Since the Roman poet Virgil (c 70-19BC), authors have been fascinated by the Eternal City. Virgil gave the world snakes in the grass, Greeks bearing gifts and love conquers all. His epic poem the Aeneid eulogises Rome – and as a boy from the provinces arriving in Rome in the Augustan era, Virgil was mightily impressed, speaking of Rome’s “immortal majesty”.
Fast forward from Virgil and find out what other famous authors down the ages have thought about the Eternal City.
The poet Dante visited Rome in 1301
Rome, that reformed the world, accustomed was
Two suns to have, which one road and the other,
Of God and of the world, made manifest.
Soleva Roma, che ‘l buon mondo feo,
Due soli aver, che l’una e l’altra strada
Facean vedere, e del mondo e di Deo.
Purgatorio, Canto XVI
German poet and philosopher Goethe visited Rome between 1787 and 1788
“In the evening I climbed the column of Trajan. Seen from that height and at sunset, the Colosseum, with the Capitol close by, the Palatine behind and the city all around, it was a superb sight.”
Read about my visit to Goethe’s House.
Poet Lord Byron lived in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome in 1817.
“While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;
And when Rome falls — the World.”
Childe Harold CXLV
Lord Byron had a reputation as a libertine and lived at Newstead Abbey in Nottingham, England, which I was lucky enough to live opposite during part of my childhood. The abbey has extensive grounds and is famously haunted by two ghosts – The White Lady and the Black Friar. A lock of Byron’s hair in the museum shows that he had auburn hair. Lady Caroline Lamb – one of his lovers – referred to Byron as “Mad, bad and dangerous to know”. Byron came from a naval family and died from a fever in 1824, at the age of 36 – after joining rebels fighting at Missalonghi in Greece in 1823. Byron lived in various towns in Italy over seven years.
Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Rome in 1818, where his young son Will died and he completed the poem Prometheus Unbound. Shelley invited the poet John Keats to stay with him in Rome, hearing of his illness. After Keats’ death, Shelley wrote Adonais in 1821. The poem Rome and Nature was published in 1839.
“Rome has fallen, ye see it lying
Heaped in undistinguished ruin:
Nature is alone undying.”
Mary Shelley was already famed for her Gothic novel Frankenstein when she visited Rome with her husband and young children. Sadly Rome did not prove fortunate for her – her son died and her husband drowned in a boating accident in Italy. Mary suffered a breakdown after the death of her son Will and returned to London in 1823 after the death of her husband. However, she later travelled to Italy and Germany with her surviving son Percy Florence Shelley while he was a student at Cambridge University. She had to leave Italy early when she ran out of funds. Her travelogue Rambles in Germany and Italy was her last published work in 1844. The second volume of Mary Shelley’s Rambles is listed on Kindle.
Celebrated poet John Keats arrived in Rome in November 1820 and died in February 1821 from TB. His friend and fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley had heard of his illness and invited him to stay in the house by the Spanish Steps. Keats wrote no poetry while in Rome and was confined to his room overlooking Piazza di Spagna. He did write letters to friends, one shortly before he left for Rome and several while confined to his room in Rome before his death.
“Land and sea, weakness and decline are great separators, but death is the great divorcer for ever.” (30 Sept 1820, shortly before leaving for Rome by sea)
“I can scarcely bid you goodbye, even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.” (30 November 1820, shortly after arriving in Rome)
Read about my visit to the Keats Shelley House.
Mask of Keats
Novelist Charles Dickens visited Rome between 1844 and 1845.
“The Corso is a street a mile long: a street of shops, and palaces, and private houses, sometimes opening into a broad piazza.
“There are verandas and balconies of all shapes and sizes to almost every house – not on one storey alone but often to one room, or another on every storey – put there in general with so little order or regularity that if, year after year and season after season, it had rained balconies, hailed balconies, snowed balconies, blown balconies, they could scarcely have come into existence in a more disorderly manner.”
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Featured image: The Via del Corso – a selection of shutters and balconies that Charles Dickens would have cast his eye over.