Thursday, March 24, 2011

26 Piazza di Spagna

The Keats-Shelley Memorial House at 26 Piazza di Spagna in Rome. This drawing dates back to the period when the house was opened as a museum in 1909 by a group of American and English literature-loving gentlemen. According to museum staff, the founders were solid Edwardian types, active in diplomacy and finance, good at making the real world accord with their ideals and imagination (this particular sort of power is essentially the difference between upper-class people and everybody else in all times and places). Keats had languished and died of tuberculosis in this house in 1821. Shelley in fact never set foot in it, but got himself included in the billing because he also happened to die in Italy (by drowning) and because the Edwardian worthies admired him equally with Keats and were in a position to make the arbitrary decision that Shelley deserved to share in this memorial effort even though he lacked any rational connection to it.

Our apartment occupied the top floor, with the museum on the floor below. The decoration was evidently intended to evoke the Keats period. Muted, dusty colors throughout – walls, floors, ceilings, rugs, fabrics, furniture. There was a spirit of all-purpose English good taste, very typical of the Landmark Trust which renovated and rents the space, sharing the proceeds with the museum foundation. It’s the sort of look that always reminds me of BBC costume dramas, a sort of genteel heritage aesthetic. Not that I intend to make fun of it, oh no. I like it, it’s very pleasant. Even though I suspect the actual Keats/Shelley-era colors and patterns may well have been brighter, shinier, busier, fussier.

There were some pretty convincing trompe l'oeil touches, all the same. The plastered walls of the sitting room had been painted to imitate wainscoting, and the ceiling to imitate decorative tiles. In the course of my stay I came across the same techniques and patterns used in other Roman buildings, always to good effect.

With windows on three sides there were many poetic sidelights and shadows shifting across the quiet rooms. The chamber with the wall sconces and tall mirror was a sort of entry hall/dining room that one passed through often and always admired but never lingered in.

I saved the large bedroom (below, with its delicate marble mantelpiece) for Mabel Watson Payne and her parents, who would be arriving on the weekend.

And appreciated the fact that my own narrow bedroom was located directly above the identical narrow room where 25-year-old Keats himself lay coughing week after week, before expiring.

The glass insert high on the wall above the bedhead provides extra light for the reassuringly up-to-date bathroom beyond. Poor Keats, for all his sublime visionary powers, could never have dreamed of such an en suite amenity.