The War Cemetery of Commonwealth
On 3 September 1943 the Allies invaded the Italian mainland, the invasion coinciding with an armistice made with the Italians who then re-entered the war on the Allied side.
Progress through southern Italy was rapid despite stiff resistance, but the advance was checked for some months at the German winter defensive position known as the Gustav Line. Operations in January 1944 landed troops behind the German lines at Anzio, but a breakthrough was not achieved until 18 May when, after fierce fighting, Cassino finally fell to the Allies.
The cemetery began as a burying ground for the soldiers garrisoned in Rome, when it was occupied by the Allies after the Germans left the city on June 3, 1944, but it also includes the bodies of soldiers from the surrounding area, as well as those who died as POWs. There are, of course, much larger British cemeteries in Cassino and Anzio, and elsewhere in Italy.
Rome War Cemetery was designed by Louis de Soissons. It contains 426 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War.
Lesser known than its partner across the road, the Rome War Cemetery is no less peaceful, or sobering. Like the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where Keats, Shelley, Gramsci and others are buried or memorialized, this cemetery is nestled against the Aurelian Walls.
The memorial at right includes a stone from Hadrian’s Wall – in the UK – the northernmost point of the Roman Empire, tying the United Kingdom historically to Italy for some 2000 years.
To visit the Rome War Cemetery, either walk around Monte Testaccio, or walk past the Protestant Cemetery – further away from the Pyramid. Address: via Nicola Zabaglia, 50. The cemetery is open only when the gardeners are there: Monday-Friday 8:00 a.m. – noon, and 12:30 – 3 p.m.
About the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome
Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery contains possibly the highest density of famous and important graves anywhere in the world. It is the final resting-place of the poets Shelley and Keats, of many painters, sculptors and authors, a number of scholars, several diplomats, Goethe’s only son, and Antonio Gramsci, a founding father of European Communism, to name only a few.
The Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome (to give it its full name) is also widely known as the Protestant Cemetery although it contains the graves of many Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians. It is one of the oldest burial grounds in continuous use in Europe, having started to be used around 1716. In 2016 we celebrated 300 years of burials at the foot of the Pyramid.
The Cemetery population is both exceptionally diverse and exceptionally rich in writers, painters, sculptors, historians, archaeologists, diplomats, scientists, architects and poets, many of international eminence. In addition to the significant number of Protestant and eastern Orthodox graves, other faiths that are represented include Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Tomb inscriptions are in more than fifteen languages – Lithuanian, Bulgarian, Church-Slavonic, Japanese, Russian, Greek and Avestic, often engraved in their own non-Roman scripts.
It is hard to think of another urban site quite so glorious. Its towering cypress trees and abundant flowers and greenery shelter a heterogeneity of elaborate and eclectic graves and monuments, nestled on a slope in the shadows of the Pyramid of Cestius (dated between 18 and 12 B.C.) and adjacent to a section of Rome’s ancient Aurelian wall.
“It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place,” wrote Shelley, not long before he drowned and was buried here.
Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, the little Cemetery was something of a pilgrimage site, revered by authors. Daisy Miller, the heroine of Henry James’s eponymous novella, was buried there. After an audience with Pope Pius IX in 1877, Oscar Wilde visited the Cemetery, proclaiming it “the holiest place in Rome.”
The Cemetery is a private one. Burials continue to be made today of those who qualify. The Cemetery can be visited daily and the Visitors’ Centre is a source of information and publications.