The Italian Almanac

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Shelley house in Rome

A Taste of England

Visitors to Rome's Keats-Shelley House, memorial to two of the most famous poets of English Romanticism, will be offered a "real taste" of England next time they come round. Curators to the house, where John Keats briefly lived when he came to Rome in 1821, are preparing to open a small cafe' so whoever visits will be able to sip a cup of English tea and treat themselves to a piece of carrot cake or banana bread.

"We didn't want to do the usual Rome cafe' fare such as espresso and cornetto (croissant)," said Sarah Morgan, Assistant Curator to the museum. Sometime in 2011 the memorial will also swing open up the doors to its terrace so visitors will be able to sip their tea while enjoying the spectacular view of the adjoining Spanish Steps and Bernini's 'Barcaccia' Fountain in the piazza.

The Memorial has been home to the collections of both Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley since the early 1900s when a group of American literati in Rome decided to heed an appeal by poet Robert Underwood Johnson to save the house. With its display cases of letters, clothes worn by the poets and a reliquary with locks of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's hair, it now celebrates the time when Italy was home to Byron, Shelley and Keats.

Keats had travelled to Italy in search of a cure to tuberculosis, the disease that had killed both his parents. The poet died in 1822, aged 25, and was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome where he still lies. Unlike the other Romantic poets, Keats did not write anything in Italy. Byron and Shelley, on the other hand, were both inspired by Italy. Byron lived here from 1816 to 1824 before going to Greece where he died of a fever, Shelley in 1816 after his elopement with Mary Godwin and her sister, and from 1818 to 1822, when he drowned in a storm off the Tuscan coastal resort of Viareggio, aged 29.

The foundation is entirely self-funded, revenue mainly coming from rent paid by an Italian shoe shop on the ground floor and from visitors, many of whom are Italian school groups. A small gift shop is a recent addition and it will soon be selling umbrellas with the house's ceiling motif on the inside, wrapping paper, notepads, postcards, glittery bouncing rubber balls, and tote bags. By Christmas, the store will also have greeting cards with a quote from Keats.

The collection of memorabilia and original pieces continues to grow as curators are keenly on the lookout for possible acquisitions. The Memorial managed to pick up the first edition of Shelley's 'Hellas', published in 1822, the first English edition of 'Adonais' published in Cambridge in 1829 as well as a two-page Jorge Luis Borges manuscript entitled 'John Keats 1795-1821' at a recent auction in London by Sotheby's. "This was actually the very first time we ever had money to buy things," said Morgan.