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Literary pilgrimage

Dec 2, 2012

Kalpana Sunder visits the Keats-Shelley Museum in Rome, and revels in the evidence of literary greats who once occupied the building, now a piece of literary heritage.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever/ Its loveliness increases; it will never/ Pass into nothingness; but still will keep /A bower quiet for us, and a sleep /Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Endymion, 1818 — John Keats

The Spanish Steps and the Keats-Shelley Museum to its right. Photo by Adrian  Pingstone/wikimedia commonsThe flamboyant sweep of the stairs of the iconic Spanish steps with the towering gothic French church, the Trinita dei Monti, is a riot of colour — one of my favourite pilgrimages in the Eternal City. Horse carriages, vendors with bouquets of red roses, excited children splashing in the fountain, svelte blondes resting after a shopping expedition in Via Condotti, this is a microcosm of Roman life. Beside this popular spot is a poignant place, where a frail and creative genius spent his agonising last six months...I see a small board —‘Keats Shelley Museum’ — on a faded cream building to the right of the steps with a small brass plaque — “The young English poet John Keats died in this house on 24th February 1821, at the age of 25.” This is the house which used to be called Casina Rossa or the Red House, where Keats spent his last days, and where he breathed his last. He was suffering from tuberculosis and he was sent to Rome in the hope that the warmer climate would cure his ailment. Today, it is a museum, which is a tribute to both Keats and Shelley, who also drowned tragically off the Italian coast, with a copy of Keats’s poems in his pocket.

This bohemian part of Rome used to be called the ‘English Ghetto’— because of the many well-to-do Englishmen who did the obligatory ‘grand tour’ of Europe and lived in Rome for some time. It used to be the haunt of expatriate artists and writers like George Eliot, Samuel Coleridge and Lord Byron who rented rooms in small hotels and private rooms, and spent their days absorbing the beauty of Roman architecture. Close by is the Cafe Greco where writers like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain downed cups of coffee over literary discussions. Further away is the verdant Borghese Gardens where Lord Byron spent many an evening. I walk through a hall and up a marble staircase to a small vestibule which functions as a book shop and ticket office where they sell memorabilia and poetry books. On the same floor is a small cinema hall which screens an introductory film on the life of the poet. I go upstairs to the Salone, a large room which used to be the landlady’s room divided by a curtain from Keats and Severn’s rooms.

Poetic presence

Chairs line the walls for those who want to sit down and read poetry or those who attend lectures here. This room is now a library housing more than 8,000 volumes in beautiful walnut shelves donated by the New York Stock Exchange. It has some of the best romantic literature, first editions, manuscripts, drawings and a small collection of travel books celebrating the ‘grand tour’. There are glass boxes with original letters written by poets and writers. I am moved by the manuscript of the poem that Oscar Wilde wrote on seeing Keats’s grave. In the Severn Room, I see portraits of Keats and his fiancée, of romantic poet Wordsworth and the first edition of Endymion published in 1818 to devastating reviews. Among the exhibits is a letter written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of my favourite poets, lock of Keats’s tawny red hair encased in silver, a mask that Lord Byron wore to a Venetian carnival, even fragments of Shelley’s bones. I look at the common lyrical thread linking these brilliant poets. They all had early tragic deaths, were unsung during their short lives and were geniuses.

I steal away to Keats’s room and watch the afternoon sunlight warm his desk placed near a window. I look out of the window, at children splashing in the Baroque Bernini fountain against the brilliant Italian light with clear blue skies, imagining the scene in the 19th century — horses and tourists milling about in a tableau only slightly different from today. I imagine his tormented mind: he lost his father when he was eight, he lost his brother to tuberculosis, and he was in love with Fanny Brawne who was miles away. The original furniture had to be burned on the poet’s death because of a law that decreed this in the mistaken notion that it would help in preventing the spread of infection. Today there is a replica of a wooden ‘boat bed’. Above the bed is a portrait of the poet by his artist friend Severn drawn just three weeks before his death. The beamed blue rafted ceiling with cream rosettes was painted by Severn, who nursed him in his last days. As death came closer, Keats told Severn that he could already feel the flowers growing over him....

The building was saved from destruction in 1903 by the efforts of several people like President Roosevelt and the Italian king. The museum was opened in 1909 in the presence of personalities like Rudyard Kipling. Intense fundraising efforts by the Keats Shelley Memorial Association have kept this museum going without any public funding.

The museum is now a venue for poetry recitals, lectures, even art exhibitions. I head to the tranquil Babington Tea rooms near the Spanish Steps with its plush velvet and chandeliers and waitresses in old fashioned pinafores to help me recover from the pathos and melancholy of my visit. Nursing a latte macchiato, I muse over the poet’s words, “If I should die, I have left no immortal work behind me — nothing to make my friends proud of my memory — but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered.”


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