Tracing the footsteps of Rome's foreign writers and artists

An obscure map in the Keats-Shelley House inspires a cultural pilgrimage to places in Rome where American, British and Irish writers and artists stayed in the 19th century.

Rome's Keats-Shelley House hosts a mysterious watercolour map on its steep, narrow stairwell where it is believed to have rested since the museum's opening in 1909.
Painted by an unknown artist, the map depicts the area surrounding Piazza di Spagna, using blue motifs with calligraphy to indicate where visiting British and American writers and artists stayed during the 19th century. By this time the network of streets around the Spanish Steps was already known as the “English ghetto" due to its popularity among wealthy British travellers who would conclude their grand tours of Europe in Rome. 
The map contains around two dozen names – many of whose paths crossed – with several buildings hosting plaques boasting of their illustrious former residents. Based on the information recorded in the map, which can also be viewed on the Keats-Shelley House website, it is possible to trace a roughly clockwise trail around the Tridente, a trident-shaped area of the centro storico fanning out from Porta del Popolo, once the main gateway to the city. The walking tour spans nine decades, from 1817 to 1895, and takes a couple of hours at a leisurely pace. 

The map can be found on the stairwell of the Keats-Shelley House.

Unsurprisingly, the map takes as its central focus the Keats-Shelley House at Piazza di Spagna 26, whose former tenant John Keats (1795-1821) needs little introduction. Despite spending just three months here, a virtual prisoner to the final throes of tuberculosis, Keats remains indelibly associated with Rome. Visitors today can enter the second-floor bedroom in which the 25-year-old Romantic poet died in terrible agony, his devoted friend Joseph Severn at his side, on 23 February 1821. Keats is buried in the city's Non-Catholic Cemetery where his tomb – dedicated simply to a “young English poet” – continues to draw pilgrims almost two centuries after his death. 

Joseph Severn's sketch of John Keats on his deathbed in Rome in 1821.

1819 saw the arrival of English Romantic painter J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851). It is not known where he stayed – perhaps at Palazzo Poli near the Trevi Fountain from which his one surviving letter was written. However we know that on his return trip in August 1828 he took lodgings at Piazza Mignanelli 12, a stone's throw from what is now the Keats-Shelley House. Turner's exhibition in December 1828 at Palazzo Trulli (demolished half a century later to make way for Corso Vittorio Emanuele II) was attended by over a thousand visitors; however, the works received a predominantly unfavourable response, according to Turner expert David Blayney Brown. On 3 January 1829 Turner departed Rome for the last time, although the city's ruins were to feature prominently in his future work.

Campo Vaccino by Turner.

"Oh Rome! my country! city of the soul!” The Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788-1824) is undoubtedly the most colourful character on this list. Fleeing debts and a desperate personal situation, Byron left England in 1816, never to return, living mainly in Italy until his death in modern-day Greece aged 36. Byron befriended the Shelleys at Lake Geneva before travelling to Italy, where he was to spend seven years, predominantly in Venice, Pisa and Ravenna. According to popular myth he lodged at Piazza di Spagna 66, opposite the Keats-Shelley House, in 1817. On his return to Ravenna he wrote the fourth canto of his epic narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, about half of which relates to Rome. 

The map features a couple of names who fit into neither painter nor writer category. One of these figures is James Clark (1788-1870), a Scottish doctor who operated a thriving medical practice in Piazza di Spagna from 1819 until 1826, during which time poor Keats was one of his patients. Despite rising to become physician to Queen Victoria, recent research suggests that Clark misdiagnosed Keats' illness, compounding the poet's final months of agony by enforcing starvation and blood lettings. The doctor's exact address is unknown but, according to the American author John Evangelist Walsh in his book In Darkling I Listen. The Last Days and Death of John Keats, Clark lived "across the steps" from the Keats-Shelley House. 

Claude Lorrain's studio, collection British Museum.

Ascending the steps to Trinità dei Monti, the map lists the American landscape painter Thomas Cole (1801-48) as living on Via Sistina, without a street number but with the vital clue that he was based at a studio once used by Claude Lorrain, from 1831-32 and again in 1841. According to a drawing in the collection of the British Museum the location of Lorrain's former studio corresponds to Via Sistina 66, the building wedged between the start of Via Sistina and Via Gregoriana, opposite today's Hotel Hassler. 

Next door at Via Sistina 64 lived the Irish portrait painter Amelia Curran (1775-1847), who moved to Rome in or around 1818, eking out a living painting portraits and copying old Masters. She is best known for her portrait of her friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, quill in hand, which was presumably painted at this address and is now in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Curran died in 1847, her funeral celebrated at the Franciscan church of St Isidore's on Via degli Artisti 41. Here she is commemorated with a memorial featuring palette and brushes, carved by prominent Rome-based Irish sculptor John Hogan (1800-58).

