In Rome, at the foot of the Spanish Steps, lies the Keats-Shelley House Museum, where John Keats lived during the last months of his life, nursed by his friend Joseph Severn. Today the house is a reference library containing over 8,000 volumes of Romantic literature and a museum dedicated to the Romantics, mainly John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley.
While living in London I often visited Wentworth Place in Hampstead where Keats lived between 1818 and 1820. This is where he met his future fiancée Fanny Brawne who lodged in one half of the house with her family. I kept returning to Wenthworth Place after my initial visit because there is something irresistible about the atmosphere in that house. In one of the rooms there is a wall is covered in portraits of friends of Keats and people from his social and artistic circle – here the visitor can socialise with history and meet Keats’ contemporaries. I am not sure I would be as taken with these portraits if I had no previous knowledge of the era, but I loved the kind of museum experience it offered; to discover new faces as I recognised familiar ones, to choose who I wanted to learn more about, or to repeat what I already knew. It makes me think of that scene from Mr. Turner where the camera moves, casually and seemingly in real time, through the Royal Academy, introducing us to artists and historical figures.
When visiting the houses of Keats one enters either Regency England or the Italy of the Romantics, and as one climbs the stairs to what was once Keats and Severn’s lodgings, one cannot help but feel transported to early nineteenth-century Rome. There is a very real, specific sort of magic to house museums like this, because they were once inhabited and because the exhibits are often varied and comparatively few, allowing the rooms themselves to be exhibits worthy of attention. It feels almost like visiting a private home.
John Keats and Joseph Severn lived at number 26 Piazza di Spagna from November 1820 until Keats’ death in February 1821, but the Keats-Shelley House Museum is not a mausoleum, it is an affectionate commemoration of the Romantics and a house which is still very much alive with regular lectures, readings and seminars.
The exterior of the house with the Spanish Steps in the background. When Keats and Severn moved into number 26 Piazza di Spagna there were already three lodgers living at that address: an Englishman, an Irishman and an Italian officer. The house was managed by Anna Angeletti, a 43 year old Venetian widow with two children.*
The main room in the house is the salon, which contains busts and portraits of Keats, Shelley and Byron, as well as letters and documents which are on display. During Keats and Severn’s tenancy the room was divided into three apartments, one of which was occupied by Angeletti.
View of the Spanish Steps, currently closed for restoration work, from the salon. In the 1810s and 20s, Piazza di Spagna would have been crowded with tourists, just like today.
Doing a bit of blending in with the wall panels in front of Joseph Severn’s posthumous portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1845).
Bust of Lord Byron in the salon.
Cameo of Keats by Giuseppe Girometti (c. 1821) and a miniature portrait of Lord Byron.
Lady Caroline Lamb, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat and novelist who is mostly known for the two-month affair she conducted with Lord Byron in 1812. She was tall and thin, enjoyed dressing as a pageboy, as depicted in this lithograph, and she wore her blond hair cropped short. She cared very little about the opinions of others unlike Lord Byron, who craved approval, despite his haughty public personage. Lady Caroline was intelligent, witty and she mastered Latin and Greek although she had received no formal education, as was usually the case for women at the time. After reading Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage she fell passionately in love with Lord Byron and pursued him with a literary interest as much as a sexual one.** Lady Caroline and Lord Byron were were each other’s equals both in intelligence, wit and temperament, they shared similar views on literature and politics, but she was as obsessive as he was jealous and their relationship ended horribly. Byron lost interest and started ignoring her, she answered by turning up at his house in the middle of the night. He sent her spiteful letters, she sent him angry threats, and when he criticised her publicly at a ball given in the honour of the Duke of Wellington she melodramatically reached for a dinner knife, which had to be wrestled from her. The gossip surrounding their affair and its aftermath made it impossible for them to lead a normal life, perhaps particularly for Lady Caroline who were distraught to the point of a mental breakdown. Despite this she continued to write and publish her own work after their affair ended.
Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half sister, with whom he developed an intimate friendship after the death of his mother in 1811. Augusta was kind and understanding, seemingly to the point of altruism and in this respect she was the polar opposite of Lady Caroline. Augusta and Byron almost certainly became lovers and although this was not illegal at the time, it shocked society and were one of reasons Byron’s wife demanded separation.
Lady Byron (Annabella Milbank) was intelligent and highly educated and her particular interest and talent for mathematics earned her the nickname “the princess of parallelograms.” When Byron proposed to her in 1812 she turned him down, but he continued to pursue her and in 1814 she accepted his second proposal, partly because of her undeniable fascination with him and partly because she considered it her religious and moral duty to reform his bad character. The marriage was a disaster. Byron was drunk, abusive and in deep financial trouble, and Annabella was convinced he was going mad. In 1815 Annabella gave birth to their daughter Ada, who would later become the mathematician who wrote the first algorithm to be processed by a machine, but this did not save their marriage and the couple were separated in a private settlement in 1816.
Teresa Guccioli, the daughter of Count Ruggero Gamba who was a member of the Carbonari, a secret society of Italian revolutionaries. She had just married Count Guccioli, a man almost forty years her senior, when she met Lord Byron in 1818. Their affair was initially tolerated by the Count, even when Byron followed them to their country estate and openly established himself as Teresa’s lover, and when he eventually protested she obtained a divorce from the pope. Teresa was Byron’s favourite Italian mistress and they lived together until he left for Greece in 1822.
A whole lot of Byrons.
John Keats by Joseph Severn. This is one of several copies made of an original portrait finished in 1819.
Fanny Brawne met Keats in 1818 and they got engaged the following year. Fanny read Shakespeare and Byron, mastered French and German, loved to dance and were extremely interested in fashion and dressmaking. She was energetic, witty and political, and could often be found in discussion with her friends, the officers stationed in the neighbourhood or the émigrés who had fled the French Revolution and settled in Hampstead. During the last year of Keats’ life he grew increasingly conflicted towards his relationship with Fanny. He adored her but lived in constant fear that they would be separated by his death. Demonstrating considerable maturity, the young Fanny remained constant and supportive to Keats in his confused state of increasing illness and emotional crisis. As his condition worsened, Keats were instructed to keep his distance from Fanny, as the doctors believed his weakened state was caused as much by emotional strain as by a physical illness. Nevertheless Keats lived at Wentworth Place with the Brawne Family and were nursed by Fanny for a month, which he described as the happiest month of his life, before he left for Italy.***
Self portrait by Joseph Severn from 1822.
Keats reading, drawn by Joseph Severn.
Drawing or tracing of the Sosibios vase by Keats.
After Percy Shelley drowned in the Adriatic Sea while out sailing with Lord Byron in 1822, his body was burned on a beach near Viareggio. Some fragments of Shelley’s bones which did not burn were collected by his friend Trelawny, who cherished them for his entire life. The alabaster urn to the far left contains a fragment of Shelley’s jaw bone which was given by Trelawny to Leigh Hunt, a mutual friend of him and Keats.
Locks of hair were exchanged between friends and lovers as tokens of affection in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Silver reliquary which once belonged to Pope Pius V, containing locks of hair from Milton and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Milton’s hair was a gift from Leigh Hunt to Robert Browning who placed it in the reliquary together with a lock of his wife’s hair.
A tress of Shelley’s hair, aged 13.
He is gone – he died with the most perfect ease – he seemed to go to sleep. On the 23rd (Friday) at 1/2 past 4 the approach of death came on. “Severn – I – lift me up for I am dying – I shall die easy – don’t be frightened – thank God it has come.” I lifted him up in my arms, and the pleghm seemed boiling in his throat – this increased until 11 at night, when he gradually sunk into death – so quiet that I still thought he slept.
Letter written by Joseph Severn the day after Keats’ funeral, addressed to Charles Brown with whom Keats’ lodged in Hampstead.
“If I should die,” said I to myself, “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.” – Keats to Fanny Brawne, February 1820
* Roderick Cavaliero, Italia Romantica: English Romantics and Italian Freedom (p .13)
** Paul Douglass, Lady Caroline Lamb (p. xii)
*** Andrew Motion, Keats (p. 324)