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Keats, Shelley graves crumbling

'English Cemetery' where lie writers, emperors and revolutionaries may close down for lack of funds.

india Updated: Feb 16, 2006 21:44 IST

With its swaying cypress trees and dignified sepulchres, the Protestant Cemetery in Rome seems as immortal as the Eternal City itself, but the life of the garden, the resting place of English Romantic poets Keats and Shelley, may finally be coming to an end.

A secret even to some Romans, the tiny urban oasis officially called the "Cemetery of Non-Catholics" has for three centuries received the bodies of foreigners, many of them British, including artists and intellectuals drawn to Rome.

"It might make one in love with death, to be buried in so sweet a place," Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote of the cemetery, just before ending up buried there himself after drowning off the Italian coast in 1822.

 
 Shelley's grave

In the graveyard aptly nicknamed the "English cemetery", he joined fellow poet John Keats, who died a year earlier of tuberculosis and left an epitaph proclaiming: "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water."

Among the 2,500 tombs in the cemetery lie famous foreigners like fellow English Romantic Edward Trelawney (who died in 1881), New York Beat poet Gregory Corso (2001), Goethe's only son August (1830) and Mohammed Naghdi, the leader of the Iranian resistance killed by Iranian secret services in Rome (1993).

Italians of Jewish and Protestant faiths, too, are buried there since the Roman Catholic Church long kept non-Catholics out of Rome's cemeteries, philosopher and founder of the Italian Communist party Antonio Gramsci (1937) among them.

Cats lounge on the graves of the great and the unknown, lapping up the stillness and shade afforded by the lush enclave at the foot of the Pyramid of Cestia, itself the final resting spot of the Roman emperor (12 BC).

But now the tombs are decaying, and the site's caretakers are warning they will have to shut its gates if they cannot find further funding.

The Protestant Cemetery was added this year to the World Monuments list, compiled by US non-profit World Monument Funds to highlight the 100 most endangered historic architectural and cultural sites on earth.

"It's a fascinating and hidden place which many Romans don't even know about. But the site is decaying and we will be forced to close it within two years if we cannot find new funding sources," said Ornella Augeri, who has run the cemetery for three years.

"At first glance everything seems fine, everything looks perfect, it's cool, verdant, nice. But the pollution and dampness have eaten into the tombstones in marble and travertine" (a porous white stone), she told AFP.

"At first they are merely discolored, but they end up crumbling."

The cemetery is private and currently run by a volunteer committee of ambassadors to Rome from about 15 countries, which "does not give (it) money in any regular fashion," Augeri said.

"We have to survive on handouts from visitors and some donations. But they fall far short of being able to finance any kind of renovation project," she said, putting the estimate for restoration costs in the "hundreds of thousands of euros".

Only 500 tombs are still kept up by the families of the deceased, and 2,000 others are cared for by the cemetery, which has enough funds only to employ four gardeners and one conservationist charged with the tombs' upkeep.

"There is a very real risk of the cemetery closing. I hope our cry for help will reach sensitive and generous souls," Augeri said.

"I am so attached to this place -- with its unparalleled peacefulness -- and I want people to continue being able to visit, if only to be able to see violets blossoming on Keats's tomb in the springtime."