ROME: For the painters, musicians, sculptors and writers who have inspired this art-loving country for centuries, their works are the truest memorials – whether the Antonio Vivaldi concertos still regularly performed in the Venice church where he was violin master, or Michelangelo’s masterpieces in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
“A work of art,” Leonardo da Vinci once said, “dies not.”
Artists, however, do die.
It may surprise a visitor to Italy how accessible – and how moving and beautiful – are the tombs and other formal memorials to artists that Italians dutifully and sometimes touchingly maintain.
Some are sought out. Others may be stumbled upon.
In a chapel of Venice’s Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, for instance, composer Claudio Monteverdi rests under a marble marker. On this day, a music lover had laid a long-stemmed white rose.
In Rome’s Pantheon – at the gleaming tomb of Raphael, Michelangelo’s rival – an admirer had left a fresh laurel wreath.
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring expression of Italians’ reverence for their departed artists is Florence’s cavernous Basilica of Santa Croce. As in London’s Westminster Abbey, legends of the art world share space here with statesmen and other notables.
Santa Croce honors Galileo, his sculpted likeness grasping his telescope. His remains were grandly re-entombed here after being kept elsewhere for nearly a century following his death, because his astronomy was deemed unbiblical.
Along another wall, political theorist and writer Niccolo Machiavelli is buried.
At composer Gioachino Rossini’s handsome sarcophagus, his overture to “William Tell” inevitably plays in a visitor’s head.
Those conjurings change to mental images of hell and purgatory nearby, where the epic poet Dante Alighieri peers sternly at passing visitors. And this is a mere memorial – his tomb being in the city of Ravenna.
Facing Dante stands the ultimate artist’s resting place.
It’s a near-riot of marble panels, vivid paintings and sculptures with downcast expressions, all of it rising to a pinnacle far up the stone wall. Completing the tribute are a bust and a tablet identifying the deceased: Michelangelo Buonarroti.
“Did he create that himself?” asks someone crowding in for a look. In fact several artists collaborated to create Michelangelo’s Santa Croce tomb.
The sculpture that Michelangelo actually planned for his tomb – a somber depiction of Christ being lowered from the cross – rests in a museum attached to Florence’s great Duomo cathedral.
The story is that the sculptor, then in his 80s, became displeased with it and in frustration smashed part of the work with his hammer before abandoning it. The fragments were gathered and later reattached, and today you can clearly see the cracks.
Besides Monteverdi’s slab at Venice’s Frari church, you’ll find the pyramid-shaped mausoleum of the sculptor Antonio Canova, containing, it is said, only his heart.
Here, too, the tomb of the Renaissance master Titian stands near his enormous, glowing painting of the Assumption, which the writer Oscar Wilde deemed “certainly the best picture in Italy.”
In Rome’s non-Catholic Cemetery, many artists are buried, and many of them were English. Passing through the gate you step from noisy Roman streets into what could be a tranquil corner of Britain, with pruned hedges, stately shade trees and bright lawns strewn with violets.
Here, understatement marks the headstones of painters and poets, including two immortals of literature.
At the end of a gravel path rests the simple corner grave of John Keats, whose odes and sonnets are among the finest in English literature. Suffering from tuberculosis, he traveled to Rome at the recommendation of doctors who hoped in vain that the climate would improve his health. He was 25 when he died here in 1821.
“Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” reads the epitaph he wrote, sensing that he’d be forgotten. On a recent sunny day, a steady stream of literary pilgrims paused silently by his gravestone, the cemetery’s most visited.
Many next climbed a small rise to the grave of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who drowned in Italy.
Nearby, a shaft of sunlight fell on a particularly affecting sight: the U.S. sculptor William Wetmore Story’s marker for his wife, Emelyn. He completed the human-sized angel not long before his own death and burial here.
“I am making a monument to place in the Protestant Cemetery,” Story wrote to a relative in 1894, “and I am always asking myself if she knows it and if she can see it. It represents the angel of Grief, in utter abandonment, throwing herself with drooping wings and hidden face over a funeral altar.
“It represents what I feel.”