Keats-Shelley House

July 29, 2009

I spent yesterday at the Keats-Shelley House, a haunted little museum where Keats exhaled his last breath while gazing from his window at the artists’ models lounging on the Spanish Steps. Having been ordered to Italy by his doctor, he only lived here for three months before his consumption killed him. I stood for a while in his tiny room. There’s a fireplace next to the bed where his friend Joseph Severn would often prepare meals for him. The blue ceiling must be twenty-feet high, which gives one the sensation of the walls closing in. It seemed a proper place to die. Beneath a window is Bernini’s Barcaccia sculpture, depicting a sinking boat.

At some point during the last century, they turned the apartment into a formidable research library, but now they’ve locked all the books behind oakwood prison bars, so one can only stare longingly at the leather spines of the inmates. But I heard that in old days, they allowed writers, scholars, and other interested people to waste their afternoons in the stacks.

It was a common gesture of affection in the time of the Romantics to give someone a lock of hair as a sign of friendship and affection. They have on display locks of hair from the heads of Keats, Shelley, Byron, Leigh Hunt, Elizabeth Browning, and even Milton.

Above is a portrait Severn produced of Keats on his death bed. Below are some photos of the museum in the Piazza di Spagna.

Keats-Shelley House facade
Stacks at the K-S House
Locks of hair from Milton and E.B. Browning
Plaque in Keats' bedroom
Keats's bedroom
Keats' window on the Spanish Steps

last night i attended a concert of traditional italian music, an event associated with one of the many music and art series that fill the roman summer calendar. these concerts are staged outdoors at the Teatro di Marcello, an archeological site built in 18 B.C. the place looks like a miniature version of the Colosseum. most nights they present classical pianists, but last night they featured a duo of piano and accordion, playing traditional songs, as well as music from old film scores. i’ll post some photos below. there’s also a photo of the Tiber at sunset, as i crossed the bridge over the Isola Tiberina on my way to the performance.teatro di marcello concerto 1
teatro di marcello concerto 2
Tiber at sunset


July 23, 2009

[poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti; translation by Dan Stone]

Anche le tombe sono scomparse

Spazio nero infinito calato
da questo balcone
al cimitero

Mi è venuto a ritrovare
il mio compagno arabo
che s’è ucciso l’altra sera

Rifà giorno

Tornano le tombe
appiattate nel verde tetro
delle ultime oscurità
nel verde torbido
del primo chiaro

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


Even the graves have disappeared

Infinite black space descended
from this balcony
to the cemetery

My Arab comrade
who killed himself the other evening
has come to visit me


The graves return
crouched in the dismal green
of the last darkness
in the turbid green
of the first light

I’ve been working on some translations of poems by Ungaretti. I’m especially drawn to his early work – the poems that launched his long career, written while he was fighting in World War I. They are clearly the work of a young man first discovering the terrors of the world, sometimes confronting those terrors directly, and sometimes conjuring a more just or beautiful alternative, either as an escape from his present discord or as a sort of reminder that the world is not entirely horrific.

Although of Italian descent, Ungaretti was born in Egypt. His father settled the family in Alexandria when he landed a job helping to dig the Suez Canal. He died in a work accident when the poet was only two, but Ungaretti’s mother decided to remain in Egypt. She ran a bakery on the edge of the Sahara and enrolled her son in the Swiss School in Alexandria, where he learned French and had his first serious exposure to poetry.

When he was twenty-four, he moved to Paris, befriending many of the artists and writers he already admired, including Picasso, Tzara, and Apollinaire, whose poetry clearly influenced Ungaretti’s simple and lucid early style.

Ungaretti was a political idealist, so when World War I broke out, he was quick to sign up for the infantry. Like other great poets of World War I – such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon – his artistic coming-of-age occurred in the trenches.

Ungaretti the soldier-poet

arrived in rome

July 13, 2009

i’m finally here in rome, settling into my new apartment, which is just outside the neighborhood of trastevere. i’ve spent most of my first days unpacking, organizing, getting back to my writing, and exploring the area on foot. i went for a run this morning in Villa Doria Pamphilj, which is rome’s largest park, and only a couple blocks from my place. lonely planet says: “The park was laid out in the 17th century for Prince Camillo Pamphilj, cousin of Pope Innocent X.” much of it has the feel of an African safari, with long stretches of brown earth, spotted with twisted cypress and other dark trees. but as you descend into the lower section, you eventually come to an area with fountains and statuary and a beautiful crumbling villa.

i’ve posted some photos of the apartment — my writing space and the patio.writing roomroman patio