• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Romantics in Rome

It is just over a year since Giuseppe Albano became the curator of the Keats-Shelley House in Rome.

Now a museum and library dedicated to the lives and works of the British Romantic poets, 26 Piazza di Spagna was, in 1820, where the poet John Keats died after a long, agonising battle with tuberculosis. An autopsy performed two days after his death on February 20, 1821 revealed that the poet's lungs were all but completely destroyed.

Albano not only works in the same building overlooking the famous Spanish Steps, he lives there too. The proximity, he says, has brought him closer not only to Keats, Shelley and Byron, but also to their different relationships to Rome.

"The Rome skyline really hasn't changed very much from how Keats would have seen it," he says. "Piazza di Spagna is very lively, very commercial and very buzzing. It is the most important area for visitors arriving in the city from the north. Every time I look out at the Spanish Steps, I think it's so sad that Keats dreamed about coming to Italy, but that his experience of Rome was the view from two little windows in his bedroom."

In certain respects, the job is a homecoming of sorts for 36-year-old Albano. As his name suggests, his father was born Italy: Basilicata to be precise. This tells only half the family story, though, because his mother is Glaswegian and Albano was born and raised in Dundee. "My father came over because he loved Scotland, as many southern Italians do. He was an economic migrant looking for work. People are always surprised to find an Italian Scotsman, but we are not a rare breed."

Signor Albano managed a Dundee hotel for many years, before opening the first of his own restaurants. From the age of 12, Giuseppe was required to learn Italian and contribute to the family business. "I came home from school and my father threw me a bow tie. I had to go work in the restaurant. I'm glad I have that family business grounding because it's useful to have that pride. I hope I have brought the same pride to looking after the museum in Rome."

Reviewing his first year in the job, Albano emerges as ambitious, hard-working and imaginative. He has a clear vision of the past and future of the Keats-Shelley House. He clearly takes literary heritage seriously: he studied English at Edinburgh before completing a PhD at Cambridge on Victorian pastoral poetry. But he is also determined that the house will not stagnate as a "shrine" to dead poets, but will become part of contemporary Roman life.

"Literary museums in writers' houses run the risk of becoming slightly obscure places," he says. "They mix biographical history with architectural scraps. They don't really make the writing live and breath. That is the biggest challenge: to make people realise why these poets are worth remembering."

Albano argues that he cannot assume visitors to the museum have any knowledge about Keats or Shelley. This is especially true of Italian visitors. "Italy has always been more of a visual culture. You don't see people reading on the underground in Italy like you do in London."

Art was only one reason that attracted the English Romantics. Byron and Shelley were drawn by artistic, social and political freedoms not yet possible in England at the start of the 19th century. Keats also had a more urgent, practical reason, hoping that Italy's warm climate would cure his severe tuberculosis. The journey was in vain. "It surprised me that the human heart is capable of containing and bearing so much misery. Was I born for this end?" he asked his friend, Charles Brown, in a letter.

Keats was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome – as indeed was Shelley following his death by drowning in the Bay of Spezia three years later. At Piazza di Spagna, all traces of Keats were quickly removed: his possessions were burned by Rome's authorities, who were desperate to contain his illness. It seemed a fitting metaphor for Keats's artistic career, which was more laughed at than revered during his life. Slowly, however, the room in which he died became a place of pilgrimage for his small band of adherents. Thomas Hardy and Elizabeth Barrett Browning paid their respects. When Oscar Wilde visited Keats's grave, he prostrated himself on the earth for half an hour, before pronouncing it the "holiest place in Rome".

As Keats's reputation grew during the 19th century, efforts began to preserve the first floor of 26 Piazza di Spagna as a lasting memorial to all the Romantic writers (including Mary Shelley) most closely associated with Italy. It took six years of intense fund-raising (driven largely by an American benefactor, but involving devotees from across the world) before Keats's final resting place was purchased in 1906 for $21,000 by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, the charity that continues to oversee the museum. It would take a further three years for the house to open to the public.

Over the next century, pilgrims came in their thousands: the current annual average is in excess of 22,000. Notable visitors include Bono, Bob Geldof, Richard Gere, Kevin Klein, Alec Guinness, Seamus Heaney, Maurice Sendak, PD James, Claire Danes and Jean Cocteau. Jane Campion's acclaimed film about Keats, Bright Star, ended outside the house.

There is something pleasingly Keatsian about this convoluted narrative of the house's establishment. The vexed question of how literature survives through time is central to Keats's work: his Ode On A Grecian Urn is, among other things, a meditation on the miraculous survival of a fragile and unique work of art over many centuries. The Keats-Shelley House has faced and overcome similar threats. During the Second World War, its collection and library were in continual danger after the Germans entered Rome. Among the irreplaceable objects are locks of the poets' hair; original manuscripts by Keats, Shelley, Byron, Hardy, Wilde and Borges; famous paintings of Keats and Shelley by Joseph Severn; and rare first editions of their work. In December 1941, the most valuable items were stored in two unmarked boxes and hidden at the ancient Montecassino monastery. Thanks to the diversionary skills of one courageous archivist, the hidden treasures escaped a rigorous inspection by German officials from Goering's division. He later stowed the boxes in his own monastic cell.

Little wonder that Albano takes his own duty of care so gravely. Aptly, his path to the post is untidily improbable. Rather than training in museum curatorship, he had seemed destined for an academic career when he deviated to teach English at the Addiewell high-security prison, situated between Glasgow and Edinburgh. "I had never planned to work in a prison," he says, "but I am very interested in new ventures. I wanted to do something different."

Almost everyone who knew him thought he was crazy. Addiewell houses offenders deemed too problematic for other prisons, and fights a constant battle against drugs and violence. Despite these drawbacks, Albano maintains its controversial approach to rehabilitation through, among other things, art and literature made Addiewell a pleasure. He notes that Keats was a particular favourite of the inmates. "The students rarely had the energy or attention to read a whole poem. But they all loved Keats – the more pessimistic poetry, to be honest."

Albano is hoping to bring a similar spirit of imaginative social responsibility to the Keats-Shelley House. While his next exhibition is of Shelley's elegy for Keats, Adonais, his priority for 2013 is to collaborate further with an educational charity who work with minority immigrant children. "We have lots of young visitors who come to the museum – often because they have to for school. They are from white, privileged backgrounds. It is fantastic that they are coming. But it is a shame that so many young people in Rome would never come to the museum."

One suspects that both Keats and Shelley would approve this combination of poetry with progressive politics. Despite upheavals in Italian politics and European economics, the Keats-Shelley House is clearly in safe hands, preserving all that is best in its history, but moving with the times to engage with the world through Facebook and Twitter. But perhaps it is most appropriate to leave the final word to older voices. As Shelley wrote in Adonais: "The One remains, the many change and pass."

The Keats-Shelley House website is at www.keats-shelley-house.org. Follow the House on Twitter: @Keats_Shelley

Contextual targeting label: 
Block list

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

133812