Keats-Shelley House in Rome is a wonderfully quaint tribute to the work of John Keats and the English romantic poets.
The sad history of the house is that Keats moved there from England after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. His friends thought the warm climate might help but the disease was incurable and he died there just three months later in February 1821, aged 25.
He had already witnessed his younger brother die a slow and painful death from the disease and when he realised he had it himself, he referred to his remaining time as ‘posthumous’ because he knew he was under a death sentence. He ended all contact with the love of his life, Fanny Brawne, as he felt he could never experience real joy again. Jane Campion made a film about their story called Bright Star.
The house has been a museum for over a hundred years. There is a library with an extensive collection of around 8,000 volumes relating to the works of the romantic poets, including Keats’ contemporaries Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Inside, it feels like stepping back in time as the rooms have been painstakingly renovated to appear as they would have when Keats lived there.
It’s in a stunning location at the foot of my favourite spot in Rome, the Spanish Steps. There are usually hundreds of people outside socialising in the sun and the rooftop bar at the top, Il Palazzetto, does fabulous Bellinis.
There are also wonderful views of the city from the stunning Trinità dei Monti church at the top of the steps where you can watch the sunset.
Keats’ grave is in a peaceful corner of the beautiful (if unfortunately named) Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners, near an ancient pyramid dating back two thousand years. The ashes of Keats’ peer Shelley, who died in a boating accident near Pisa aged 29, are buried nearby.
Keats actually wanted a nameless tombstone stating simply ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ But unfortunately, some of his acquaintances waded in after his death and misguidedly arranged for extra wording to be added. His actual epitaph is therefore: “This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone… ‘Here lies One whose Name was Writ in Water.’”
Bizarrely, there’s also an underground cat sanctuary at the cemetery so you may find a few feline friends wandering amidst the graves. When I told someone about this recently they thought I meant it was a pet cemetery so just to be clear, the cats are alive! I’m no cat lover but I must admit that when I was reading on a bench once near Keats’ grave and a black cat came and sat at my feet, I got goosebumps.
Keats’ former home in London is also a museum, the lovely Keats House in Hampstead. There is also a statue of him sitting on a bench at Guy’s Hospital as he was a surgeon there before becoming a poet full-time. It may have been a big career change but both vocations are creative in different ways.
Keats-Shelley House Rome and Keats House London host events including literary talks and plays. Each museum is a must-visit place not only for poetry and history lovers but also for anyone who fancies a random slice of old-fashioned life and a unique haven away from the chaos of both these amazing cities.
NB) This is an updated version of my original post published on my closed Italian lifestyle blog Living La Vita Roma which I wrote while living in Rome a few years ago.