“A blend of tears and smiles, of stones and flowers, of cypresses”
The Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome was ideated becouse the Catholic Church prohibited burial in consecrated ground for non-Catholics as well as for suicides and actors. The latter, after death, were ‘expelled’ from the city’s Christian community and interred outside the walls or at their extreme margins. Burials took place at night to preserve the safety of those participating in the funeral rites.
An exception was made for Sir Walter Synod, who in 1821 managed to bury his daughter in broad daylight. To protect himself from fanatical attacks, he was accompanied by a group of guards.
A cemetery for actors, for example, was located outside Porta Pinciana, where Via del Muro Torto is now. The cemetery for Jews was on the Aventine Hill in front of the Circus Maximus, where the municipal rose garden is now.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the area of the cemetery was called ‘The meadows of the Roman people,’ a public space where livestock grazed, wine was stored in the caves of Monte dei Cocci, and Romans went for recreation.
All of this happened under the watchful gaze of the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, one of the most visited monuments in Rome. The non-Catholics themselves chose this place for burials with the permission of the Holy Office, which in 1671 allowed ‘non-Catholic Gentlemen’ to find burial elsewhere. Leaving the cemetery of Muro Torto reserved for prostitutes and sinners. The first burial of a Protestant seems to be that of a follower of the exiled king James Stuart, named William Arthur. He died in Rome to escape the reprisals following the defeats of the Jacobites in Scotland.
Then came more burials. The chronicler Francesco Valesio reported in 1732 that the treasurer of the King of England, William Ellis, was buried at the foot of the Pyramid, hinting at a common practice. Indeed, over time, the area had acquired the designation of the ‘cemetery of the English.
In 1803, one of the sons of Wilhelm von Humboldt, a Prussian minister to the Holy See, was buried here. He had requested a plot of land for the burial of himself and his family. This land, which was once demarcated, is now within the cemetery grounds, and some pillars of the enclosure are still standing. Later, his wife was also buried there.
At the beginning of the 19th century, only holly bushes stood in the cemetery area. And there were no other shelters for the scattered tombs in the countryside where flocks grazed. The cypress trees that now adorn the cemetery were planted later.
Since 2011, the custody and management of the cemetery have been entrusted to the foreign representations in Italy.
The tall cypresses, the green lawn surrounding part of the graves, the white pyramid towering behind the fence of Roman walls, along with the cats basking in the sun and strolling undisturbed among the tombstones written in all languages of the world, give this small cemetery an inimitable style.
Walking through its pathways, one is surprised by the magical atmosphere that prevails, its peculiar charm, and the sense of peace and serenity that lead to the belief that the final sleep here is less harsh.
The Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome is intended for the ultimate rest of non-Catholics, without distinction of nationality, and, as is customary in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, photographs on tombstones are absent. In addition to the significant number of Protestant and Eastern Orthodox graves, one can find tombs belonging to other religions such as Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
Inscriptions are in more than fifteen different languages – Lithuanian, Bulgarian, Czech-Slavic, Japanese, Russian, Greek, Avestan, and often engraved in their respective scripts.
Many are the artists and illustrious personalities who rest here: the names of poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley are well-known, and their graves are a pilgrimage destination for many English visitors.
The cemetery also houses the remains of politicians Antonio Gramsci and Emilio Lussu, the writer and poet Dario Bellezza, the poetess Amelia Rosselli, the writers Carlo Emilio Gadda and Luce d’Eramo, the fashion designer Simonetta Colonna di Cesarò, and a few others.
On July 18, 2019, the cemetery welcomed the remains of Andrea Camilleri, and in 2020, those of Gigi Proietti.