The English poet, John Keats, died in Rome on February 23rd, 1821. He was only twenty-five years old. Keats was buried in the city's so-called Protestant Cemetery. Oscar Wilde would describe his grave as ‘the holiest place on earth’.
Keats’ tombstone is engraved with the following lines: 'This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, Who, on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart, at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. Feb 24th 1821'.
Shortly before he died, Keats, believing that his poetry would not live on, requested that his gravestone should simply bear the words: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'. However, Charles Brown, a literary friend of Keats and one of his executors, felt very bitter about the poet's treatment at the hands of the critics and suggested the extra lines.
Above the inscription is an image of a lyre, with half its strings missing, which was designed by Keats' friend, the artist Joseph Severn (1793-1879), who is buried next to him. Severn, who nursed the poet through the last months of his illness, lived to the grand old age of 85.
When Percy Bysshe Shelley, friend and fellow poet, visited Keats’ grave he wrote: ‘It might make one in love with death, to be buried in so sweet a place’. Shelley died only a year later, on July 8th, 1822, (less than a month short of his thirtieth birthday) in a boating accident off the coast of Viareggio, in Tuscany. When Shelley's body was washed ashore it was identified by a copy of Keats’poems, which was found in his pocket.
Shelley's body was cremated on the beach (in compliance with the quarantine rules of the time) and his ashes sent to Rome for burial in the Protestant Cemetery. His gravestone bears the Latin inscription, Cor Cordium (Heart of Hearts), and, in reference to his death at sea, a few lines from Ariel's song in The Tempest (Shelley's boat was called the Ariel): 'Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.'
The Protestant Cemetery, officially the Cimitero Acattolico per gli stranieri al Testaccio, was originally reserved for Protestant or Orthodox foreigners. The oldest grave to have been found is that of George Langton, an Oxford graduate, which dates back to 1738. The Catholic Church once stipulated that burials had to take place after dark.
Since 1953 the cemetery has been open to all non-Catholics.