When it came down to a choice between visiting the Napoleonic Museum and the Keats-Shelley House, there was really no question over which museum was going to emerge victorious. Seeing the room where a tubercular English poet died trumps looking at the art collection of a Corsican dictator any day! The Keats-Shelley House is located at the foot of the Spanish Steps, so getting inside involves dodging hordes of tourists and jerks trying to sell you crap, but you will be instantly rewarded upon entering the cool, calm interior of the house. The house is considered a British museum abroad, and it was a refreshing and much needed taste of home. Entrance was 5 euros, and everything inside the museum is in English only, which was a rare treat (though I could see Italian people justifiably being annoyed by this).
Upon climbing the steps from the gift shop up to the museum, I was pretty much instantly in heaven, as the walls of the rooms were completely lined with books (now THIS was a proper library, unlike Leighton’s lame attempt). I began with the Severn and Keats rooms, which is where the poet and his friend lived in the weeks leading up to Keats’s early death. John Keats is of course famous for his poetry, most notably “Ode to a Nightingale” and “On a Grecian Urn,” but because Keats died in the house, much of the focus here is on his death – as I am a lover of medical history, this was a-ok with me! Keats had been suffering from tuberculosis for some years before he came to Rome; his mother and one of his brothers had already died of the contagious disease, and it was recommended that he go to Italy, as the climate might have improved his health, but he suffered a relapse and died not long after arriving, at the age of 25. His companion was Joseph Severn, a friend and painter, who took the room adjoining Keats. Both of these rooms are now filled with cases about Keats’s life and death.
There were a few life masks of Keats, as well as numerous portraits of him. Disturbingly, I think the closer he got to death, the better looking he became, but I’ve always had a weird fetish for all those tubercular English Romantics (yes, I know TB is a terrible disease that still kills many people in developing countries, but I think I’ve absorbed some of the Regency and Victorian romanticism relating to it). Unfortunately, because Italian law at the time required destroying all the furniture in a house where someone died from tuberculosis, none of the furniture in Keats’s room is original. Even the wallpaper was destroyed (though the ceiling tiles survived), and the house itself was narrowly saved from destruction by intervention from the US (led by TR) and other governments in the early 1900s. However, the view from the window is much the same as it was in Keats’s day, and you can delight in the same views of the crowd that Keats enjoyed before he was confined to his bed.
The house is also devoted in part to Percy Bysshe Shelley, and to a lesser extent, Lord Byron (though I suspect he was just dragged in to add some sex appeal). Even Shelley’s connection to the actual house is tenuous at best; he did live in Rome for a time, but not at the same time as Keats, and he and Keats never met, although they did correspond with each other, and Shelley wrote an ode to Keats after he died. However, they were both English Romantic poets, and Shelley drowned a year after Keats, and was buried in the same cemetery (the Non-Catholic Cemetery -I would have liked to visit, but we just plain ran out of time, plus we were ever so tired of walking), so why not include him? I think in this day and age, Percy Shelley has probably been eclipsed by his wife, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, so it was nice to learn a bit more about him. The museum had a lock of his and Keats’s hair, and again, a few portraits.
Of course, Byron’s flamboyant personality meant that the section devoted to him was the liveliest in the museum (Keats’s was the most poignant, particularly the letters from his sister Fanny to his fiancee, Fanny Brawne). It included a Carnival mask of an old man that Byron delighted in wearing, and a rather pompous-looking sketch of the poet. In one of those snarky little touches of humour that I adore in a museum, its caption featured a quote from Marianne Hunt who said that in it, Byron looked like, “a great schoolboy who had a plain bun given to him instead of a plum one,” which cracked me right up (even though personally I’d much prefer the plain bun – I do not understand the English obsession with fruited breads and cakes). This room also had an extensive collection of correspondence from all the main poets featured here, as well as Mary Shelley.
The Keats-Shelley House proved to be a much needed little oasis of quiet in the middle of the often overwhelming city of Rome, and I’m very glad I went here instead of the Napoleonic Museum (though the Napoleonic might well be just as good, I’ll put it on the list for next time!). I adored all the British humour on show, and relished the opportunity to learn more about Keats and Shelley. I found it a well-run, lovely museum, and advise anyone tired of the bustle of Roman life to pay it a visit! 4/5