By Sandra Tarling
I Weep for Adonais — he is dead!
O, weep for Adonais! though our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
. . .
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.
“Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats,”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
The “Casina Rossa” or “Little Red House” sits next to the Spanish Steps in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. An unprepossessing building built in 1725, it blends in with the neighboring three and four story buildings surrounding the piazza. The Casina Rossa is not renowned for its distinctive architecture, but instead for its many distinguished occupants, the most famous of whom was John Keats, the great English Romantic poet. Today, a small sign above the doorway indicates that it is the home of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, which contains one of the finest libraries of Romantic literature with a unique collection of manuscripts, paintings, drawings, and memorabilia documenting the careers and lives of Keats, Shelley, Byron, and other Romantic poets and artists.
John Keats, seriously ill with tuberculosis, came to Rome for his health at his friends’ and doctor’s urging. Despondent and convinced that the mental exertion needed to write poetry and his conflicted feelings for his fiancee, Fanny Brawne, contributed to his declining physical condition, he left England for Italy on September 30, 1820, with his friend, the painter Joseph Severn. They sailed to Naples and eventually arrived in Rome on November 15, 1820, where they settled into the Casina Rossa at no. 26 Piazza di Spagna, which had been rented by and was near James Clark, the doctor who would care for Keats. Tragically, Keats never fully recovered and died in his small bedroom in the Casina Rossa on February 23, 1821 at the young age of 25. Shelley raises this question in his poem “Adonais,” “Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men / Too soon . . .?” Keats was buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery behind the Pyramid in Testaccio. His gravestone was inscribed “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” with no name or date indicated, and above the inscription was carved a Greek lyre with four of its eight strings broken.
Many literary figures of his time, including Shelley, greatly admired Keats’ poetic abilities and achievements, and viewed him as a rising literary star. In writing a mutual friend, Shelley referred to Keats as “a rival who will far surpass me.” They originally met and spent time together at various literary gatherings until Shelley, due to financial difficulties, health problems, and a lack of critical acceptance, decided to leave England. In March 1818, he took his family, a nurse and a maid, and left England for Italy, nearly three years before Keats. Shelley and his entourage visited and stayed in a variety of places throughout Italy, including a brief stay in Rome where his two-year-old son, William, died, but he lived most of the time further north in Venice, Lucca, Florence, Pisa, Leghorn, and Lerici. His days in Italy ended on July 8, 1822 when he and a friend sailed from the Bay of Lerici for Leghorn to visit friends in Genoa and Pisa. Upon their return, they were caught in a brief, fierce storm and were drowned. Their bodies were found a few days later; Shelley was identified by the copy of Keats’ latest poems found in his pocket.
Shelley had extended more than one invitation for Keats to join him and his family in Italy. In response to Shelley’s last invitation, Keats kindly thanked him but declined, stating that he must go to Italy “as a soldier marches up to a battery.” As Keats prophetically alluded, they never did meet again until after their deaths. A little more than two years after Keats’ death, Shelley was also laid to rest in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome with his son William, who had died three years before, near Keats. Lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest were inscribed on Shelley’s tombstone:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But hath suffered a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Shelley had been a radical thinker and revolutionary, as well as a renowned Romantic poet. His short, tempestuous life ended abruptly at the young age of twenty-nine. He too had left “the trodden paths of men too soon.” Both before and after Shelley and Keats came to Rome, the Piazza di Spagna drew multitudes of foreign visitors, including writers and artists such as Tobias Smollet, George Eliot, Samuel Coleridge, fellow Romantic poet Lord Byron, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Oscar Wilde. They rented rooms in local hotels and private houses, roamed the narrow streets nearby, toured Rome’s antiquities, and gathered in the local coffee houses, such as the Caffe Greco, which opened in 1767 and still serves coffee and pastries today.
The Spanish Steps, built between 1721-25, lead up from the Piazza di Spagna to the Egyptian obelisk and the 16th-century Church of Trinita dei Monti on the “Pincio,” or the Pincio Hill, where the 16th-century Villa Medici sits amid formal gardens with a frescoed pavilion and replicas of ancient statues. The cool, pure waters of Pietro Bernini’s Barcaccia fountain, reminiscent of a broken marble boat sunk into the pavement at the base of the steps, have refreshed passersby for generations. Residents and visitors, including Keats during a short respite before his final days, climb the steps to enjoy the views of Rome from the cool, shaded gardens on the Pincio and refresh themselves at the Barcaccia Fountain below.
Facing the Spanish Steps, at the foot of the stairs on the righthand corner is Casina Rossa, the Keats-Shelley Memorial House. This nondescript building still maintains its faded rose exterior. When you enter, the bare entrance and stairway look like hundreds of others in similar buildings found throughout Rome. But after passing through this public entryway and up the stairs to the main floor, you enter through a small vestibule into the rooms where Keats and Severn lived, which now serves as a museum and library. As if stepping back in time, aside from the drawings and manuscripts displayed on the long table occupying the center of the first room, known as the Salon, everything appears just as you imagine it would have at the time Keats and Severn lived here. Small paintings and drawings line the walls, including Severn’s famous last drawing of Keats, interspersed with built-in floor to ceiling bookcases with glass doors containing manuscripts, artifacts and many of the over 10,000 books comprising the museum’s library collection.
