Memories of a remarkable visit to a writer’s house in Rome
I originally wrote this article after visiting the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. It was published on About.com’s site (now Dotdash) in 2000, when I was the their Guide to English Culture (1997-2001). Sadly, and for reasons I will never fully understand, the Company axed its entire Cultures’ network the following year and much of my work was either filed away, lost or republished elsewhere.
I was yesterday reading a post about literary locations around the world on one of my favourite book blogs, Curiouser and Curiouser. The blog’s creator, Amy, had included the Keats-Shelley House among the places she would most like to visit, saying she would “like to pay [her] respects to two of the most amazing poets that Britain ever produced.” Reading this, I recalled my old feature, and promised to republish it on Book Jotter should it come to light.
After a fruitless search through old files, I remembered the Wayback Machine – an internet archive that has been saving important web content since 1996 – and duly tracked down my original piece with the (somewhat small) photographs still in place. What an amazing piece of kit!
Reading it again after so many years, I see it was intended as a general information piece, which was the sort of thing required by my bosses in New York at the time, and it wasn’t in the least bit personalised. Nevertheless, I can now disclose that my visit was an unforgettable, emotional and exhilarating experience. Indeed, I still have a framed painting of the house on my living-room wall.
I clearly remember the stifling summer temperatures and clear blue skies, and I bristle still at the memory of an unscrupulous taxi driver charging my partner and I an exorbitant rate for dropping us off close to the Fountain of the Babuino. The Palazzo di Spagna was hoaching with humanity that day, and the roar of voices and traffic was almost overwhelming. We picked our way through a sprawled mass of overheated bodies lolling on the Spanish Steps, entering the cool, hushed, dimly-lit interior of the house as if stepping into another era. I most clearly recall a vast collection of books and manuscripts devoted to the Romantic poets; the pitiful sight of Keats’ death mask placed close to a replica of his bed; and a letter written to him by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I was euphoric. It was the high-point of my Roman sojourn (rather less so for my poetryproof partner) and I dwelt (silently) on my visit for the remainder of the holiday.
This one’s for you, Amy. I hope it isn’t too long before you make the trip yourself.
Rome’s memorial to the English Romantic poets
Visitors to Rome are often surprised to discover an archive of literary and historical works with a museum of manuscripts and literary mementoes relating to English poets and writers of the early 19th century.
Facing directly onto the Piazza di Spagna, a square enclosed by buildings and centring on the distinctive boat-shaped Barcaccia fountain, is the house where 25 year-old John Keats died in 1821. This English Romantic poet produced work of the highest quality and promise, including the collections: Poems 1817 and Endymion (1818), before sailing to Italy in 1820, in a last desperate attempt to regain his health during the final stages of tuberculosis.
Keats didn’t particularly enjoy his time in Rome, referring to it as his “posthumous life”. He was tormented by his doomed love for Fanny Browne; confined to the rooming house with his companion Joseph Severn (to whom he remarked that he could already feel “the flowers growing over him”) and spent months in agony before his demise. Indeed, his death mask, now stored in the room where he died, fully captures his resigned grimace. However, the ‘Casina Rossa’, or ‘Little Red House’ on the Spanish Steps has since become a shrine to Keats and other important English poets and writers.
Built between 1721-1725, the Spanish Steps, which sweep in a cascade of balustrades and balconies alongside the house, have long been a gathering place for artists, musicians and writers. George Eliot, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron and the Brownings are among the many creative people who lodged in the square beneath the 16th century Trinità dei Monti church. The house itself was constructed in 1725.
Despite its fame, No. 26, Piazza di Spagna, was threatened with demolition in the late 19th century, and was purchased by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association in 1906, then opened to the public by the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, on 3rd of April 1909. It has since amassed a unique collection of Romantic literature, manuscripts, paintings, letters and other fascinating memorabilia, such as a silver scallop shell reliquary, containing locks of hair from Milton and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
“…the most beautiful and solemn cemetery I ever beheld.” — Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) on Rome’s Protestant Cemetery
After visiting the museum many people go on to look at the Protestant Cemetery, one of the great memorials to the English in Rome. Both Keats and Shelley are buried there, along with a number of other famous names. Shelley’s ashes were brought there at Mary Shelley’s request, and interred, after much obstruction by the papal authorities, in the newer part of the graveyard. Keats lies next to his friend, Joseph Severn, in an old part of the cemetery near the pyramidal tomb of Caius Cestius, who died in 12 B.C.E. His stone is inscribed with the words: “here lies one whose name was writ in water”.