Sul cimitero “inglese” di Testaccio…

mercoledì, 17 Febbraio, 2021

Uno scritto di Ferminia Moroni sul cimitero di Testaccio. Ferminia frequenta il cimitero acattolico di Testaccio, detto anche “inglese” o “dei poeti” per tante buone ragioni, compresa quella che lì in fondo al cimitero nella parte ovest a pochi metri dalla tomba di Antonio Gramsci c’è anche la tomba di suo marito Mohammad Hossein Naghdi, ucciso a Roma nel 1993 dai killer del regime khomeinista. E’ una storia lunga…

Ferminia ha scritto nel suo blog, in inglese, questo bel testo sul cimitero e ve lo ripropongo in quanto tale. Ricordo che una testimonianza di Ferminia è contenutai nel documentario che con David Riondino ho dedicato a questo luogo parlando di Gramsci e delle sue pietre, si chiama infatti “Le pietre di Gramsci”, dura mezz’ora e lo trovate su you tube.

Ecco dunque quanto ha scritto Ferminia Moroni

Flashback: “People die to get here.”

 

One of my guest professors told me to start my presentation by saying, “People die to get here.” A bit cheesy, perhaps, but as good a starting point as any. But where is here? Let’s start with the name of this place, known as the Protestant Cemetery in Rome but officially the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome. Neither name sounds particularly Roman, given that the city is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church and that foreigners, are well, not born in Rome. However, this simplistic assessment is unhelpful. At different times this location represented different things, so like Rome it has adopted many identities. Moreover, this site and all that it holds and represents is simply another layer in Rome’s complicated identity – it is Roman.

To explain this conclusion, I will focus on both place and people, with some relevant contextual information thrown in. Though it seems counterintuitive, perhaps, living people are particularly relevant in a Cemetery. As Valerie Hope wrote in the book Roman Death, “A successful grave marker or tomb promoted interaction between the living and the dead, drawing the visitor in to look, read, admire, stay awhile and remember.” Monuments, ranging from the Tower of London to the Eiffel Tower to gravestones, only gain power when people visit them and reflect and remember.

The Protestant Cemetery today is remarkably successful in this aspect. If you visit there are people, not just tourists, but Romans lounging in the grass by gravestones and reading on benches. In their appreciation, these visitors continue in a long tradition. Percy Shelley wrote “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place,” and Oscar Wilde called the site “the holiest place in Rome” (post-audience with Pope Pius IX). Thus, one of the Cemetery’s primary roles is as an oasis in the chaos of Rome: it is next to several busy car thoroughfares and a public transportation hub. This location is also notable because of the Aurelian walls and Porta San Paolo (one of the walls’ 18 gates). Lastly, the Pyramid of Caius Cestius – who nobody particularly remembers – looms up right next to the Cemetery.

If you reached this point you’re already using your imagination to imagine this place (presumably). I’m going to ask you to stretch your minds a bit further to think about this location during the age of Rome’s first Emperor Augustus.

There are no Aurelian walls, no streets, no Piramide train and Metro station – there’s not even a Cemetery. There is a road leading out to Ostia, a commercial port town, and Gaius Cestius Epulo (“son of Lucius, of the tribe Poblilia, Praetor, Tribune of the Plebs, member of the Board of Seven of the Epulones”) decides to build his funerary monument in an empty field next to it. The monument takes just under a year to build, and it may strike you as a little strange. We are, after all, in the middle of nowhere.

However, given historical context the choice is quite logical. During ancient and imperial times Roman law required all cremations and burials (except for those of importance, like Emperors) to occur outside of the city proper. Beyond this stipulation burials were a private matter requiring the purchase of private property, and Roman citizens buried their deceased along the roads leading into the city willy nilly. Thus, necropolis “suburbs” arose which intermingled with shops, factories, and housing for the living. When Christians entered the Empire in the 1st century A.D. they were buried with the pagans; however, the then-poor Christians struggled with both religious scruples and the expensive land purchases, leading to the foundation of catacombs in the 2nd century.

During the Middle Ages the entire city, pagan and Catholic, suffered. The fall of the Empire and departure of the papacy left a huge leadership void, and the increasingly vulnerable, derelict city was sacked. Accordingly the population shrunk significantly, and with it the physical city: what was once “inside” the city became a fringe area, the new outside. (The map below helps show this trend.) Thus, as Romans felt the press of danger and felt less obliged to obey pagan laws, burials slowly moved into the city.

Burials – to the best of my knowledge – remained unregulated until after the Papacy returned from Avignon  and became the city’s civil authority. According to canon law, non-Catholics could not be buried in consecrated land. Of course, however, non-Catholics were still in Rome. Before the Protestant Cemetery, the location of most non-Catholic burials is unknown – some were sent to nearby Leghorn, but most probably occurred in illegal fashion. Thus in 1738 Pope Clement XII donated papal lands for a non-Catholic Cemetery.

To understand this location in its historical context we must backtrack a bit, because we left this space with only a road and Caius Cestius’ funerary Pyramid. In the years 270-282 AD, the Emperors Aurelian and Probus built the Aurelian walls. Porta San Paolo led out to the Via Ostiense and the port town of Ostia, making the road important to commercial activity. The site was also very close to the Tiber River, and given this accessibility a series of warehouses developed on the waterfront.

