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And the Search for a Proper Memorial

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link to image of James Smithson's Italian grave site

James Smithson's Italian grave site, 1896. View from the front.



Smithson's Italian Grave, 1880. Back view.

James Smithson's Italian grave site, 1896. View from the rear.

The Italian Grave Site

The Smithsonian's interest in maintaining James Smithson's Italian grave site began as early as 1857 and in 1880, the United States consul in Genoa, Italy was authorized "to put the monument in thorough repair and to arrange to have it kept in good condition at the expense of the Institution." Later, while on a trip to Italy in August 1891, then secretary Samuel P. Langley deposited additional funds  "for the care, in perpetuity of the tomb of James Smithson...."

Langley also recommended that a fitting plaque be placed by the tomb (visible in the photo on the left). The Regents authorized the plaque in 1896 with the approval of a design by William Ordway Partridge of New York. Three plaques were made, one for the cemetery, one to be placed in the Protestant chapel in Genoa, and one as a gift to Pembroke College at Oxford, Smithson's alma mater.

The two Italian bronze plaques proved ill-fated, neither surviving today.  The plaque at the grave was stolen in 1900 and was immediately replaced with a marble copy of the bronze plaque in the Genoa chapel.  During Allied bombing in World War II, the chapel was destroyed, its contents, including the bronze plaque, looted. In 1960, the Smithsonian replaced it with a copy of the marble plaque from the grave site. This copy was created in the Romanelli studio in Florence, Italy and was installed in the church in 1963.

Smithson's grave site suffered a similar fate as the plaques. In 1901 the Smithsonian was notified by the British Consul in Italy that by 1905 the cemetery would be relocated due to expansion of the stone quarry at the foot of the hill upon which it rested. Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell urged that Smithson's remains be brought to this country for re-interment within the grounds of the Institution that his bequest founded. His proposal met with resistance from the other Regents, but after two years his proposal finally won approval.


This exhibit is based on an unpublished paper: "Smithson's Personal Effects, Proposed Memorial, and Crypt," by Richard E. Stamm, Smithsonian Institution, 1995.

© Smithsonian Institution, 2008