Amelia Curran's portait of Shelley, collection National Portrait Gallery, London.

On 7 May 1819, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and his wife Mary Shelley (1797-1851), fresh from penning her Gothic masterpiece Frankenstein, left their lodgings at Palazzo Verospi on Via del Corso 374 to move next door to Curran on Via Sistina 65, against the wishes of the family doctor, who advised Shelley to escape the city's “mal'aria”. Although the elevated Via Sistina had the “best air in Rome” according to Shelley, one month after their move the Shelley's three-year-old son William “Willmouse” died of a fever, most likely malaria. The heartbroken couple left Rome for the last time on 10 June 1819, after burying the boy, their third child to die, at the Non-Catholic Cemetery. Three and a half years later Shelley's ashes would be interred in the same cemetery after his tragic death aged 29 during a storm off the Tuscan coast near Lerici.

Veering slightly off-course now, turn left half-way down Via Sistina onto Via di Porta Pinciana. At the top of the street Palazzo Laranzani, number 37, hosted Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) in 1858. Hawthorne overcame his initial misgivings of Rome's “wicked filth” to become enraptured with the city; his 1858 Gothic romance The Marble Faun was inspired after seeing a woodland scene of mythological sculpture in Villa Borghese. Hawthorne was affected profoundly by the tragic tale of Roman noblewoman Beatrice Cenci – who also inspired Shelley's five-act drama The Cenci – and her portrait attributed to Guido Reni, which can be seen today at Palazzo Barberini. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne stayed near Via Veneto.

Turning back downhill towards Via Sistina, take the last left onto Via degli Artisti. From 1821 until 1824, when the street was still called Via di S. Isidoro, it hosted the English painter Joseph Severn (1793-1879) who lived in a large apartment at number 18, today the Hotel degli Artisti. Severn is linked eternally with Keats with whom he travelled to Rome in 1820 and whom he nursed devotedly in his dying days. Severn would outlive Keats by almost six decades, becoming an accomplished painter and a highly respected figure among Rome's English-speaking community. In 1841 Severn moved back to England; however, 20 years later he returned to Rome as British Consul, a post he held for 11 years. When he died, aged 81, there was outrage that his resting place at the Non-Catholic Cemetery was not next to Keats. Several years later, Severn was reinterred beside his old friend.

Severn's grave stone. Photo Giovanni Dall'Orto.

At the bottom of Via Sistina, cross over Piazza Barberini and up Via delle Quattro Fontane to Palazzo Barberini, home to Italy's national gallery of ancient art. The American neoclassical sculptor and art critic William Wetmore Story (1819-95) lived here with his family from 1856, taking studios on nearby Via di S. Niccolò da Tolentino 4. For the next four decades his apartment on the palace's piano nobile was a bustling meeting place for distinguished expatriates, from Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Henry James. When his wife Emelyn died in 1894, Story carved the poignant Angel of Grief in the Non-Catholic Cemetery. The much-replicated memorial was Story's last major work and became the artist's resting place a year later on his death aged 78. 

Angel of Grief memorial at Non-Catholic Cemetery

Returning to Piazza Barberini, turn left down Via del Tritone and at Largo del Tritone turn right and then first left onto Via della Mercede. When the Scottish poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) undertook his Grand Tour of Italy in 1832, he had achieved international acclaim for historical novels including Ivanhoe and Rob Roy and poems such as The Lady of the Lake (some of which inspired well-known Italian operas). However despite being greeted with much fanfare, Scott was in failing health by the time he reached Rome. He stayed at Via della Mercede 11 from 16 April until 11 May 1832 in the same palazzo in which Bernini had lived and died two centuries earlier. The building's exterior hosts a plaque dedicated to Scott, who died on his return to Scotland several months later.

Continue along Via della Mercede, cross Via del Corso, into Piazza del Parlamento to the rear of today's chamber of deputies and along Via dei Prefetti to number 17, home to Samuel Morse (1791-1872) from February 1830 to January 1831, as commemorated by a plaque over the door. This American painter of portraits and historical scenes is best remembered as the inventor of the Morse Code. An outspoken opponent of “popery”, it is said that while in Rome the staunchly Calvinist Morse caused a stir by refusing to take off his hat in the presence of the pontiff. 

