Shelley's Grave - a Glorious Virtual Tour

Throwback Thursday continues with the reissue of one of my early posts. Published in August of 2016, I wrote it to commemorate Shelley's death. I hope you enjoy it.


With all the excitement around the discovery of the lost page in the register of the Hotel de Villes de Londres in which Shelley declared his atheism (check out my story here), I am afraid that I glossed over two very important dates on the Shelley calendar. Those would be the anniversaries of his death and his birth. Oops. So to rectify this mistake, I will offer this personal photo essay that takes you to Rome's magical "Protestant Cemetery".

Shelley died at sea on 30 July 1822 at the age of 29.  I have wondered at times whether or not this makes him the ONLY major poet ever to have died in such a fashion. I can think of no others. His ashes were interred in Rome on 21 January 1823 (Bieri, 656).

So let's start.  In the summer of 2016, I was lucky enough to be in Rome on business.  For the first time in my life, I made the pilgrimage to the gravesite of my favourite poet..  This is something my father had done in 1950 at the age of 33 - so he beat me by 28 years; I have no excuses. You can read more about his journey here.

I left the Spanish Steps at around noon on an exceedingly hot afternoon.  I walked to the Colisseum and then past the Arch of Constantine and down the Via di san Gregorio past the Palatine Hill and onto the Viale Aventino.  The road is very busy, but on your right the views can be extraordinarily beautiful.  Passing the Circo Massimo, you eventually arrive at your objective. People today call it the "Protestant" Cemetery; but that it not how Italians know it.  They call it the "Cemetery for Non-Believers" - or more politely, the "Cemetery for Non-Catholic Foreigners." And this is where Shelley is buried; a foreigner, and, as an atheist, most definitely a "non-catholic." Their website is here (why not donate something!) and you can buy a wonderful new book about the history of the cemetery here. They will celebrate their 300th anniversary this fall

All photographs, unless specifically noted, were taken by me and I assert my copyright in them. If you want to use them, just drop me a line and credit me.

The Cemetery is surrounded by busy thoroughfares and is an incredibly unexpected oasis of calm amidst the chaos that Rome has become.  Very, very few people visit it - which makes it an incredibly desirable place to be in Rome in the 21st Century - Shelley is lucky.  When you step through the gates, the world drifts away. Uncannily, noise abates and even the temperature seems to drop. There is a pleasant gift shop where you can buy a very helpful guide book. I recommend that you pause just inside the gates for a leisurely orientation and stock-taking.

The cemetery is crowded with tombstones  - clearly a lot of non-catholics found their way to the afterlife in Rome.  Here is a view from just inside the gates looking toward Shelley's grave which is at the back immediately in front of the wall.

The circumstances under which Shelley's remains found their way to Rome have been amply chronicled and I would refer you to James Bieri's short account in his biography of Shelley at pages 656 ff. Suffice to say that the individual at the heart of the episode was one of history's least reliable narrators, Edward Trelawney.  The bare facts are these.  After the cremation, Shelley's ashes were sent to Rome where they awaited burial for some months.  They were initially interred in a place which Trelawney deemed unsuitable and in March of 1823 they were moved to their current resting place (Bieri, 657).  Trelawney speaks in his memoir, "Record of Shelley, Byron and the Author", of planting eight "of the Italian upright cypresses" (Trelawney, 146).  Now if you have a look at the next two images, you can plainly see that the grave is circumscribed by four very tall, very old cypresses.  I would love to know if these are the last survivors of Trelawney's cypresses.  More on this later.  Shelley is buried directly in front of the wall between the two trees in the centre of the photograph:

Here is a short video that gives a better sense of their magnitude:

Vertical panorama of Shelley's grave showing height of the Cypress Trees.

For the grave of one of the best known and most beloved romantic poets, surprisingly little detail is supplied in the literature about Shelley's beautiful resting place. Richard Holmes provides no image at all. Bieri offers a single poorly composed black and white photograph of the grave stone. Newman Ivey White included a black and white etching which is a copy of William Bell Scott's painting that hangs in the Ashmolean (see below). My father for his part took a handful of pictures.  You can see them here in his "Shelleyana" scrapbook. The photograph in the lower right corner is a version of the one you invariably see in books.  None of these images come close to conveying the romance and beauty of this place.

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My goal is to try to give you some rather different perspectives.  I spent an entire afternoon in the cemetery.  I deliberately lingered because I wanted to get a sense of the place. I was as interested in the living as the dead.  What I observed was that, perhaps unsurprisingly, most people come to visit the graves of the two poets: Shelley and Keats.  They tend to pause almost shyly in front of Shelley's grave. Virtually no one lingers and few pictures are taken; the experience seems entirely visual - no one touches anything - no one seems to stop to listen.

