For the painters, musicians, sculptors and writers who have inspired this art-loving country for centuries, their works are the truest memorials, whether concertos of Antonio Vivaldi still regularly performed in the Venice church where he served as violin master or Michelangelo’s masterpieces that pack crowds daily into the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
As Leonardo da Vinci once said, “A work of art dies not.”
Still, artists do die – and what may surprise a visitor to Italy is how accessible, and how moving and beautiful, are the tombs and other formal memorials to artists that Italians dutifully and sometimes touchingly maintain.
Some of these we sought out during a recent visit, but others my wife Lucy and I virtually stumbled upon – such as the spot in a chapel of Venice’s Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari where the composer Claudio Monteverdi rests under a marble marker on which some music lover had laid a long-stemmed white rose. In the Pantheon in Rome, similarly, an admirer had left a fresh laurel wreath at the gleaming tomb of Raphael, Michelangelo’s rival.
A comprehensive list of such memorials would require an encyclopedia. Instead, here’s a glance at sites in Florence, Venice and Rome.
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.
So, for instance, Santa Croce honors Galileo, sculpted grasping his telescope. His remains were grandly re-entombed here after being kept elsewhere for nearly a century after his death, because his astronomy was deemed unbiblical.
Along another wall, Niccolo Machiavelli, the political theorist and writer, is buried. At composer Gioachino Rossini’s handsome sarcophagus, his overture to “William Tell” (or the “Lone Ranger” theme) 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. This, however, is a memorial, not his tomb, which is in the city of Ravenna.
Facing it 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.
The answer takes you to a museum attached to Florence’s great Duomo cathedral: It houses the sculpture that Michelangelo actually planned for his tomb, a somber depiction of Christ being lowered from the cross.
The story is that the sculptor, then in his 80s, became displeased with it and, in frustration, smashed part of it with his hammer before abandoning the work. The fragments were gathered and later reattached, and today you can clearly see the cracks. (Several artists collaborated on Michelangelo’s elaborate Santa Croce tomb.)
At the Frari church in Venice, besides Monteverdi’s slab, you'll find the pyramid-shaped mausoleum of the sculptor Antonio Canova, containing, it’s 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, near the Pyramide subway stop in the Non-Catholic Cemetery, many artists are buried, and many of them were English. Indeed, 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.
Follow the gravel path to the simple corner grave of John Keats, whose odes and sonnets are among the finest in English. 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 just 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. Hardly. 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 American 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.”
Last year, roughly 30,000 people made their way here. In the visitor comment book, one called it “the most beautiful place in Rome.”