Saturday, June 21, 2008

Death and the Protestant Work Ethic

On Thursday this week, the class took a trip to Rome's Protestant Cemetery. The cemetery is located in Testaccio, the neighborhood in which the other graduate students and I are living. "Protestant," in this case, has a broader meaning than it does in the states. "Protestant" simply means non-Catholic, so there are Jewish people, Eastern Orthodox people, and atheists buried in the cemetery.

This picture is of Caius Cestius' pyramid. It was constructed around the time of his death in the early years of Imperial Rome (12 BC or so). The pyramid was inspired by Rome's contemporaneous military adventures in Egypt (1). The expression of wealth and power along with the will to be remembered that have manifested themselves in an excellently preserved pyramid for two thousand years are remarkable. If Cestius' concern was that he would not be forgotten by future generations, he has thus far succeeded.

Most of the plots in the Protestant Cemetery are much more modest. Among the significant figures buried there are the poets John Keats and Lord Byron, and the post-Marxist philosopher/political theorist Antonio Gramsci. On the left is a picture of Keats' grave (it is the headstone in the foreground). Although it is difficult to read, the bottom two lines say, "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water." Keats' wish was that this message would be the only thing written on his grave stone. The particular linguistic request is reflective of his life as a poet; one who must choose words carefully. The grave itself has become a place of pilgrimage for many of the fans of his poetry. It is actually interactive in a sense, like Jim Morrison's grave in Paris. Instead of leaving graffiti (which I think is much cooler), the appropriate ritual is to author a poem and to leave a piece of paper with the poem on it under a stone at his grave.

Keats' is not the only quasi-interactive grave site in the cemetery. Many of the other grave sites invite those who are paying their respects to appreciate the memorial in such a way as to honor the life's work of the deceased. One example is this grave on the right. The dead, Giuseppe Perugini, was an architect who worked in the modern style. The cube set akimbo demonstrates a geometric design and skill. Among Giuseppe's contributions as a modern architect was his work on the Monument of Fosse Ardeatine. The monument marks the place where, during the German occupation of Rome toward the end of the Second World War, German soldiers executed over three hundred Italians as retaliation for an ambush attack led by the Italian resistance in Rome. None of the executed were tried in anyway or shown to be connected in the slightest to the ambush. The killings were designed to by simple intimidation. Among the killed were around seventy Jewish-Italians who had been initially imprisoned only for being Jewish. It seems appropriate that an architect who helped design a grave in the honor of so many of his massacred countrymen (the killed were all men) should also have a grave appropriately honoring his life (2).

Some of the other graves represent the entombed in interesting way that I do not understand because I cannot find historical information on the deceased that would explain the nature of the grave.

The best example of these interesting grave sites is this particularly beautiful grave where Emelyn Story is interred. She was the wife of William Wetmore Story. Willaim was an American sculptor and art critic who spent much of his time in Rome. He is also buried the Protestant Cemetery. William was the son of Joseph Story, the United States Supreme Court Justice from the first half of the nineteenth century. Additionally, the character Kenyon, from Nathanial Hawthorne's The Marble Faun is thought to be based in part on Mr. Story.

1. Fiona Wild, ed., Eye Witness Travel Rome (London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1993), 2007 edition, 205.

2. A. Stille, Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 214.

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