I have always appreciated the peaceful atmosphere of cemeteries. When I was very young I remember wandering around the graves at Layston in Buntingford, England, asking my mother about the different family names and looking at the flower arrangements. Then during my time at university in Edinburgh I had plenty of opportunities to explore the spooky cemeteries of the Scottish capital, Greyfriars Kirkyard and Old Calton Cemetery being among my favourites.
In Rome, I often take visitors to the Non-Catholic cemetery near Piramide, where the English poets John Keats and Percy Shelley are buried. In recent years I have discovered the municipal cemetery at Campo Verano, stretching over the site of the estate of emperor Lucius Verus, in the San Lorenzo district. A few weeks ago I went back there for a wander.
According to my research, the area around the church of Saint Lawrence outside the walls has been a burial ground for centuries. Testimony to this are the ancient catacombs of Santa Ciriaca, underneath the church. The Verano cemetery next door was constructed from 1804, following the Edict of St. Cloud establishing that all burials should take place outside the city walls. Work was started under Napoleonic rule based on a project by Giuseppe Valadier. It was then carried on by the architect Virginio Vespignani under papal rule. Parts of the cemetery, such as the entrance and area around the military memorial, were damaged by allied bombing in World War Two and subsequently rebuilt.
During my recent walk I entered through the impressive front archways, which are flanked by four large statues representing, from left to right on the photo below, Silence, Charity, Hope and Meditation.
I wandered through the cemetery to the large courtyard at the far end. I took a moment to admire its symmetrical lay-out. I also noted several graves of nuns and monks amid the flowers and hedges in the central square.
I walked through the arcades around the edge of the courtyard, which contained rows of shrines, like this one:
Next I veered up the steps to the graveyard stretching over the hillside. Up here it’s peaceful but often quite deserted so can be a bit unsettling, especially if you are on your own. I stopped to look at the details on some of the graves, including statues of pensive and forlorn angels.
Some graves also have images or pictures of the people buried here. Many of these are by Filippo Severati, who developed an unprecedented technique of glazed painting which was long-lasting and resistant to the atmosphere.
The family tombs varied in appearance and decoration. Some were covered in mosaics, reinterpreting themes from the early Christian and Byzantine eras. This one was particularly striking:
There were two graves I wanted to visit especially in Verano cemetery: those of the Roman poets Trilussa and Giuseppe Gioachino Belli. You have to walk across the Pincetto Nuovo area to the Rampa Caracciolo to see the grave of Trilussa (1873-1950):
One of his poems is engraved in the little stone booklet to the right:
C’è un ape che se posa
su un bottone de rosa
lo succhia e se ne va:
tutto sommato, la felicità
è una piccola cosa.
There is a bee that settles
on a rose bud.
It savours it, and goes:
all in all, happiness
is a small thing.
The grave of Belli (1791-1863), meanwhile is located in the Altopiano Pincetto. It bears an epitaph written by Belli’s friend Francesco Spada, along the lines of: “In this place is Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, a Roman, who by faith, ingenuity, exemplary , complete, incisive, shone everywhere : with his verses of all kinds, amusing and admonishing at the same time.”
After stopping to stroke a cat roaming around the cemetery, I headed back down the hill, past more grave stones flanked by overgrown flower bushes, and out towards the church of St. Lawrence.
Several other prominent Italians and foreigners are buried in Verano cemetery, including actor Ennio Balbo, novelist Alberto Moravia, and poet Giuseppe Ungaretti. I’ll leave you with a poem Ungaretti wrote in response to World War Two and the bombing of Verano cemetery. I have read various interpretations of it but in essence one could say he is inviting people to stop hating each other and listen in silence to the message of those who have died in war, to ensure that they did not die in vain.
No more crying out
Stop murdering the dead.
Be still, cry out no longer
If you really want to hear them,
If you hope not to perish.
Theirs is the faintest murmur,
They make no more disturbance
Than the springing up of grasses
Happy where no man passes.