- Burying Molly
In the shadow of Cestius's pyramid, half a world away from my home in Indiana, I walk along ranks of graves in the Cimitero Acattolico of Rome. The names carved in cemetery marbles are not always written in Latin or Italian. These dead have been denied sanctuary in marble-clad basilicas and ancient edifices, and must make do with old fragrant rose varieties whose modest blossoms and prickly stems move in the breeze. Myrtle creeps among their headstones. Overhead, cypresses point the way in this suburb of the dead. Birds unfamiliar to me sing in the trees, and sleek sanctuary cats sun themselves on the marble slabs. Beyond the cemetery wall, living bodies course by on the Via Ostiense, honking horns and revving their motors as though to make up for the centuries of quiet that await them at the end of the road.
In Rome, the dead are always underfoot or on display, in tombs or on busts. This is one of the biggest adjustments my college students and I must make on this field study. At home, our dead are confined to carefully planned cemeteries; our heroes are memorialized in paintings and books. In Italy, however, we step on the graves of whole families wealthy enough to buy a place in the nave of a basilica. Every hour, we stroll past the stone eyes of images of people whose lives serve as warnings against bad behavior, or exhortations to live bigger. In the Capitoline Museum, Nero glowers at us even though the Roman Senate attempted to erase him from memory in a practice called damnatio memoriae. In the same museum, a much larger and more beloved Marcus Aurelius extends his beneficent hand as he sits astride his horse.
Our goal on this, our second day in Rome, is to pay homage at the grave [End Page 99] of John Keats, who lies tucked away in a sunny corner next to his friend and nurse, Joseph Severn. To get to it, we walk along a cemetery wall covered with aromatic jasmine. Leafy trees throw wavering shade on the ground below. The students lag a little; it is early for them—about 8:30 a.m.—and they are still struggling with jet lag and the difficulties of procuring food in an unfamiliar city. This particular site is not on their list of Rome must-sees, so until we arrived, they were a bit skeptical about this detour. Now that we're here, however, I can tell they enjoy the green space, filled with old-fashioned roses, lilies of all varieties, and creeping vines. A few of them consult an online map, attempting to find Percy Shelley's marker. Others look up the history of the ancient pyramid built between 18 and 12 bce for Gaius Cestius, a Roman praetor unremarkable except for his anachronistic tomb; he apparently fell victim to the mania for all things Egyptian, which seized many of the wealthy during the early years of the empire. Though the tomb originally stood outside the city walls, during the following centuries Rome sprawled beneath the Mediterranean sun and eventually incorporated the architectural novelty into its cityscape. Now it serves as a major landmark in the city, at the intersection of two major thoroughfares with its own Metro station.
Each day, many tourists pass and remark on this monument to the unknown Cestius, never aware that beyond it are the less grandiose graves of more remarkable men and women. Keats's grave, for instance, is marked by a headstone and, on the Roman brick wall nearby, a plaque, though even that is more than Keats wished to confer to history. As every English literature major knows, he died in his mid-twenties, well before he knew what he had done to English literature with his urns, Isabellas, and Porphyros. The trip to Rome, a futile effort to save his life, placed him squarely in this city of illustrious dead. Bernini's fountain splashed day and night in the piazza outside his room; St. Peter's, one of the most famous manmade caverns for the dead, thrust itself into the western sky. He...