Entering the Keats-Shelley House at the foot of the Spanish Steps, it is tempting just to sit by one of the large windows on the staircase and watch the human traffic pass by in the Piazza di Spagna below. Ironically, this is the life Keats submitted himself to unwittingly, after he arrived in Rome with his friend Joseph Severn in late 1820, hoping that the warm climate would provide a cure for his tuberculosis.
Keats, however, did not so much endure life in Rome, but a slow death in the upper rooms of 26 Piazza di Spagna. The room where he spent most of his time in Rome looks out from the second floor of the house and across the piazza. On the day I visit, a military band is playing Amazing Grace at the foot of the Spanish Steps. I sit on the edge of one of the casement windows, listening and gazing out, as Keats might have done.
The floors of the house where Keats stayed now comprise a large library, a smaller library with exhibition cases – and Keats’ own bedchamber. The double aspect room has two windows overlooking the piazza below. The Spanish Steps are closed for restoration when I visit, but the sounds from the piazza below drift effortlessly into the room.
It is easy to imagine how a young man of twenty-four felt in his situation, stricken with TB and longing for life during confinement to his room, with any chance of recovery steadily receding. His mother had died of TB in 1810 and his brother in 1818.
The aim of the museum is not to act as a mausoleum, however – but as a celebration of Keats’ life and his legacy as a poet.
Fortunately for me, curator Giuseppe Albano is on duty the day I visit and paints a vivid picture of life in the Piazza di Spagna at the time Keats lived in the house, with the piazza and surrounding area acting not as a tourist attraction, as it is today – but as a busy port or hub for new arrivals in Rome. It is not hard to imagine the excitement of Keats and his friend Joseph Severn as they arrived at this melting pot in the Eternal City; Keats full of hope that his health might improve – but both young men anticipating the adventures they might have, just as any pair of twenty-somethings arriving in Rome might anticipate today.
It is natural for us to travel in hope – as thousands are currently doing across Europe. Keats, however, soon came to terms with the fact that his hopes would not be realised. The house is more poignant than gloomy, however – and the cool, neat bedchamber looking out onto the lively Piazza di Spagna offers a window onto life seen through the eyes of both a great poet and a young man facing the last months of his life. Keats died in February 1821 at the age of 25, one of the greatest poets ever to have lived.
Giuseppe Albano stresses that not only is the house a celebration of Keats and Shelley, but also underlines the historic connection between Rome and Britain. If you venture along the Via del Babuino – at the right-hand corner of the Piazza di Spagna as you exit the Keats-Shelley House – you will come across the beautiful All Saints C of E church.
Even if romantic poetry is not on your list of hobbies, it is worth retreating from the exuberance of Piazza di Spagna for a few minutes and seeing the piazza as Keats would have seen it from his room – all the bustle and beauty of Rome denied to him, but which we can freely enjoy.
Curator Giuseppe Albano is extremely approachable and passionate about the museum, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.
The house was also inhabited by the poet Shelley – and Byron lodged just across the piazza.
Entrance to the Keats-Shelley House costs 5 euros. More information is online.
An interview with the curator Giuseppe Albano is online at the Herald Scotland website.