The Non-Catholic Cemetery of the Pyramid in Rome lays under the shadow of the famous Caius Cestius Pyramid, where Ostiense district leans towards the Aventine hill and merges with Testaccio.
The non-catholic cemetery origins are sadly unknown; we have no official chronicles about non-catholic burial areas before the Vatican chose this area near the Pyramid. Traditionally though, foreigners were usually buried at the “Muro torto” (Crooked wall), alongside with prostitutes, executed criminals, mummers and random outcasts.
The first official name buried in this area dates to 1738: a 25 years old Oxford student named Langton.
The first official document mentioning the non-catholic cemetery of Rome seems to be the famous 1748 Nolli and Piranesi Roma map, where our cemetery can be spotted in an area called “Roman people meadows”. At that time, the Testaccio and Ostiense area, was in fact real countryside within the walls, the so called “Agro romano” made of meadows, pastures, vineyards and suburban inns and taverns loved by Romans and especially popular during the festivities.
Today’s perimeter of the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome was developed in linear patches along time by the Prussian minister to the Holy See. The whole area in fact is divided into five chronological zones: Ancient, Old, First, Second and the Third, still active today. This development created an imaginary timeline that can be explored to feel the change in styles and the different approaches to death along centuries.
In the 1921 official cemetery statute it is claimed that this area “grants the burial to foreign citizens belonging to protestant or Greek-scismatic faith”, today the cemetery is simply open to any non-catholic.
The first years of the non-catholic cemetery of Rome were quite troubled. It was not uncommon, for the most intolerant Christians, to vandalize the non-catholic tombs. The burials, in fact, had to take place after sunset, with a low profile, to avoid being spotted and bullied by the most fervid Romans. It did not help that until 1900 the cemetery was not fully fenced.
Another issue of the non-catholic burials was the ban on crosses or epitaphs mentioning the eternal gratitude or the love of God, a ban that lasted until 1870. Vatican authorities in fact, did not believe that God would have saved the soul of those who died following any other faith but the Roman-Catholic one.
In 1869 a Papal commission, appointed with the task to check and approve every funeral inscription request, even rejected “Hier ruht in Gott” (Here rests in God) and “God is Love”. This practice stopped after 1870, with the end of the Papal State and the beginning of the new Italian kingdom.
Today we can find every sort of inscriptions: from film quotes to deep philosophical thoughts, until the simple and witty: “Novità?” (“Any news?”), but a simple walk along the cemetery walkways shows an even more peculiar “epitaph”: a nazi machine gun sign, a relic of the famous Porta S.Paolo battle. After the armistice partisans troops were hiding in the non-catholic cemetery and nazi troops fought here against them.
The majority of burials in the non-catholic cemetery of Rome belongs to Germans and English citizens; but there are also many Americans, Scandinavians, Russians and Greeks; even some Chinese and some from Arabic or Middle-Eastern countries, like Mohammed Hossein Naghdi, leader of the Iranian resistance killed in Rome in 1993.
There are also some Italians buried here, mostly because they were relatives of foreigners already resting in the non-catholic cemetery, but there are also some exceptions like Carlo Emilio Gadda, a famous XX century Italian poet and writer. It was buried here instead than in Milan, following Rome’s mayor, Francesco Rutelli’s will.
But the non-catholic cemetery is mostly renowned for the burials of foreign celebrities that chose to spend some time in Rome, the jewel of any “Grand Tour”, the traditional IX century trip of Europe (mostly France and Italy) undertaken by upper class European young men at the coming of age as an educational rite of passage. Whatever the Tour route was, Rome could never be missed, it was the “Mecca of artists” as Henry James said, or “the best cultural gathering of Europe” quoting Stendhal and “The only place where he really understood what it meant to be a man” according to Goethe’s words.
Painters, sculptors, actors, dancers, poets and writers rest in great numbers under the iconic cypress trees near the Pyramid. Sometimes the dead are not famous by themselves, their relatives are, like August, a simple accountant but also Goethe’s son, Boecklin’s daughter and Tolstoj’s daughter and nephew.
The two most famous celebrities of the non-catholic cemetery of Rome are certainly John Keats and Percy Bysse Shelley, two of the main English romantic poets.
During a visit to this extraordinary cemetery it is also possible to salute many pioneers of progress and history: scientists, explorers, amazing archaeologists (The greatest expert of Roman civilization, Krautheimer and Mrs Schliemann, Troy’s discoverer wife, are both buried here) architects, great doctors, politicians and soldiers fighting for the Italian unification wars.
Some of the graves are embellished by gorgeous artworks like the well-known “Angel of Grief” by William Wetmore Story, sculpted to remember his wife Emelyn. She died in 1893 and two years later William joined her rest under the angel wings.
But the non-catholic cemetery of Rome is much more than just the aeternal resting place of many people, it also houses one of Rome main cat sanctuaries, The “Gatti della Piramide” (Pyramid’s cats). It’s not uncommon to spot some peaceful little feline enjoying the sun or happily napping on a cozy tombstone. The cat colony is mantained entirely by volounteers and all the cats are up for adoption, online with a donation but even in real life. The cats make a stroll under the pyramid shadow even more relaxing and interesting.
Through the centuries and through the stories, despite this place’s nature, there still is a lot of life under the shadow of the Pyramid. 300 years of amazing characters and stories will be revealed to whoever wants to take a stroll in this unique corner of Rome. 300 years of melting pot, maybe this is Europe at its core. The foreigners resting here may be saddened at the thought that the majority of people ignore this place, they loved this city so much they wished they stayed here forever, and for many of them, this whish was fulfilled.
The official non-catholic cemetery of Rome website can be found here.