Italian Memories, Pt. III

Today I will revisit Rome, the final stop on my 2013 trip to walk in Woolson’s footsteps in England and Italy. I visited the Forum, saw the Coliseum, and battled with the crowds at the Vatican. (I gave up when I leaned my head back to look up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and got whacked in the head by another anxious gazer. That was enough for me.)

The highlight of my stay in Rome was my visit to the Non-Catholic Cemetery, where Woolson is buried. She made the nurse caring for her in Venice promise to arrange for her to be buried at what was then called the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, should she die. Woolson had visited the cemetery during her 1881 stay in Rome, nearly thirteen years earlier, but she never forgot it.

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Keats and Shelley were buried there. In fact, Shelley wrote, after visiting his friend Keats’s grave,

“It might make one half in love with death to be buried in such a sweet a place as this.”

As soon as I arrived, I could see what he meant. It is the most beautiful, peaceful resting place I think I have ever seen.

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Below is Woolson’s final resting place. It is one of the simpler graves. I brought some yellow pansies (yellow was the color of her favorite flower, the yellow jessamine, and pansies are for remembrance). They planted them right away for me. It was nice to see that others had made contributions before me, but there were no recent commemorations. (The names of her sister and niece were added later, when they were buried elsewhere in the cemetery upon their deaths.)

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One of the highlights of the cemetery for me was a small library that Woolson’s niece Clare Benedict had bequeathed to the cemetery. Many of the books had been owned by Woolson and had her markings inside.

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The most exciting find was a copy of Shelley’s poems given to her and inscribed by Henry James. The inscription reads

Constance Fenimore Woolson

from her friend & confrére

Henry James

This inscription was one of the most salient clues to their elusive relationship that I found in the course of my research. It conveyed how much he respected her not only as a woman but as a peer.

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Another fascinating find was a cut-out from one of Woolson’s letters. (Her niece had a tendency of cutting out sections of her letters and pasting them into books. She was a memorialist of a rather destructive kind, alas.) The scrap conveys how much Woolson loved Rome. It reads:

Before Xmas, to Rome! I can scarcely realize that my feet are to tread the streets of the eternal city–that I am to see St. Peter’s,–and drive out in the Campagna! It is like a dream.

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Once she had see Rome, she didn’t want to leave. She made one of her longer stays there. She got her first apartment abroad and stayed on alone after all friends and family had left. She wrote a lovely essay about her time there, “The Roman May and a Walk.” When spring threatened to turn into summer, her family sent her adamant letters, making her promise to leave, for fear that she would contract Roman fever (malaria), which caused the death of many 19th-century American and English tourists, including James’s fictional heroine, Daisy Miller, who was also buried at the Protestant Cemetery. Sadly, Woolson never returned to Rome. Her sister probably made her promise never to return, for fear she might never leave.

Harper’s magazine ran a piece on Rome two years after Woolson’s death, in 1896, that describes the cemetery at length, and includes a picture of Woolson’s grave. It was, for a time, one of the tourist sites of Rome. It was even listed in Baedecker’s, the most authoritative guide book of the day. Today, visitors still stream in to see Keats and Shelley and the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Perhaps one day they will again stop by Woolson’s grave and leave a small token of their appreciation for the amazing person she was and the incredible body of literature she left behind.

[See previous posts about my trip to England here and here, and posts about my visits to Venice and Florence.]

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