An Unusual Place in Rome, Italy

ANGEL OF GRIEF is a love story. I visit the Rome Protestant Cemetery when I need a break from the high tempo of the bustling Eternal City. Everyone needs a quiet place to unwind. For me, this is the place of solace. The place that welcomes me a shady, quiet atmosphere, that smells of the earth. Yes, it’s a cemetery. But it’s a special cemetery.

But I know just what to do when I need a break. I know just the right place. It’s a place of solace. It’s a place that has a shady, quiet atmosphere that smells of earth. Yes, it’s a cemetery. But it’s a special cemetery.

I never thought about it before, but Rome is a Catholic city. Hundreds of years ago, when Protestants died in Rome, there was nowhere to bury the poor souls. So, when a Protestant kicked the bucket for one reason or another, he or she was buried in secret. They were laid to rest mostly at night, in a remote field of Rome. The Vatican looked the other way. But with increasing Protestants living in Rome, and obviously, some of them dying in Rome, the Vatican had to accept this reality. So it scrambled and came up with a solution. It granted a small plot of land for official Protestant burials—the birth of the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome .

JOHN KEATS, THE ROMANTIC ENGLISH POET 

I first came here years ago to visit the grave of John Keats, the Romantic English poet. I immediately fell in love with this place. It’s wonderful place just to walk around, soak up the stories of the people resting six feet under. Each grave has a story to tell. I wander checking out the final resting places of hundreds of expats, wondering how they ended up in a country so far away from their homes.

“The atmosphere of this place strikes people,” Ms. Thursfield, the director of the cemetery, once told me. “I see people walking, just thinking, perhaps with the idea they are strangely alone in the center of the city.”

And that’s so true. If a Special Forces helicopter dropped you here blindfolded, you’d never believe taking off your blindfold that you’ve landed in the heart of Rome.

One of the first thing I do when I come here is to take a footpath that leads me to one of my favorite spots. When I approach it, I always feel a sense of quietude. My disquieted spirit relaxes. And there at the spot, I just stand and gaze at a beautiful funereal monument. Surrounding me are bird songs, air bursting with the fragrance of blossoms, breeze rustling the leaves of the tall trees. And there I pay my homage to a great love story.

The Angel of Grief in Rome, Italy
The Angel of Grief in Rome Protestant Cemetery, Italy

ANGEL OF GRIEF IN CALIFORNIA

The Angel of Grief in Rome has its replica standing at the Stanford University in California. That statue was dedicated to the victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

But do you know the love story behind the original? How this sad angel came to stand in a Protestant Cemetery in Rome?

Here’s how the great love story of the Weeping Angel was told to me. 

William Story’s Great Love Story

ANGEL OF GRIEF – THE MAN WHO SCULPTED THE WEEPING ANGEL

In the late 19th century, Mr. and Mrs. Story were American expatriates living in Rome. William Story was a sculptor-poet, quite famous at his time. Their marriage was an envy for all, a wonderful bonding of over 50 years. But life is impermanent.  On 7 January 1895, Mrs. Emelyn Story, age 74, died.

William Story  was stricken by grief. His anguish was so deep, so powerful, that the only thing he could do was to seek solace in his work. He immediately began laboring on a monument for her. He wanted to put his whole being into his work as an expression of his eternal love for his wife, Emelyn.

He chiseled the marble block night and day. He worked with all his energies. He put in all he had left in him. He hardly rested. At the end of the ninth month, he finished his work.

He called it “The Angel of Grief Weeping over the Dismantled Altar of Life.”

Then on 7 October 1895, in the same year of his wife’s passing, as if in a rush to join her, William Story died.

He was interned with his beloved wife in the Rome Protestant Cemetery. Now they rest together under the “Angel of Grief.”

What Am I Doing Here?

A PLACE OF MY SOLACE IN BUSY ROME

Why I keep coming back to see the Angel of Grief could be for me a recognition of my own impermanence. I too must one day meet my death. Yet, even knowing this for a fact, when I stand gazing at this monument, I feel a sense of ease, a weird but welcome sensation of acceptance of the life’s fate – We must all die.

There the stone Angel weeps, collapsed forward over a tomb, her head resting on the right forearm, her left arm drooped over the sepulcher, and her wings spread, sagging around the dismantled altar of life.

And I want to say, “Please don’t weep so much. It’s not all that sad to die, is it? Or do you cry for the solitude of those left behind in life not yet knowing what await them after this life?” The answers I will not know until my time comes. And that seems okay. I touch cool stone and let Story’s angel move my heart.

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