If you’ve been to Rome, you’ve been to the Spanish Steps. You’ve walked all the way there from the Colosseum because you couldn’t find the metro station. You’ve been dehydrated and surly. You’ve been disappointed: the stairs are just stairs.
You’ve also missed Rome’s best-kept secret: just next door, you can see a lock of British romantic poet John Keats’ hair.
The Keats-Shelley House is where John Keats spent his last days — in other words, his early twenties. Yes, poor Keats died a mere twenty-five years old. Sick with tuberculosis, Keats left his native England for Rome in hopes that the Italian climate would heal him. This plan did not quite work out the way it was supposed to, in large part because it was 1821 and his treatment plan also included blood-letting and a starvation diet consisting of a single anchovy and a slice of bread per day.
If you are interested in seeing the bed where an emaciated poet sweated and coughed up blood for several months, then you’re in luck. Museum tickets are only six euros, and the house is much less crowded than its next-door neighbor, the Spanish Steps.
I actually love this museum. Really. For one thing, nobody goes there. For another thing, I am a cheerless curmudgeon who once sat outside The Simpsons 4-D ride at Universal Studios Orlando reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire, waiting for my family to emerge from the exit. Through traveling, I’ve come to know myself, and I know that 1.) I get motion sickness on rides meant for children, 2.) the idea of a bar crawl scares me, and 3.) I am an incurable former English major. If there’s a poet’s house or grave or favorite lunch spot nearby, I’m going.
The first room in the museum is a library(!) boasting more than 8,000 works of Romantic literature. This alone is worth seeing for anyone who would allow a beast to kidnap them if it means access to a fancy library and singing teapots.
For normal people, the museum also offers spectacular views of the Spanish Steps.
I didn’t keep any of the pictures of the Spanish Steps I took outside, but these are among some of my favorite photos from Rome. Just imagine: it’s exactly what Keats saw as his doctor handed him a single anchovy.
The main event, of course, is the bedroom in which Keats died. If you listen closely, you may hear his ghost whispering lines of Shakespeare interspersed with the occasional feed me, feed me.
You are probably wondering what exactly is hanging on the wall next to Keats’ bed. Well.
It’s his death mask.
If you were an important person who died suddenly, a wax or plaster cast might be made of your corpse’s lifeless face. Without cameras, there was no other alternative to preserving someone’s features for posterity. How else would future painters and sculptors be able to create accurate portraits or busts of someone after their death?
Had Keats not had a death mask, future historians would’ve had no clues about his appearance — except for a few locks of his hair accompanied by thorough descriptions written by his friend Leigh Hunt, a literary critic and poet. These locks of hair were given to Hunt by Keats, because apparently that’s what friends used to do back in the 19th century.
Hunt had a lot to say about Keats’ hair. Particularly that it was “remarkable for its beauty, its flowing grace and fineness,” and that “It was a kind of ideal, poetical hair; and the locks we possess (for we have two)…”
Hold on. Who is we? Hunt and his wife? I am trying to imagine them sitting on a tufted Victorian loveseat, admiring a lock of Keats’ hair by candlelight.
“…are beautiful specimens, calling up the instant admiration of the spectators. They are long, thick, exquisitely fine, and running into ringlets. The colour is brown, of that sort which has a yellowish look in it in some lights, and a darker one or auburn in others…”
Here, we run into a set of ellipses, meaning the placard has omitted part of the letter. What was so scandalous that it had to be left out? We can only wonder.
Hunt goes on to say, “They are tresses, things rarely seen nowadays, of natural growth, on the heads of young men; and remember the poet was a young man, and manly in spirit as his looks were beautiful.”
The wording here is interesting because most men did have “tresses…of natural growth,” considering powdered wigs had gone out of style and thick, tousled, Mr. Darcy hair was all the rage. Either Hunt is praising Keats for never catching syphilis (a leading cause of hair loss way back when), or simply noting his friend’s singular beauty. Either way, it’s touching to see that toxic masculinity had not yet made it taboo for men to exchange and wax poetic about each other’s hair.
Included in this hair exhibit is Percy Bysshe Shelley, another romantic poet in Keats’ circle. (Remember “Ozymandias” from ninth grade? That was him.)
If, after viewing Keats’ death mask and hair, you still desire close proximity to his dead body, you can visit his grave and memorial in the Cemitero Acattolico (known as Rome’s Protestant Cemetery). His headstone boasts one of the most famous, chilling, and short-sighted epitaphs ever written: here lies one whose name was writ in water. Are you kidding, Keats? How could your name ever be forgotten, especially when you had ideal, poetical hair?
A nearby acrostic poem rightfully calls out Keats on his modesty:
K-eats! if thy cherished name be “writ in water”
E-ach drop has fallen from some mourner’s cheek;
A-sacred tribute; such as heroes seek,
T-hough oft in vain – for dazzling deeds of slaughter
S-leep on! Not honoured less for Epitaph so meek!
I don’t know who wrote it, but I do know Oscar Wilde didn’t like it. Upon viewing the plaque, he declared, “I do not think this very ugly thing ought to be allowed to remain.”
Over a century later, however, it does remain, as some things transcend time: bad acrostics, beautiful verse, and great hair.