Joy and mourning are usually opposites – and perhaps that’s why images melding such conflicting emotions have endowed depictions of the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome with such attractive power.
Indeed, at the inauguration of an exhibition of artworks commemorating the 300th year of the cemetery’s existence, the Casa Goethe museum simply couldn’t cope with the numbers. Its director, Maria Gazzeti, was concerned that the floor of Goethe’s pied a terre in Rome, might collapse under the weight of too many people.
Nestling under the city walls next to the ancient Pyramid of Cestius, the cemetery remains an active graveyard. But it not so much a place of mourning as of contemplation. Its cypresses, protective walls and varied flora offer a quiet green space, are open free to the public.
As one Italian journalist has noted, it is like Facebook, a place to discover and be re-united, at least in spirit, with long-lost kindred spirits. The works in this exhibition are intensely symbolic of intertwined stories of international artistic friendships, emblematic of the unique nature of this place. Many were commissioned by family members made to immortalise their loved ones’ resting places.
Originally, those whose mortal remains were interred here, simply happened to die in Rome. They were wealthy tourists on the Grand Tour, diplomats or their children. Many were professional artists, architects and sculptors, also from northern Europe, thanks to the huge draw of Rome’s artistic heritage. Only Catholics could be interred in the official burial grounds and so a separate place had to be found.
A drawing from 1795 records the moment when German art critic Karl Ludwig Fernow delivered a night-time eulogy to the artist Jonas Åkerström. That funeral was organised by Francesco Piranesi, the famous etcher of ancient ruins, who was also the official representative of the Swedish Crown in Rome.
Thanks to a dispensation by Pope Clement XI in 1717, the communal pasture land around the Pyramid became a semi-official burial ground. Scots, English, French, Scandinavian, Swiss and Germans were interred at night by torchlight.
In the centuries to come, they were joined by spiritual asylum seekers from around Europe, Orthodox Christians from Russia, and even Japan. In the last century dissident thinkers, gays, Jews and Marxists, including Antonio Gramsci (thanks to his Russian wife) joined their ranks.
Anchored by the marble-faced 30 metre high pyramid, artists went beyond simple description of the funerals to capture the unique spirit of the place. It appears in nearly all of the 40 works assembled from around Europe and America. Erected for a Roman magistrate around 20 BCE, predates the Aurelian wall around it. In the collective cultural memory it became fused with the much later burial ground to become a romantic symbol, especially after the premature death and deaths of Keats, Shelley and Goethe’s son August.
Pictures were often commissioned by bereft loved one. The scenes are set within the Roman walls or in the wider setting of the Roman countryside. Casimir Griswold’s beautifully-lit view, for example, captures the serene surrounding atmosphere that prevailed in 1879.
As the cemetery’s fame spread through far and wide by means of woodcuts, etchings and engravings, it became a place of pilgrimage for writers, artists, poets and travellers, from the Marquis de Sade in the 18th century to the film maker Pier Paolo Pasolini in the 20th. The grave of Keats became the most famous – attracting poetic pilgrims and artists alike, experiencing like Shelley, the extraordinary atmosphere of the place: “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”
In 1862, a young American artist, John Linton Chapman, made a touching diptych of Shelley and Keats’ gravestones, overgrown by flowers and weeds, with only clouds and sky as a backdrop. The painter was introduced to Keats’ beloved sister Fanny who commissioned an etching of it.
A decade later, English socialist illustrator, Walter Crane, on an extended honeymoon in Rome, was commissioned by fellow artist, George Howard to depict Keats’ and Shelley’s graves. His two superb watercolours have travelled from the Ashmolean Museum to join Chapman’s as well William Bell Scott’s majestic rendering of Shelley’s tombstone, with its moving inscription, Cor Cordium, also from Oxford.
The last work in the show is an exceptional loan from Oslo. A brightly lit rendering of the Edvard Munch’s uncle’s grave from 1927. As Oddbjørn Sormøen notes, the atmosphere is tranquil, “a world apart from the young Munch’s traumatic scenes of sickness and death in his own close family”. The cemetery has worked its magic even on the painter of the Scream.
The exhibition was conceived and executed by curator Nicholas Stanley-Price, Maria Gazzetti, cemetery director Amanda Thursfield and, as well as, initially, by the late Julian Kliemann, to whom the splendid exhibition book is dedicated. It is published in English, Italian and German and can be purchased online. The cemetery also maintains a newsletter which can be accessed online.