Through the door to the right of the main entrance is the suite of rooms in which Keats and Severn spent most of their time. The first room with the original painted ceiling and fireplace, smaller than the Salon and with fewer built-in bookcases and cabinets, served as a sitting room as well as Severn’s bedroom. From its window, Severn and Keats enjoyed a wonderful view of the piazza. During their stay, Severn rented a piano that he kept here on which he played piano renditions of Haydn’s symphonies in an attempt to uplift Keats’ spirits,. A number of artifacts are kept now in a display case in this room: the rental receipt for the piano, a reliquary containing locks of hair of Milton and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a manuscript and poem by Oscar Wilde, a letter by Wordsworth, and a first edition of Shelley’s Revolt of Islam.
The final room is Keats’ bedroom, which is kept the way it was when Keats lived here. In this small, close room, a replica of his narrow, spartan bed is against the opposite wall facing the doorway. The view from the window of the piazza, fountain, and Spanish Steps, with all of the bustling activity, must have occupied Keats for long periods of time. A chair sits against the wall, and next to the door is a cabinet with a few artifacts. Another door to the right leads into a closet, which can also be entered from the stairs through the current entrance to the museum, so Keats’ room could be reached without going through the Salon. Its contents and arrangement today are close approximations of the way it was when Keats occupied the room, since it was stripped and disinfected, and its contents burned after his death from tuberculosis, in accordance with government regulations at the time.
During his stay at the Casina Rossa, Keats never wrote any poetry; he only had enough strength to write a few letters within the first weeks following his arrival. His last letter was written to a friend, Charles Brown, on November 30, 1820. He begins, “Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to write a letter.” Further on, as if he knows that his death is near, he writes, “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence. God knows how it would have been. “He laments that he has not written to other friends and family, and says he will do so soon, but then asks Brown to write to his brother George and his sister Fanny to tell them how he is. He closes with “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.”
When Keats set sail for Italy, several poems were left behind unfinished or not fully revised. His last poem was written several months before he left England. In reading his last poems today, many of the lines now seem prophetic, including Bright Star, which was written with his fiancee Fanny in mind: “Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art — / Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night / And watching, with eternal lids apart, . . .Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, / And so live ever — or else swoon to death.”
As much as Keats loved Fanny and missed her, his feelings for her were also conflicted, which added to his mental distress during his final days. Convinced that he was dying, Keats felt that his close family and friends, especially Fanny, would somehow have his death on their consciences. This thought plagued him for months, and he feared it would not allow him to die in peace. In what is considered the last stanza of poetry that he wrote, he expresses this despairing view of love in light of his pending death:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would[st] wish thine own heart dry of blood So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d — see here it is —
I hold it towards you.
In the end, Joseph Severn proved to be Keats’ most loyal, constant friend, especially during Keats’ final days. In a letter to Charles Brown, Severn describes Keats’ final moments: “My dear Brown, He is gone — he died with the most perfect ease — he seemed to sleep . . . [He said,] ‘Severn –S — lift me up for I am dying — I shall die easy — don’t be frightened — thank God it has come’ — . . . he gradually sank into death — so quiet that I still thought he slept.” In that instant, one of England’s greatest poets slipped quietly into death, yet his poetic legacy, “like a star,” remains forever constant.
After Keats’ death, the Casina Rossa’s rooms were occupied by many more visitors, including the Swedish writer and doctor Axel Munthe who lived there towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Salon now displays an edition of his work, The Story of San Michele, as well as a note on his life and friendship with the great Italian actress, Eleanora Duse. But by the end of the nineteenth century, the Casina Rossa was threatened with demolition. In 1906, it was bought by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association in order to prevent it from being torn down and turned into a new hotel. With the support of Edward VII and President Roosevelt, the house became a museum dedicated to preserving the memory of Keats and Shelley, who both lived and died as exiles in Italy. On April 3, 1909, it was opened to the public by the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III. In addition to housing one of the finest libraries of Romantic literature and a unique collection of manuscripts, artifacts, paintings, and memorabilia, the Casina Rossa also hosts lectures, poetry recitals, and gala literary events. Most importantly, it provides a peaceful place that memorializes the life and work, as well as the last days, of the great poet John Keats.
Sandra Tarling is a Los Angeles-area writer who writes essays, articles, and reviews, and is working on her first novel. She also teaches literature and writing at Santa Monica College.
More on the web
The Keats-Shelley Memorial House
Piazza di Spagna, 26, 00187, Rome, Italy
Hours: Mon-Fri, 9-6; Sat, 11-6
Tel: 39/6/678 4235 Fax: 39/6/678 4167
Before visiting, consider reading the following:
The biographies, John Keats, by Robert Gittings and Keats, by Andrew Motion; also, Kenneth Neill Cameron’s exhaustive biographical series on Shelley, The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical, Shelley and his Circle, vols. I-IV, and especially Shelley: The Golden Years, which begins with his last years in England when he first met Keats.
The Modern Library editions of Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats and Complete Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley.