When I was in Rome last fall, I visited the Non-Catholic Cemetery where Constance is buried. The Protestant Cemetery, as it was known in the nineteenth century, is the resting place of two of the most famous writers of all time: Keats and Shelley. Although Woolson died in Venice, had lived longest in Florence, and hadn’t visited Rome for over ten years, she specifically asked to be buried there. The Protestant Cemeteries in Venice and Florence were located outside of the city and there were few reasons to visit them. Rome’s cemetery for foreigners, however, was already a literary shrine. James buried Daisy Miller there in his 1878 story. It was the place where youth and promise that had been tragically snuffed out was laid to rest.
When I visited the cemetery, it became clear to me why Woolson chose it as her resting place: she wanted to be remembered. She is buried only a few feet from Shelley. Solitary visitors and tour groups traipse by her grave every day, even though they do not notice it. I visited on two separate occasions and both times the cemetery was full of life. On the second day, All Souls Day, a holiday in Italy, when the veil between the living and the dead is supposed to be the thinnest, it was bustling with visitors.
Another reason she undoubtedly chose this place is that is unspeakably beautiful. Shelley wrote of it in his elegy of John Keats, “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.” In Woolson’s copy of Shelley’s works, given to her by Henry James, she specifically marked this passage. (The book is housed in a small library at the cemetery donated by her niece.) Henry James wrote in 1907 about visiting her grave, “the exquisite summery luxuriance and perfect tendance of that spot, I mean, of course, that very particular spot, below the great grey wall, the cypresses and the time-silvered pyramid. It is tremendously, inexhaustibly touching—its effect never fails to overwhelm.”
To me, the words of Constance’s sister, Clara Benedict, best sum up the beauty and serenity of the place: “This cemetery is the only joyous cemetery I know of—there, the flowers always bloom, the birds always sing. . . . When I think of our cold snowy cemeteries at home, I wish that all I loved rested just there—where Connie sleeps.” In fact, Clara chose to be buried there, in the same grave (rather than in their hometown of Cleveland). Clara also noted that “Baedeker has added my sister’s name to the list of distinguished dead, and hardly a day passes that some friend or admirer does not stand there. We often find flowers.”
It is nice to know that Woolson was remembered and had many visitors in the decades after her death. There are so many beautiful sculptures and tributes to the dead there that her simple grave, with a runic cross laid on it, doesn’t stand out. In the spring, violet blooms cover her grave, just as they did in 1894. It must be a beautiful sight. Someone planted what looks like a rose bush at the foot of the grave, probably many years ago. I assume it was another Woolson scholar who came before me. I had the gardener plant two pots of pansies in the corners. I chose yellow because her favorite flower was the southern yellow jessamine. In the Victorian language of flowers, pansies mean fond remembrance and loving thoughts. I hope the bright flowers help draw the eyes of visitors to her grave as they pass on their way to Shelley’s shrine. And maybe a few will pause for a brief moment of contemplation in this most peaceful of spots.