The Keats Shelley Memorial House and the English Quarter
The English Quarter–stretching roughly from Piazza di Spagna to Piazza del Popolo–is home to the Keats Shelley Memorial House and more.
You’ve probably heard of the famous Roman Ghetto, the ghetto ebraico or Jewish neighbourhood, close to the River Tiber and the Teatro Marcello. Less known (and bearing a history significantly less steeped in tragedy), however, is the English quarter. The ghetto inglese or Ghetto degli Inglesi, as locals fondly dubbed the area surrounding Piazza di Spagna, is something I only just learned about, despite having lived in Italy for over a decade. That’s how it is with Rome–there is always something new to uncover in the timeless, Eternal City.
Stretching approximately from the Spanish Steps to Villa Doria Pamphili on Via del Corso and to the Flaminian Gate (or Porta del Popolo) at Piazza del Popolo, the English quarter owes its name to the community of British expats that established itself in that location over many years, beginning in the early nineteenth century. Florence Nightingale, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens are only a few famous residents. From artists and writers to tourists who simply fell in love with Bernini’s peculiar Baroque-style Barcaccia fountain at the centre of Piazza di Spagna and the sloping steps leading down to it from the Trinità dei Monti church, what became known as the English quarter inspired a host of foreigners who eventually came to call the area their home.
The Keats Shelley Memorial House recently hosted an exhibition by Korean artist T-yong Chung, on the occasion of the two hundred year anniversary of Keats’ most creatively fruitful year, 1819. It was in that year that he produced some of his most well-known poems, including The Eve of St. Agnes, La Belle Dame sans Merci, and The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream. The exhibition, entitled “Odes to the Present”, is composed of a series of white sculptures, which line the bookcases and walls of the different rooms within the house–a bust of Keats and several, delicate nightingales in honour of the bird to which he dedicated his famous Ode: “Thou wast not born of death, immortal Bird!/No hungry generations tread thee down;/The voice I hear this passing night was heard/In ancient days by emperor and clown.”
The house, located at 26 Piazza di Spagna at the base of the Spanish Steps, was where the ailing John Keats spent his final days at the behest of friends and doctors who thought Rome’s warmer air would improve his condition. “At any rate,” Keats wrote in a letter to his sister Francis May “Fanny” Keats, “it will be a relief to quit this cold, wet, uncertain climate.” Artist Joseph Severn looked after him, and his letters from that time provide an account of those final months as Keats succumbed to tuberculosis, a disease that would take the lives of many famous artists of the time. He died on 23 February 1821, at the tragically young age of twenty-five.
Both Romantic poets, Keats and Shelley, are buried in the Cimitero Acattolico or Non-Catholic Cemetery, also known as the English Cemetery or Protestant Cemetery. The Severn letters are now used as a historical resource for the poet’s biographers. In keeping with the custom of the time, all Keats’ belongings were burned to stay contamination and contain the spread of the disease. Only the ceiling and the pavement are what remain of the original dwelling. The house was later converted into a museum, which now houses one of the world’s largest collections of books and manuscripts related to Keats and Shelley, among other Romantic poets and writers. According to the official website, the collection stands at 8,000 volumes, curated by associates of the house and built over time through the donation of benefactors.
To preface the experience, visitors are invited into an antechamber, where they can watch brief films that provide important contextual information on the lives of the figures associated with the house, as well as on the history of the house itself. The adjacent gift shop offers a delightful assortment of charming keepsakes: poetry books, canvas shoppers, postcards, prints, notebooks, and bookmarks–all things reader-writer related!
All I could think of, upon leaving the house, was the incredible history it has witnessed, from the time of the Romantic poets to the Second World War. After 1943, when Italy signed the armistice effectively making it an enemy of Germany, the museum relocated many of its artefacts so that they would not fall into German hands or be destroyed. Imagine the trepidation of the British expat community during those years! Their anxious position was the subject of the famous 1999 Franco Zeffirelli film Tea with Mussolini, starring Cher, Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, and Lily Tomlin. While the film has the city of Florence as its backdrop, rather than Rome, it faithfully portrays what the experience of being caught up in the international events of the Second World War must have been like for British citizens who had come to see Italy as their home away from home.
The heart of the English quarter, Piazza di Spagna itself, was used as a setting for many other classic films, including the 1953 Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck masterpiece Roman Holiday and the 1999 psychological thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley. Anglophone culture has undeniably left its imprint on the area. A few steps away from the luxury fashion shops of Via del Corso and Via dei Condotti stands the beautiful, Gothic revival-style All Saints’ Church. Built in the late nineteenth century and located on 153 Via del Babuino, the church is home to an Anglican, English-speaking congregation.
Another uniquely English icon of the area is the lovely Babington’s Tea Room, which was founded at the end of the nineteenth century by two Englishwomen who wished to cater to the English-speaking community of Rome. The tea room is located just opposite the Keats Shelley house, on the left side of the Spanish Steps. After weathering the tempests of both the First World War and the Wall Street Crisis, it went on to also be the only English business to not be closed down during the Second World War. The tea room bustled with antifascist activists during those tumultuous years, entering and existing in secret by way of the kitchen.
“Happy is England! I could be content/To see no other verdure than its own,” wrote Keats, “Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment/for skies Italian, and an inward groan/To sit upon an Alp as on a throne/And half forget what world or worldling meant.” That so flourishing a community of British artists should establish itself in this central part of the city is a testament to Rome’s power to inspire and its magical lure. From Chaucer to Shakespeare, British culture has undoubtedly been shaped by Italian influence.
You can easily reach Piazza di Spagna, located in the heart of Rome’s historic center, by taking the Metro A from the Termini railway station. Travel in the Battistini direction and exit at Spagna. The piazza is fairly easy to reach by foot also, going in the direction of Piazza della Repubblica and turning onto Via delle Quattro Fontane, up to Piazza Barberini and all the way on to Via Sistina, which takes you to the top of the Scalinata and the Trinità dei Monti church. If you wish to supplement this brief exposition on the area surrounding the Spanish Steps with a more in-depth tour, be sure to check out the Heart of Rome private walking tour, which will guide you through the city’s most famous stops, including the Trevi Fountain, Campo de Fiori, Piazza Navona, and the Pantheon.