Keats-Shelley Memorial Association Centenary Events in Rome

We were grateful to receive today this detailed dispatch from Nora Crook on last week's events in Rome.

It is a hundred years since the two American writers who lodged at Piazza di Spagna 26, where Keats had died in February 1821, alerted the American and British community in Rome to an imminent threat: the decrepit house was due to be demolished to make way for a hotel. The result was the formation of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association and an international fund-raising campaign to purchase and to preserve the house. It finally opened in 1909 as the Keats-Shelley Museum. The centenary also coincides with the refurbishment of the Museum, which has undergone major repairs and redecoration under the curatorship of the energetic Catherine Payling and the direction of the architect Roberto Einaudi. The familiar sugar-almond pink of the exterior is now a warm apricot, close to the original colour.

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The first gala event, on the evening of 29 October, was hosted by the British Ambassador, Sir Ivor Roberts, at the British Embassy, Villa Wolkonsky, not far from San Giovanni Laterano. (The Villa had been the HQ of the German High Command but was presented to the British by the Italians after World War II; a Roman aqueduct runs through the gardens and there is a swimming pool built for the use of Hitler.) In the splendid ballroom we were entertained by “A Paradise for Exiles” and “Life is But a Day,” two short dramas on Shelley and Keats respectively written by Angus Graham-Campbell, editor of the Keats-Shelley Review. Using the poets’ own words as much as possible, they were performed with brio by a cast of talented young professionals. As Claire Tomalin (who was present with Michael Frayn) observed, the emphasis on youth and humour – particularly marked in the Keats play – was an especially pleasurable feature of these evocations. Among others present were Harriet Cullen, chair of the KSMA, James Kidd, editor of its newsletter, Robert and Pamela Woof of the Wordsworth Trust, Duncan Wu, Tim Burnett of the British Library and his wife Jeannie.

The next morning we were lucky enough to be able to join one of the special tours of the Keats-Shelley Museum, where Catherine Payling and her hardworking support team unveiled the new interior layout. No aficionado of the old museum will feel a jolt; it struck all those present as a triumphant yet tactful renovation. There they still are: letters from Keats, Severn, the Shelleys; Keats’s death-mask, Byron’s carnival mask, the urn containing Shelley’s skull fragments … but the new cases enable everything to be seen afresh and the 8000 books are arranged in a more logical manner. Visitors to the Wordsworth Museum at Dove Cottage will sense something familiar – not surprisingly; Stephen Hebron was seconded from the Wordsworth Trust and his typographical skills may be seen in the elegant explanatory cards. Perhaps the most striking change involves the room where Keats died. It now contains a bed, of the right dimensions and period, a last-minute find, Catherine Payling told us, at a furniture restorer’s near Campo dei Fiori. Of course it could not possibly be Keats’s actual bed, but simply to have a bed at all makes an astonishing difference to the atmosphere of the narrow little room. It faces the window out of which Keats threw the nasty dinner sent in by his landlady. This particular tour ended with Anthony Hecht’s reading of some of his poems about old age, Keatsian in their craftsmanship and sensuous autumnal melancholy. As his beautiful, venerable voice reverberated through the library, many of us felt how appropriately they accorded with the reflections on mortality that the house as a shrine as well as an active museum provokes.

The evening event was at the Palazzo Barberini, where earlier that day we had paid our respects to the famous “Portrait Not by Guido Reni of a Girl Who Is Not Beatrice Cenci,” trying vainly to discern the pale composure, swollen eyes, and yellow strings of hair that Shelley so vividly described in the belief that it was indeed a portrait of La Cenci. Tri-nationalism was to the fore; the emphasis was on the co-operation between Italy, the United States and Britain – and on John Keats. Among those present were William Buice, representing the Keats-Shelley Association of America, Stuart Curran, Alan Christiansen of John Cabot University in Rome, Lilla Crisafulli and Keir Elam of the University of Bologna.

Claire Tomalin’s opening address reminded us of two other pilgrims to Rome: Samuel Pepys’s nephew and Thomas Hardy. After a sumptuous buffet supper, C. K. Williams, Valerio Magrelli and Tony Harrison, again representative of the three nations chiefly involved in the foundation of the associations, read a selection of their lovely poems. Winding up the proceedings, Sir Bob Geldof spoke with heart-felt eloquence of his long-standing passion for Keats’s poetry and with contempt for those who had castigated Keats as effeminate, instead of recognising in his works “the linguistic androgyny that we all inhabit” – memorable speech that many of us will remember. He proposed a birthday toast (just a few minutes prematurely: it was a quarter to midnight) to “John Keats, the greatest modern poet” and sent us out happy into a warm Roman autumn night with a half-moon in the sky.

As usual with an event of this kind, there were for us unexpected and serendipitous extra happenings. We shall treasure our first visit to the glorious Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, one of the few major museums open on Mondays in Rome and still in the hands of the original family; the engaging and informative audio guide is written by its present head, Prince Jonathan, who was also present at the Villa Wolkonsky event. Professor Rosy Colombo of the Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia, University of Rome “La Sapienza,” organized a post-graduate drama seminar, at which Stuart Curran gave a stimulating paper on Hannah Cowley. And we shall remember going to the Protestant Cemetery (Cimetero Acattolico) on All Souls’ Day. The “one keen pyramid with wedge sublime” was a little dulled by the overcast sky, but there were fresh chrysanthemums on the famous tombstones. As we stood by that of Keats, a young philosophy student from La Sapienza came and laid a bunch of marguerites on the grave.

Of course this is not the end of the celebrations, but only the first of an ongoing series which will continue to 2009. So those who missed last week’s junketings will still be able to join in. For more details of KSMA and the history of the Keats- Shelley Museum see the newly opened (September 2003) website: and

Nora Crook

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