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  • Shelley's Grave Revisited
  • Nicholas Stanley-Price

The grave in Rome of Percy Bysshe Shelley soon became a place of pilgrimage for his admirers. It remains one today. This essay analyzes evidence derived from cemetery records, early visitors' accounts, and depictions of the grave that, all told, alters the received scholarly accounts of Shelley's posthumous reputation by showing the aura of sanctity that came to be conferred on the poet's grave.

Why weren't Shelley's remains buried alongside those of his little boy William, as would have been customary? William's grave lay in the old Protestant Cemetery adjacent to the pyramid of Caius Cestius, which Shelley had called "the most beautiful and solemn cemetery" that he had ever beheld.1 But Mary Shelley's preference for this spot could not overrule the decision in October 1821 by the Papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, not to allow further Protestant burials there. Consalvi allocated an adjacent plot of land further west for this purpose.2 The New Cemetery lay, enclosed, on steeply sloping ground landscaped into shallow terraces descending from the old city wall. A visitor in 1823 reported: "one side of this space being already confined by the city wall, they enclosed the other three with a new and substantial wall of, perhaps, fourteen feet, in handsome finish of plaister without and within; and the entrance secured by a suitable iron gate."3

Accordingly, burials began in the New Cemetery on November 8, 1822.4 The preceding month, Joseph Severn, in Rome, claimed to [End Page 53] have no news concerning the imminent arrival there of Shelley's ashes. By December 7, he wrote that they had arrived.5 Some fifty years later, the Reverend Richard Burgess wrote that the news of the arrival of Shelley's ashes was available "a few days" after his own arrival in Rome in late November.6 Probably, then, Shelley's ashes arrived in Rome after the first burial had been made in the New Cemetery on November 8 but before Burgess's arrival.

For three weeks Severn and acting consul John Freeborn lobbied the Holy See to make an exception for Shelley.7 Theirs was a reasonable hope. Over the next fifteen years, several exceptions were granted. The first was made in June 1823 for C. C. J. Bunsen, the Secretary to the Prussian Legation, allowing him to bury his infant son Frederick next to his year-old daughter Maria (d. July 22, 1821) in the Old Cemetery. Probably diplomatic status allowed Bunsen to prevail where Freeborn had failed earlier that same year; the latter gained diplomatic status the next year (1824) upon his appointment as British Vice-Consul.8 The timing of Shelley's ashes' arrival in Rome, just as the New Cemetery opened, made it unlikely that an exception could be made to the recent decision regarding burials.

The funeral took place in the New Cemetery on January 21, 1823. Severn records the presiders as the Reverend W. Cook, and the Reverend Burgess, previously mentioned.9 Anglican services in Rome had resumed in 1816, after the war.10 The Reverend Wolff, officiant at Keats's burial, was apparently no longer in Rome. In 1828, Burgess became the British community's first permanent, salaried chaplain.

Severn's contemporaneous records also list the congregants. Fifty years later, Burgess corroborated only two on Severn's list. Burgess [End Page 54] overlooked Severn himself but mentioned the Italian custodian, Francesco Trucchi, whom Severn knew from arranging Keats's burial.11 Francesco's son Giovanni succeeded his father in 1840 and was in 1874 succeeded by his own son Achille: the Trucchi family served for 85 years.12 Severn also lists as congregants sculptor Richard Westmacott, Jr.; painter Seymour Kirkup; and architect Joseph John Scholes; as well as John Freeborn, Sir Charles Style, and General George Cockburn.13

Severn marked the spot of the burial and, in the same letter, promised Leigh Hunt to be present when the gravestone was placed. He had taken two years to erect Keats's stone, a failing he was due later to repeat following the deaths of his own wife and infant son.14...


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