These warehouses traded in commodities like olive oil, which arrived in earthenware pots. Thus Monte Testaccio – literally, Mound of Potsherds – rose up behind the warehouses. (I like to think of it as Rome’s bastard eighth hill; fortunately, the warehouse operators sprinkled powdered lime over the layers to eliminate rancid oil odors.) A “valley” of sorts, known as the Roman People’s Meadow, separated Monte Testaccio from the Protestant Cemetery. Lovely name, right? Euphemistic, as well: “people” translates to drunks and prostitutes.

Thus, although modern visitors appreciate the Aurelian Walls and photograph Cestius’ pyramid, it was not a great location. Refer back to the 1748 map – the Cemetery is barely inside of the Aurelian Walls, far away from the main residential area. It’s in the middle of nowhere, next to a pile of trash and a red light district.

Given the importance of place and symbolism, this start did not bode well. Today, however, the Cemetery is a Monumental Zone of National Interest and one of Europe’s “significant cemeteries,” which are recognized for historical and artistic reasons. So, how did we move from these lackluster beginnings to the culturally significant site of today?

The first part of the answer lies in the pages of history, as the Cemetery is one of the oldest still in use in Europe and witnessed many paradigm shifts. Its founding alone shows a stunning reversal: where Christians were once hunted in the Empire, non-Catholic burials were now relegated to a sketchy location on the outskirts of Rome and could only happen at night. Indeed, religious tolerance was so low that soldiers often protected mourners from aggression. In 1854, after the then-German envoy buried his wife, he protected the officiating clergyman in his carriage from a mob.

Papal officials were similarly malicious. You will remember that the Cemetery was next to the People’s Valley, and at this point it was completely open, with its monuments vulnerable to religious zealots and drunks. Thus in 1817 diplomats from Prussia, Hannover, and Russia appealed to the Papal Secretary to fence in the ground. After two years a Danish Prince threw in his support, drawing an answer from Secretary Consalvi: no. A fence would obstruct the view of the Pyramid.

As consolation, in 1821 the papacy donated and fenced in a piece of land adjacent to the Parte Antica.

Additionally, in 1824 Pope Leo XII granted permission for a protective moat – which, unanticipated, became a dogs’ grave. The 1870s brought Italian unification and a proper civil government, leaving the Cemetery’s management free to wall in the Parte Antica (the moat is now filled in) and, eventually, purchase land. In 1894 the German Embassy acquired 4300m2, giving the Cemetery its modern dimensions. The line between these two parts of the Cemetery (pre and post 1894 land purchase) is easy to see: separated by the cypress-lined Entrance Avenue, one side has crosses and the other doesn’t. Before Italian unification the Papacy censured every single grave stone, forbidding spiritual expressions of eternal salvation and “God is love.”

Despite the eclipse of the Papacy the next two centuries saw the Cemetery’s existence occasionally threatened. There was at least one attempt to build a road through the most recently added zones, and the first German contingent to make it into Rome during WWII came up the Via Ostiense. A rag tag band of resistance fighters and dismissed soldiers resisted them at the Pyramid, but the bullets lodged in the Cemetery’s wall were comparatively minor matters. During Allied air attacks the chapel’s stained glass windows blew out and the grave of poet John Keats’ was blown open. Additionally, at some point during the hostilities the Cemetery’s records disappeared – to this day, the management does not have a complete file of those interred in its grounds.

Of course, this history is not widely known, and today tourists visit the Cemetery to see the graves of English poets John Keats and Percy Shelley. Despite these two men and the Protestant Cemetery moniker (once The English Cemetery), we cannot label this cemetery Anglo – it is, in fact, incredibly diverse. The Cemetery’s 4000 dead friends represent 30 countries (including Italy), and 15+ languages engrave the headstones. The Cemetery’s diversity also encompasses religion – it opened to non-Catholics beyond those of Orthodox faith in 1953. Today, there are Jews, Muslims, Protestants, and even Catholics buried at the site.

Given Rome’s historic welcome of foreigners, this diversity should not surprise. The well-known story of the Rape of the Sabine Women is an early example of this tendency, and once Rome established itself, the city habitually adopted the best of conquered cultures, from war strategies to artistic techniques to human resources. This openness was and is crucial to the city’s longevity and success (perhaps providing a hint to modern governments). Today millions of tourists visit the city every year, and numerous expatriates relocate here.

Despite this tradition, non-Catholic foreigners are “isolated” in death and the tradition of expatriates is politically charged. There are certainly men buried in the Protestant Cemetery who fit this bill, like the previously mentioned Iranian resistance leader and Antonio Gramsci, a founding father of European communism. A more complicated understanding emerges, however, if we return to the word’s etymology. It is literally ex patria – out of the fatherland. So, foreigners leave their fatherlands for Rome – which is appropriate, given that Rome is artistically expressed as a woman. The struggle to find a niche in this cosmopolitan city – already in contention with itself because of the weight of its own history – resulted in an outpouring of literature and art. This work became a part of Rome’s legacy even as expatriates replaced imperial Rome’s army as cultural conduits.

Thus, despite rocky beginnings and an un-Roman name, the Protestant Cemetery follows in and contributes to the legacy of the Eternal City. This reality is reflected in previously mentioned details – its physical incorporation into the city, Roman visitors, its recognition as a Monumental Zone of National Interest. Despite Italy’s struggles with regionalism and nationalism, Rome ultimately values and remembers her expatriates: this mother city embraces them.

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