The next side-street to the right, Vicolo del Divino Amore, meanders to Palazzo Borghese where Lady Gwendoline Talbot (1817-40) moved from her Alton Towers family estate in Staffordshire following her 1835 marriage to Prince Marcantonio Borghese. Described by King William IV as the "greatest beauty in the realm", Gwendoline was known in Rome for her tireless charity work and ministry to the sick. She died of scarlet fever aged just 22, and her tomb in the Borghese Chapel at the Basilica of S. Maria di Maggiore carries the inscription “madre dei poverelli”. Shortly after her death the couple's three sons died of measles however their daugher Agnese survived. Incidentally, three years before her own marriage in Rome, Gwendoline's elder sister Mary had married Prince Filippo Doria. 

Anna Brownell Jameson

Follow Via Borghese onto Via di Ripetta which the map lists as the 1859 address of Irish-born art historian Anna Brownell Jameson (1794-1860). According to her biography by niece Gerardine Bate, Jameson occupied a “pleasant apartment close by the Tiber façade of the Palazzo Borghese, looking out over the river at the point known as the Porto di Ripetta.” Jameson also stayed at an unknown address in Piazza di Spagna in 1847, after  making part of the journey from Paris to Rome with the Brownings – to undertake research for the best-selling work on which her reputation rests: Sacred and Legendary Art. Jameson died before finishing the final segment of her celebrated series which was completed by Lady Eastlake, wife of English painter Charles Eastlake, as The History of Our Lord in Art

John Gibson portrait (detail) by Margaret Sarah Carpenter.

Follow Via di Ripetta into Piazza del Popolo, turning right past the twin churches onto Via del Babuino. The first left is Via della Fontanella, where number 4 hosted the studios of Welsh sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866) from 1818 until his death four decades later. Gibson was originally the star pupil of Venetian master Antonio Canova and later Denmark's Bertel Thorvaldsen before going on to make his fortune from monumental commissions, mainly from patrons in England. He is buried in the Non-Catholic Cemetery. Although not listed on the map it is worth mentioning Gibson's only protégée Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), who became the most distinguished female sculptor in America in the 19th century. Hosmer studied under Gibson from 1853 to 1860, during which time she became good friends with the Brownings and the Storys. In addition to her artistic prowess and ferocious work ethic, the emancipated Hosmer raised eyebrows by riding her horse alone around the city at all times of night, and even rode from Rome to Florence “for a lark.” 

Contuining down Via del Babuino, past All Saints' Anglican Church, a bastion of British life in Rome since it opened in 1887, the map lists English author George Eliot (1819-80) as residing at Hotel Amerique in 1860. The hotel no longer exists but the building can be found at Via del Babuino 79. While touring Italy Eliot conceived the idea for her historical novel Romola as well as gathering background material for her future masterpiece Middlemarch, completed in 1871. The story's central characters Dorothea and Casaubon honeymooned at a "boudoir of a handsome apartment in the Via Sistina." 

George Eliot painted by François D'Albert Durade (detail), collection of National Gallery, London.

Turn left into Vicolo dell'Orto di Napoli and straight ahead lies Via Margutta, a greenery-draped street long associated with painters and art studios. According to the map – perhaps incorrectly – Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) stayed at number 53 in 1822. This leading English portraitist travelled Europe painting foreign sovereigns and diplomats, including Pope Pius VII, and was hosted at the Palazzo del Quirinale from May 1819 until January 1820. Subsequently, as president of the Royal Academy, Lawrence granted his cautious approval and funding to Rome's fledgling British Academy of Arts, established in 1821 by a group of artists led by Severn. This life drawing academy was based initially at Severn's apartments on Via degli Artisti and then moved to Via Margutta 53b from 1895 until its closure in January 1936. 

Back on Via del Babuino continue towards Piazza di Spagna, taking the second right onto Via Vittoria until the street meets Via Mario de' Fiori. The map lists this corner building, Palazzo Rondanini, as hosting the Romantic poet and former banker Samuel Rogers (1763-1855) while he put the final touches to Italy, a sumptuous edition of verse tales illustrated with vignettes by Turner, in 1829. Less known today, Rogers was highly prominent in his time, penning hugely popular poems such as The Pleasures of Memory. In 1850, on the death of Wordsworth, he declined the offer of Poet Laureate due to his age. Rogers first visited Rome in 1815 and again in 1822, when he met Byron and Shelley in Pisa.

Portraits of the Brownings by Thomas B. Read 

Take the next left onto Via Bocca di Leone where, at number 43, the poets Robert Browning (1812-89) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) spent two winters, in 1853 and 1858, commemorated by a plaque in their honour. They returned to Rome for the winter of 1859, staying at Via del Tritone 28, and spent the following winter at Via Sistina 126. Less than a month after leaving Rome on 1 June 1861 Elizabeth died in Florence in her husband's arms, "smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl's”. She is
buried in the city's English Cemetery; Robert died in Venice in 1889 and is buried in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey. The Brownings are also remembered with a writers' museum at their former Casa Guidi residence in Florence. 

