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City Life: Rome: Poets can now rest in peace

IT IS EASY to see why the Romantic poets fell for Rome's Protestant Cemetery. You enter through a gate in an imposing wall, like that of a convent. Cypress trees tower above, providing a canopy. To the left looms the Pyramid, the huge marble monument built by the wealthy merchant and Egypt fanatic Caius Cestius. Nature, ancient ruins and a little oasis of peace in the bustle of Rome fitted the Romantic ticket perfectly.

At the entrance are discreet marble tablets to help the first-time visitor. Left for Keats, straight on for Shelley and Goethe's son and hard right for the founder of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci. Five thousand people lie in what is wrongly known as the English Cemetery. Strolling around, you see the tombstones of White Russians, Germans, Americans, Scandinavians, South Africans and Italians.

The Cemetery was established in the 18th century, when non-Catholics could not be buried in Italian graveyards. As the final resting-place of Keats and Shelley (who was cremated but whose ashes are kept here) and a welcome respite from the summer heat, it has become a discreet tourist attraction.

This peace was disturbed last week. A snippet in the Rome daily Il Messaggero announced that an exhibition of sculpture and installation art, "The Life Beyond - a vision of death in contemporary art", was to be held in the cemetery. And the opening party, with music, dance, poetry readings and video projections, would be attended by 500 guests.

It wasn't long before the phones were ringing at the British Embassy and Wanted in Rome, the city's bi-monthly magazine for English speakers. People whose relatives reposed there were incensed, accusing the organisers of bad taste and desecration.

The organisers, who had been granted permission by the cemetery's Italian director, said the event would be limited to the old part, where Keats was buried, not near any recent graves. "The old area of the cemetery is very small," commented Wanted in Rome's Maggie Mason, whose husband is buried there. "People will have to trample over tombstones in the grass if they are to fit in. It's horrible."

The 12-member committee of foreign ambassadors which oversees the graveyard was not informed in advance. A British embassy spokesman said that, although they had lodged a strong protest, it was too late to stop it going ahead.

A spokesman for the organisers, Carmine Sorrentini, said the whole concept had been misinterpreted. Yes, there would be music, but only a solo flautist and a small madrigal group. There would be brief poetry readings, and of the 500 invited, only about half were expected to turn up. And the exhibition on contemporary sculptors was totally in keeping with the venue.

Mr Sorrentini was adamant that the show would go on. He pointed out that for the past five years on All Saints' Day, local actors stage poetry readings in the cemetery, reciting works by Keats and Shelley.

It appeared that the expats would have to live with what they saw as bad taste masquerading as culture when, hours before the event, the party was called off. A stern letter from the Rome City Council had done the trick. The exhibition, however, is in place in the older part of the cemetery, a large green lawn with Keats' tomb in the far corner.

One wonders what the cemetery's illustrious ghosts make of the fuss. Given his obsession with death, Keats would appreciate the theme. The Communist Antonio Gramsci would dismiss the complaints as bourgeois. And as for Shelley, with his penchant for non-conformity, he would be furious that the opening party was cancelled.

Frances Kennedy