Rome, it has often been noted, is a city invented for the outsider: the exile , the tourist, the writer. More than any other European capital, it has served to fix the foreign imagination and, occasionally, its destiny.
It's not surprising, therefore, that some of the most frequented sites in Rome are the numerous houses and pensionim that once sheltered foreign writers. Perhaps none is as famous, though, as No. 26 Piazza di Spagna, a four-storied, ocher-washed building at the bottom of the famous Spanish Steps. Some 4,000 yearly visitors scale its narrow limestone steps to the third floor, ring the bell, and wait for the imposing walnut door to open. From all over the world they have come to see the final home of poet John Keats, now the celebrated site of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, whose four wood-paneled rooms contain the greatest collection of English Romantic literature and memorabilia outside England.
Like its location, the Keats-Shelley House rests at the very heart of Roman cultural life. Indeed, since it entered the public domain in 1909, the house has become the object of fierce proprietary pride by the Italians themselves. In fact, so prized is the collection that during World War II it was stored with the nation's finest treasures in Monte Cassino. When the latter was bombed, the abbey's archivist personally smuggled two of the most important containers back to Rome, disguising them as personal baggage.
The house, of course, transcends national partisanship. Its appeal is the universality of poetry itself, its power to stir the sympathetic imagination. Standing in Keats's sliver of a room, a room Eleanor Clark in "Rome and a Villa" called "a little Gettysburg of the history of poetry," is sure to move even the most stubborn-hearted of tourists unwittingly siphoned from a day's visit to the Spanish Steps.
If the house symbolizes the end of Keats's poetic career, over time it has also come to signify poetic richness. Not only is it a fund of original work by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth, it also houses subsequent work by Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Rainer Maria Rilke, all of whom were inspired by the Keats legend. Moreover, in a self-perpetuating fashion, the house serves as a cultural forum for younger poets who pilgrim with their own work.
The history of the Keats-Shelley House begins not in Rome, but in London in 1816, a seminal year for Romantic literature. If 1816 was the year Keats and Shelley, then 21 and 24 respectively, met in the Hampstead home of poet Leigh Hunt, it was also the year Lord Byron fled England for Italy. These four figures, so radically different in talent and temperament, were to become linked in a literary drama that has a certain Aeschylean inevitability to it.
While both Shelley and Byron left England on the heels of personal and political scandals, Keats reluctantly did so for reasons of climate and health. On Sept. 13, 1820, Keats and artist Joseph Severn boarded the SS Maria Crowther, arriving in Rome seven weeks later. Lodgings at No. 26 Piazza di Spagna had already been secured for them by Dr. James Clark, later personal physician to Queen Victoria.
Since its construction by the French around 1725, the Spanish Steps area was a favorite spot for English visitors. Perched at the then northern edge of the city, the Piazza di Spagna afforded a splendid view of the Specchi-designed steps, the ancient obelisk atop them and, just beyond, the twin-towered church of Santa Trinita dei Monti. From there one surveyed the piazza with its crowds gathered around Bernini's boat-shaped fountain. Listening to the daily play of its water, Keats was later to fashion his famous if unfitting epitaph: "Here lies one whose name was writ on water."
In a dark irony so befitting the Romantics, Shelley mourned this line, only himself to drown a year later after helping Leigh Hunt move into Byron's seaside home near Pisa. And perhaps the final irony: While the four poets never met together in Rome, they are now joined under a single roof.
Thus, what proved impossible during their lifetimes, namely uniting them under the banner of Romantic poetry, was made possible 85 years later by the inspired pragmatism of eight American and English writers. In 1906, the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association bought the house with funds raised through public subscription by King Edward VII and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1909 Italian King Victor Emanuel III opened it to the public. Since then it has served the needs of scholars, visitors, and even the war-weary Allied soldiers who journeyed up its steps after the liberation of Rome.
On entering, one knows why those men in particular came. It is a timeless cultural preserve, a rich reminder of man's civilizing instinct.Indeed, the first thing that strikes the visitor entering the red damask salon is the heavy, resonant smell of bound leather. Rimming the walls are some 10,000 books: biographies, anthologies, original editions, all detailing an area of Romantic literature and life.
The salon, formerly the room of Keats's landlady, is the envy of any private library. Suspended from its walls are numerous portraits of Shelley and Byron, to whom the room is dedicated, as well as copies of their letters. Original letters, books, and pamphlets by the Shelley-Byron circle, notably Mary Shelley, her mother, feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and the latter's husband, philosopher William Godwin, are preserved in cases.
A smaller adjoining room, formerly Joseph Severn's, is a gem of Keatsian treasures. Principal among them is the silver scalloped reliquary containing a lock of Milton's hair.
The next room, Keats's own bedroom, crowns the collection. On display are copies of the final odes, letters to friends, and, most moving, Severn's final portraits of Keats himself.