The tombs of Keats and Shelley are in a Rome cemetery that is facing an uncertain future

For more than 300 years, the "foreigners' graveyard" has proved a significant draw for tourists of an artistic bent. And, for students of the Romantic poets in particular, the site has a shrine-like status. Among the 2,500 sets of remains interred in its elegantly shambolic gardens lie those of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, pictured below. Other notable if less well-known occupants include one Julius von Goethe, only son of the author of Faust, and the Scottish novelist R M Ballantyne.

The burying of Protestants in the famously blue-collar district can be traced back to 1748, when land previously owned by the Vatican was given over for those non-Catholics not permitted to be laid to rest in consecrated ground. Today, the cemetery attracts 10,000 visitors a year, but despite its illustrious history and enduring appeal it faces an uncertain future.

Forced to rely almost entirely on charitable donations it has, since 1945, been run by a private foundation headed by a "volunteer president" from one of the countries whose citizens are buried there. "The main problem we face is one of stones conservation," explains Ornella Augeri, the cemetery's director. "There is a need to preserve and restore almost all the graves, but at least half of the monuments need immediate intervention to preserve them from total decay."

Only 700 of the graves are regularly tended by families of the deceased and those, says Augeri, are at least kind enough to pay for the upkeep of monuments. But even these regular contributions are struggling to stem spiralling operating costs. "We do ask visitors to leave a donation of at least €2, but they are not obliged to pay," Augeri says. "We receive an average of about €1,300 a month but our running costs are currently around €500,000 a year." Fortunately, some of that shortfall is made up by the countries whose citizens are buried there. Last year, the Dutch, German and Norwegian embassies met the costs for the upkeep of their graves and this year Canada is set to follow suit.

Yet despite the fact that, according to its director, the cemetery is "undoubtedly regarded as a part of the city of Rome, a world heritage site", state funding has been less than forthcoming. In an effort to reassert its profile in a city overflowing with historic monuments, the cemetery now participates in an annual cultural festival, I Luoghi della Memoria (Places of Memory), organised by the local council every November.

So is there a danger that the cemetery might one day have to close? "The problems we face are accumulative," says Augeri, "and which we must solve if we are to remain open. What we need is money to become stable, both financially and in terms of conservation." Augeri remains optimistic, believing that with the right help the cemetery will even one day prove financially viable. There are, she says, still plots available "even if the cemetery appears quite full". Of its enduring appeal to tourists, Augeri believes the site offers something unique. "Most people who come to visit have no direct link with the graves. They come as a kind of pilgrimage because there are so many writers and artists, and other people of historical interest buried here. It's very special."