Rome residents got a big surprise this spring, when the scaffolding concealing the front of the Keats-Shelley House in Piazza di Spagna finally came down after a lengthy restoration project involving the faade and roof of the building. The house contains memorabilia related to Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron, the trio of young poets who symbolise the English Romantic movement and who were all drawn to Italy in the 1800s. A well-known landmark on the right-hand side of the Spanish Steps, it had long been affectionately known as the casina rossa, or the red house, thanks to the colour of its faade. This had ranged from a deep, Pompeii red to the softer pink shade that was applied during the previous restoration job in the early 1990s. This time, however, Rome city council insisted that the building should be re-done in its original 17th-century creamy shade to blend in better with the surrounding buildings of the historic square.
The new look may not be to everyones taste, but no visitor is likely to criticise the changes that have taken place inside the house. Revenue from the advertising banners which hung on the scaffolding during the long restoration has been put to skillful use by curator Catherine Payling to give the museum-cum-library what she refers to as a more visitor-friendly look.
The greatest surprise will probably be the Keats shrine the little side room where the young poet died at the age of 25 in 1821. Payling is enormously pleased to have found an early 19th-century Italian bed in an antiques shop to replace Keats original bed, which was burned, along with the rest of the furniture, after he died of tuberculosis. Ive wanted this for a long time, to enhance the atmosphere, she said. The room now looks more as it must have done when Keats occupied it.
The houses new look will be inaugurated on 30 October in the presence of an invitation-only gathering of VIPs and numerous British, Italian and American poets. This occasion will also mark the beginning of a six-year centenary celebration of the museum and library foundation. The association was set up in 1903 to save the house, but the museum wasnt opened until 1909.
The house has a long and chequered past dating back some three centuries, according to research done by Sally Brown, who is writing a new history due to be published at the end of this year. In the 17th century, there were no Spanish Steps. This was a bustling, working-class district built on the slopes of the hill leading up to the Trinit dei Monti church. Number 26 was a typical, late-renaissance town house, with workshops on the ground floor and flats above. The present faade dates from 1724-25, when it was smartened up to fit in with the grandiose scheme of the Spanish Steps. Inside, however, it retained some of the original renaissance features, such as the beamed ceiling decorated with blue and white rosettes the same ceiling that the dying Keats would have looked up at.
The ground-floor premises at number 26 were at times joined to the neighbouring building. In the early 1700s, they housed a tailors and a coffee shop. Later, they became a trattoria. By the time Keats stayed there, the upper floors were already a boarding house, occupied mainly by foreign visitors and artists a tradition which continued throughout the 19th century.
By 1903, however, the house was at risk of disappearing. Piazza di Spagna had become a prime site for property developers, who wanted to convert the entire right-hand side block into a grand hotel. Even then, the second-floor rooms at number 26 were the destination of pilgrimages made by poetry lovers from northern Europe and the United States. Two American women, big fans of Keats, were living in the house and wanted to buy it and resurrect this shrine, but they didnt have the money. Help came from another American: Robert Underwood Johnson, poet and later the American ambassador to Italy. He gathered support from a group of American and English literati living in Rome, who formed the first Keats-Shelley Memorial Association. Three years of intense fundraising in Britain and the United States produced the $21,000 required to purchase the freehold.
The museum was finally opened in 1909, and has since had the good fortune to be tended by four extremely able and devoted curators. The first was Vera Cacciatori, wife of the poet Edoardo Cacciatori, whose reign lasted almost 40 years. A woman of extraordinary resources and energy, she guarded the house through the dangerous war years. She was succeeded by Sir Joseph Cheyne (1977-1990), who initiated a collaboration with the British Council, which continues to be a key partner in the houses annual events programme. Next came Bathsheba Abse, whose spell of office coincided with two memorable anniversaries: the bicentenaries of the births of Shelley and Keats in 1992 and 1995 respectively. Payling, who was recently awarded an MBE for her contribution to Anglo-Italian cultural relations, took over in 1997. Her debut was marked by an event of great excitement in the literary world, when Maurice, an unpublished story written by Shelleys wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, was discovered by the Dazzi family in their family home in northern Tuscany.
The next major event in the centenary programme takes place next autumn, with the inauguration of a major exhibition focussing on the Anglo-American community who were in Rome at the time of the houses foundation.
Keats-Shelley House, Piazza di Spagna 26, tel. 066784235,
www.keats-shelley-house.org. Mon-Fri 09.00-13.00, 15.00-18.00,
Sat 11.00-14.00, 15.00-18.00, Sun closed.
Picture: The Keats-Shelley House in Piazza di Spagna has seen many changes during the course of its long and chequered history. Photo from a