So, speaking of unusual perspectives, here is such a thing.  Were you to lie on your back on Shelley's grave (which I did not!!!) this is what you would see.  I placed my camera on the gravestone (pointing up) and activated the shutter.

It is also possible to walk right around Shelley's grave. This offers some unusual opportunities for different perspectives which have rarely been shared by biographers or visitors.  Here, for example, is a panoramic view looking toward the Pyramid of Caius Cestius.  You can see Shelley's grave in the lower right corner of the picture.

Here is another view looking toward the pyramid:

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The only time I ever saw this view was in the painting by William Bell Scott. Scott is a lesser known pre-Raphaelite who shared his era's fascination which Shelley; he painted this "from nature" in 1873. This is a gorgeous work of art, with a shimmering, preternatural quality that is typical of the pre-Raphaelites.  It is virtually never reproduced in books about Shelley.  It can also help us to determine whether or not the trees we see today were those planted by Trelawney.

Here it is, feast on it for a moment:

"Shelley's Grave", William Bell Scott, 1873. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Look at the cypress beside the gravestone in the painting.  That is a reasonably mature tree.  Had it been planted by Trelawney in 1823, it would have been 50 years old by the time Scott arrived to paint the scene.  So that fits.  Now, have a look at this next picture.  The tree in the middle of the frame is sitting exactly where the cypress is in Scott's painting.  Is this proof?  No, and I regret I did not think to get a better photograph to make the comparison. Nonetheless, these trees can live for centuries. We probably won't know for sure until one dies and we get a ring count!

To give you a better sense of the place, I took a brief, panoramic video of the cemetery from the foot of Shelley's grave.

Panorama of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome taken from the foot of Shelley's grave.

And here is the gravestone itself.  I went to some lengths photograph it directly from above - a view rarely, if ever, seen in the literature. 

The usual photograph looks like this:

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It is, perhaps, a matter of taste!.  In any event.  Here is something you never see.  A view of the cemetery taken from behind his grave:

And a panoramic view as well:

I spoke earlier about listening.  I took this longer video of the gravestone itself in order to convey a sense of the sounds you hear in the cemetery. While there is a undertone of the traffic noises so typical of modern Rome, you can actually filter it out. It is a very peaceful, magical place.

Shelley's Grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome

Shelley, interestingly, is not the only Shelley buried in the cemetery.  His son, William, was also buried here, but in the "old" portion of the cemetery.  By 1822, fresh burials in this location were forbidden.  Mary therefore received permission to have William's remains exhumed so they could be buried along with his father.  The painter Joseph Severn was charged with this rather gruesome task.  When the stone was lifted, Severn, to his horror, discovered an adult buried there. No further efforts were made to find the boy.  However, the gravestone is still there, sadly neglected.  

Shelley does not, of course, lie alone in the Protestant Cemetery.  When he secured the improved site for Shelley's burial, Trelawney made sure that he secured a spot for himself.  There is little to like about Edward Trelawney.  He was a narcissistic, parasitical self-aggrandizer who attached himself to Byron and Shelley.  Many of the ridiculous myths about Shelley were created by this half-baked adventurer. This is not to say that there is no truth in what he wrote about Shelley; just that it must be read with the greatest caution. Many of his "records" of Shelley were written down 36 years after the fact; such as the "iconic" story of his first meeting with Shelley (Bieri, 601-2). Here is his grave; it is directly beside Shelley's.

Aside from the dates, most of what you see here is a lie.  Shelley's and Trelawney's lives were hardly "undivided".  Shelley met Trelawney shortly before his death.  It is a complete and utter fantasy, promulgated by Trelawney himself, that their "two hearts in life were single hearted". Trelawney, however, had the singular advantage of surviving Shelley and controlling the narrative. He had attached himself to both Byron and Shelley in an effort to gain fame and notoriety - a mission he cynically accomplished.  He lived to a great age and published memoirs filled with self-regarding, shifting lies.  He is responsible for the creation of a significant portion of the myths that bedeviled Shelley's reputation for generations. It is a pity that he lies forever beside Shelley with lies writ large on his gravestone.  There should be some explanatory note or plaque somewhere; but there is none.

However, let's end on a positive note.  The so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome really should be in the top 10 "must visit" attractions for anyone with a literary bent. Virtually everywhere else you go will be overrun with tourists. Not here. What a wonderful place to go and reflect on the life of one of the world's great poets.  Take some poetry and a bottle of wine.  I took my copy of his Collected Poems and read Epipsychidion. Shelley has a worthy resting place indeed. Build a visit into your itinerary - make the pilgrimage; you will not regret it. It will be a pause that refreshes not just the body, but also the spirit - particularly if you like cats!!!

All I can tell you is how happy the visit made me!!

There is one postscript worth contemplating.  Shortly before Mary died in 1851, Trelawney apparently offered her the plot that he had reserved for himself beside Shelley. She declined.