Unveiling the Story Behind Rome’s Angel of Grief Sculpture

The Angel of Grief never fails to move me, In my book, it is one the finest sculptures in Rome.

Located in the Protestant Cemetery (Cimitero Acattolico), it is a poignant symbol of loss and a much-imitated masterpiece of funerary art. Its emotional power lies in its ability to evoke empathy and reflection and is a testament to the enduring power of love and memory.

engraving on tombstone with damaged sculpture of a hand

The love story behind the Angel of Grief

William Wetmore Story, an American sculptor and poet, created the Angel of Grief (Angelo del Dolore) in 1894 as a memorial to his wife, Emelyn Story. Its full title is The Angel of Grief Weeping Over the Dismantled Altar of Life.

Story’s devastation at losing his beloved wife was so profound it inspired him to sculpt a memorial that expresses the depths of human sorrow. He died a year after Emelyn and is buried with her.

A masterpiece in marble

Few sculptors have done a better job of capturing the raw emotion of grief through extraordinary craftsmanship.

An angel is collapsed over a shrouded tomb, her face buried in her arms and her wings draped protectively around the tomb. This is an angel in pain, echoing the grief of the bereaved. The tomb’s inscription reads, “I weep for her.”

Story carved her from marble, which lends a luminous quality to the sculpture, enhancing its ethereal and spiritual presence. The fine details are exquisite, from the delicate feathers of her wings to the gentle folds of her robe.

stone sculpture in rome of angel draped over a tomb

Legacy and influence

The Angel of Grief has inspired numerous replicas and interpretations worldwide, so much so that it has become a generic term used to describe funerary monuments of this type across the globe. Additionally, the Angel of Grief has been featured in popular culture, its image appearing on album covers and in films.

Rome’s Protestant Cemetery

The Angel of Grief is in the Protestant Cemetery, also known as the Non-Catholic Cemetery. It’s a romantic setting for Story’s poignant sculpture, with tall cypresses and pine trees and is hime to a squadron of friendly cats.

This is the final resting place of many notable figures, including Keats and Shelley.

Practical information

Getting there: Rome’s Protestant Cemetery is at Via Caio Cestio 6 in the Testaccio district. This is a side street off Via Marmorata on the north side of the Pyramid of Cestius. Area map here.

It’s a short walk from Piramide metro station (line B) and is also served by several buses (75,23, 60, 83, 95, 280, 30, 175).

Opening hours: Monday-Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm (last entrance: 4.30 pm). Sundays and public holidays 9 am to 1 pm (last entrance: 12.30 pm

Entry is free but a donation is welcome.

The Angel of Grief is in the old zone (Zona Vecchia) of the cemetery, close to Shelley’s grave. You can download a map here.

Exploring nearby attractions

Pyramid of Cestius – there’s a great view of this Rome landmark from the cemetery

large pyramid of cestius in rome

The restaurants of Testaccio – a magnet for foodies

Circus Maximus – the remains of Ancient Rome’s sports stadium

Baths of Caracalla – an impressive 2nd-century thermal bath complex

Orange Garden (Giardino degli Aranci) – a favourite spot with locals with unforgettable views of Rome.

panoramic view of the skyline of rome with tress in foreground

Knights of Malta keyhole – the so-called ‘secret’ keyhole or Aventine keyhole offering a perfectly framed view of Saint Peter’s Basilica.

I want to leave the last words to the artist himself:

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. It represents Prostration. Yet to do it helps me.

William Wetmore Story, from  William Wetmore Story and His Friends by Henry James