Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep

by Tia on March 24, 2012

It was an early autumn Florentine afternoon – fragrantly warm, gloriously sunny, the air sparkling with freshness born out of yesterday’s rain. We had climbed the steep streets of Oltrarno, the less noble but dignified Florence neighborhood on the other side of the Arno River. We took a roundabout way that led us up, then down, past the stone wall surrounding the southwest side of Forte Belvedere. Just as we were descending the narrow, olive-tree-lined road, church bells spilled their music into the air. Our eyes followed it to the distant sight of the Romanesque façade of the San Miniato al Monte basilica, residing gracefully atop a hill across from where we had stopped in our tracks, quieted by this sudden bel canto. 

We promptly made our way to what turned out to be a most remarkable vantage point for anyone lucky enough to escape the nauseating sight of the tourist-bus-infested Piazzale Michelangelo in search of a more private opportunity to take in Florence’s beauty from above. We spent time in the church, cooling off by the columns in the dark nave and admiring the pagan Zodiac inlay. Then the awareness of the sun-filled day drew us back outside and we discovered the Porte Sante cemetery, tucked inside the defending walls, built by Michelangelo to protect the church during the 1530 siege of Florence.    

As I child, I had a controversial relationship with graveyards. One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother taking me to the cemetery in my hometown on the right bank of the Danube River in Bulgaria. She said she needed to tend to her mother’s grave and brought a small hoe with her. My young imagination did not realize she meant weeding the flowers, surrounding the grave. I thought she wanted to dig out the coffin with her mother’s dead body. I must have been five or six and I remember how equally horrified and fascinated I was, and ultimately disappointed when all Grandma did was spruce things up on the surface.

On this warm September day, Cimitero Delle Porte Sante was elegant and inviting, without a hint of the somber finality associated with life’s end. Tombstones were adorned with pictures and graceful statues. The many rains had streaked the monuments with delicate patina. Moss had lent its velvety cover to tombstones. Black, white and grey were interlaced in a nearly art deco pattern. The obligatory cemetery cat was strolling haughtily among the graves, stopping here and there to bask in the late afternoon sun.

I wanted to have known the people resting under the tombstones. I could imagine their unapologetically bourgeois lives where elegance and indulgence were a required element of social form. In their lifetime, the crude art of poisoning of the Medici clan had given way to the less lethal weapons of gossip, melodrama, and scandal. Before settling in for eternity in this beautiful piece of prime Florentine real estate, they had spent their mornings reading Corriere della Sera over a cup of espresso at Caffé Gilli, offering a polite nod to Maestro Boccioni and Maestro Severini at the next table. At night, they had shared boisterous laughs and succulent bistecca alla fiorentina with friends. The men had kept mistresses with sultry looks and sinful minds. The women had carefully sidestepped their husbands’ affairs with their elegant narrow feet, clad in Ferragamo shoes. Was the handsome American, smiling so boyishly from his tombstone picture, a journalist or a diplomat, who first visited Florence as a post-war twenty-something, fell in love with the city and his future beautiful dark-haired wife, and never ever left? I thought that maybe if we hung around long enough to await dusk, we’d catch a glimpse of a couple of slender signori, heading down to Via Calzaiuoli for an early evening aperitivo before the premiere of Mascagni’s I Rantzau at Teatro della Pergola.

In one corner, a modernistic rendition of the crucifixion stood tall. The larger than life body, made of metal, seemed to be slowly melting, streaming down toward the earth in wide, flowing patches. Only the year of birth was recorded at the feet of the statue: 1968. I hoped it was just a case of long-term planning.

Later I learned that among Porte Sante’s occupants for eternity was Carlo Colodi, the father of Pinocchio. I still have not found confirmation that the chapel with the “Fam. Franco Zeffirelli” inscription is the burial place of the family of the famous Italian director of the same name. 

* Do not stand at my grave and weep is a poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye

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