilia temporarily was sated by the massive number of impressive monuments we passed. So we left our feathered friend behind and returned to the more vibrant heart of Bologna.

*My fear of being buried alive is far greater than my love of wandering through graveyards.

Postcard from Sintra, Portugal: Random Shots

Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes
In variegated maze of mount and glen.
Ah me! what hand can pencil guide, or pen,
To follow half on which the eye dilates
Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken
Than those whereof such things the bard relates,
Who to the awe-struck world unlocked Elysium’s gates?

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron

I must just observe that the village of Cintra in Estremadura is the most beautiful in the world.

Lord Byron in a letter, 1809

These photographs from our wanderings around Sintra did not fit in the earlier more focused posts. They range from a rally of classic Porsches crowding the narrow streets to flavorful contemporary Portuguese fare at Meia Tigela.


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