Travel: Rome - Half in love with easeful death

Romantics - new or old - can now rent rooms in the house where John Keats spent his last, tubercular months
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To many who enter it, number 26, Piazza di Spagna, a tall pink house on Rome's Spanish Steps, is a place of pilgrimage. In 1821, the poet John Keats spent the last three months of his tragic life here, suffering greatly from tuberculosis and being cared for by his friend, the artist Joseph Severn.

The house was bought by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Fund in 1906 and today the rooms that Keats and Severn rented are now the museum and library of the Romantic poets; chiefly, Keats, Shelley (who stayed on the opposite side of the steps and also died in Italy, drowning while sailing, in 1822), Byron and Leigh Hunt.

The library is said to be one of the best in the world dedicated to the Romantic poets, and inside the museum, with its hushed atmosphere, is a moving display of relics, letters and manuscripts, locks of Keats's light brown curls, and the life and death masks of the poet (the latter even shows a slight smile on his mouth). Several drawings by Severn include his deathbed sketch of the poet. Severn had kept a final vigil here, noting: "28 Jan. 3 o'clock morning - drawn to keep me awake - a deadly sweat was on him all this night."

In happier circumstances, Keats would surely have loved Rome with the city's monumental sculptures and dramatic ruins that would have made fitting settings for the Olympians and Titans of his epic poem "Hyperion". He went to Italy to die, aged 25. His mother and his brother Tom had both died of TB and he was warned by doctors that he would not survive another English winter. Never having left Britain before, he set off dreading the sea voyage (he felt that he was "marching against an army of soldiers") and leaving his love, Fanny Brawne, behind in Hampstead.

Dr Clark, whom he contacted on arrival in the city after a horrible time at sea, advised him to avoid the excitement of sightseeing, but he declined so swiftly that he was confined to the house after five weeks. Fleeing the British winter had merely appeared to hasten his end and the consequent scarcity of focuses for a Keats pilgrimage here adds to its poignancy.

On the floor above Keats's rooms, we rented an apartment from the Landmark Trust for a week. One of the rooms was a small bedroom just above Keats's, identical in size and with a ceiling decorated with the same white rosettes and blue paint that the poet must have gazed at from his deathbed.

Staying in the flat, with its polished tile floors and cool, high rooms, our windows shared his view directly over the grand Rococo stairs that were designed to link the piazza with Trinita dei Monte in the 1720s. The throng of Grand Tourists, artists and models he would have seen have now been replaced by less grand tourists, brides and grooms being photographed and guitarists with a limited repertoire.

Just outside the house is Bernini's Fontana della Barcaccia. The leaky boat fountain was designed by either Pietro or his more famous son, Gian Lorenzo and apparently the poet listened to it all night, but we couldn't share the experience since it was covered for cleaning.

In his early days in Rome, Keats had ventured above the Steps to the Pincio, laid out as romantic gardens by Guiseppe Valadir in 1809. Here, in the company of another invalid, he walked in the avenues, rode a pony and dodged the admiring Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese. Today's strollers have to dodge the four-wheeled double- bicycle carriages, but the views down into the grand Piazza del Popolo, over to the dome of St Peter's or across to the Capitoline, can't be much changed.

From a trattoria in Via Condotti, just across the piazza, Keats and Severn would have their meals sent up, hoisted in a basket from the window; now it's the hugely expensive Bulgari jewellers and opposite is the stylish Caffe Greco, which claims to have been a haunt of artists and writers since 1760.

Finally, there is the Protestant Cemetery at Caius Cestius's Pyramid across the city, where Keats's grave has his chosen epitaph: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." Oscar Wilde made his own pilgrimage here and described it in his poem "The Grave of Keats", with "dim-seen violets weeping with the dew". He denied Keats's epitaph, writing that his name "shall stand and tears like mine shall keep thy memory green".

The cemetery is beautiful; at first sight it looks overgrown, but soon you realise that this is only an effect of the copious but carefully tended trees, shrubs and creepers. There is a gathering of friends among the exiles here: Severn has a matching grave to Keats, by his side in the old section; Shelley has his tomb at the base of the tower, and close by is his companion, the author and adventurer Edward Trelawney. The whine of the snarling traffic round the Pyramid cannot ruin the tranquillity or drown the birdsong as carved angels flock over the graves.

I asked Catherine Payling, curator of the Keats Shelley Memorial House, why the house has become so important even though Keats stayed there for such a short time. She explained that Keats inspired devotion in many who knew him - his lifelong friend Charles Brown wrote of "how closely he was wound about my heart" and Shelley wrote a tribute poem to him, "Mourn not for Adonais". Despite some sharp criticism of his work while he lived (Byron once sneered at him as an affected Cockney), a steady trickle of supporters - such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning - visited the rooms while the house was still run as lodgings. "His fame grew swiftly enough after his death for the place to have resonance," she said.

Thus the trickle gradually grew to a flood after his death. Hence, the museum was opened. In the last two years the number of visitors has risen from an annual 6,000 to 18,000. At the unveiling of the memorial to Keats and Shelley in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, in 1954, John Masefield, then Poet Laureate, said: "In attempting greatness, Keats touched it." It seems his name will endure, not least in this Italian city that he should have loved but barely saw.

Anna Dedhar paid pounds 1,429 to stay in Keats's House, 26 Piazza di Spagna, Rome, for a week in June. The self-catering apartment sleeps four and can be booked through the Landmark Trust, Shottesbrooke, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 3SW (01628 825925)

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