Continuing along Via Bocca di Leone we reach Hotel d'Inghilterra at number 14, where the American novelist Henry James (1843-1916) stayed in 1869, when it was called Hotel d'Angleterre. From here the author immediately reeled through Rome's streets “in a fever of enjoyment.” His arrival coincided with the dying days of papal Rome, an era he was to mourn in subsequent years. Considered among the greatest novelists in the English language, James was inspired by the social and cultural interplay between Americans, English people and continental Europeans. His experience of life in Rome is referenced in his novel Portrait of a Lady, whose central character Isabel Archer lived unhappily at the Palazzo Roccanero on an unnamed street off Piazza Farnese. 

Turning back a few paces, take the first right onto Via dei Condotti which hosted the former Hotel d'Allemagne, owned by the German family of watercolourist Ettore Roesler Franz, whose romantic paintings of Rome and its surroundings are still popular today. It was here that the English writer William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63) stayed on his first visit to Rome during 1844-45. Thackeray returned to the hotel in 1853 with his daughters Anne Isabella and Jane but soon moved to a large apartment at Palazzo Poniatowski, at nearby Via della Croce 81, on the advice of the Brownings. Anne Isabella wrote of "feasting on cakes and petits fours" from the Spillmann pastry shop below. During this period Thackeray wrote and produced illustrations of The Rose and the Ring, a story conceived in the Christmas period of 1853 to entertain the daughters and children of friends, including Pen Browning and Edith Story. Describing a “gay and pleasant English colony in Rome”, Thackeray wrote in his memoir The Newcomes: “the ancient city of the Cæsars, the august fanes of the popes, with their splendour and ceremony, are all mapped out and arranged for English diversion."

Antico Caffè Greco painted by Austrian artist Ludwig Passini in 1856.

On returning full-circle to the foot of the Spanish Steps, how better to conclude the map-inspired tour than taking a coffee or aperitif at the Caffè Greco. Established in 1790, this venerable institution was frequented by most of the people on this list (although Hawthorne was not a fan), their memories enshrined today with portraits and literary memorabilia throughout the bar. 

The Keats-Shelley House director, Giuseppe Albano, points out that the map and its accompanying list of names contain several anomalies (Byron is listed as having stayed at Piazza di Spagna 26 – the address of the Keats-Shelley House – instead of number 66) and is “male-orientated” (Mary Shelley and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are not mentioned alongside their respective husbands).

The map also includes a few rather obscure names at the expense of towering literary figures such as Charles Dickens (1812-70) who stayed in Rome in early 1845 while gathering material for his book Pictures from Italy, or Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) whose 1887 visit inspired the poem Rome at the Pyramid of Cestius Near the Graves of Shelley and Keats.

Another glaring omission is Edith Wharton (1862-1937), whose regular travels around Italy in the late 19th century resulted in several erudite guides and travel tales, once describing Rome as exciting “a passion of devotion such as no other city can inspire.” Also omitted is the far less impressed Mark Twain (1835-1910), who in 1867 felt that he had been cheated of discovering anything in Rome as it had all been experienced before. Finally, perhaps due to its timeline or maybe the attendant scandal, the map fails to record the three-month stay at Hotel d'Inghilterra of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), six months before his death in Paris. 

Oscar Wilde in St Peter's Square

Over the years attempts to discover the artist behind the map in the Keats-Shelley House have come to no avail. Whatever its provenance, and despite any inconsistencies, it inspires a fascinating search for traces of these bygone wordsmiths and painters whose presence in Rome is still felt today.
By Andy Devane

This article was published in the October 2018 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.
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Places of interest
Keats-Shelley House, Piazza di Spagna 26, website
Non-Catholic Cemetery, Via Caio Cestio 6, website.
Antico Caffè Greco, Via dei Condotti 86, website
Further reading
The Dream of Arcadia: American Writers and Artists in Italy 1760-1915, (1958) by Van Wyck Brooks.
Joseph Severn, A Life: The Rewards of Friendship (2009) by Sue Brown.
The Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome: Its history, its people and its survival for 300 years (2014) by Nicholas Stanley-Price. 

Cover image: Photograph by Giacomo Brogi (1822-1881). 

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Address Piazza di Spagna, 00187 Roma RM, Italy

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Tracing the footsteps of Rome's foreign writers and artists

Piazza di Spagna, 00187 Roma RM, Italy