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Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Friday, June 17, 2011

John Keats and the Scalinata di Spagna

There is a place in Rome that most visitors will visit at least once. The place is always teeming with people, even until the late hours of the night. Considered by some as the city center, it has been a favorite meeting point, ("meet you at the Spanish Steps"), for generations of tourists. The Spanish Steps (Scalinata di Spagna) is on the Piazza di Spagna, one of the stops on Metro Line A. You come out of the Metro right on the Piazza, which is almost completely encircled by buildings, and right at the center you see the Fontana della Barcaccia  (Fountain of the Ugly Boat) done by Pietro Bernini, the father of the more famous, more prolific Gian Lorenzo Bernini.   Apparently commisioned to remember the great Christmas day  (1598) flood, when legend has it, a barge was washed up from the Tiber to the Pincio Hill right beside the Piazza. This fountain has supplied clean drinking water for generations and is one of the grander drinking fountains you see all over Rome.

Fontana della Barcaccia

The Piazza has a notably international favor, including but not limited to the tourists that flock there. The Spanish Embassy is located here, the Trinita dei Monti at the top of the steps is a French church, and looking around you see Babington's Tea Room, the Keats' and Shelley Museum, a store called Byron and of course that ever present American fast food chain, MacDonalds!

Piazza di Spagna

Facing down the square, opposite the Fontana della Barcaccia is the Scalinita di Spagna, the Spanish Steps, a grand and imposing rather flamboyant structure. Climbing the steps is surprisingly easier than one anticipates. Since the steps are widely spaced, the ascent is gradual. There are 3 flights of stairs and 3 landings, an allusion, they say to the Holy Trinity . There are 138 steps which brings you up a rather steep slope from the Piazza Spagna to the Piazza Trinita dei Monti, the square upon which the Church of Trinita dei Monti is built. From there, you climb a few more steps to the front of the church and finally, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of Rome and the Via de la Condotti, Rome's most famous street for high end shopping.

Via della Condoti
  The steps are usually full of people, many choosing to sit on them, having their pictures taken, drinking, eating or simply resting. Going down the steps is accomplished in a zigzag pattern in order to avoid groups of people simply sitting and watching other people, simply sitting and watching.

Of several interesting places to visit around the Piazza di Spagna, I chose to go first to the Keats' Shelly Museum. After seeing John Keats' final resting place at the non-Catholic Cemetery, I was moved to find out more about his days here in Rome.

Keats' and Shelley House
Picture by Giovanni Dall'Orto

When Keats arrived in Rome in November of 1820, hoping to recover from tuberculosis, he was already gravely ill from a disease that killed his mother, his younger brother Tom and eventually, after Keats, his older brother George. He was accompanied by his friend, the painter John Severn. Keats Scottish doctor found them rooms in an apartment in Piazza di Spagna in what was the English quarter at the time. Keats and Severn shared the apartment, on the second floor, right beside the Scalinita de Spagna with their landlady. From his apartment window Keats could look out onto the steps and the piazza below.

Picture taken from Keats' window

Keats rarely left this apartment, except upon his arrival when he was feeling well enough to venture out, walking around the neighborhood. After December, he became very ill and died in February 1821 at the age of only 25. His companion John Severn was constantly at his side, caring for him.

A Dying John Keats as painted by his friend John Severn

Nothing of the furniture in the Keats' room of the museum is original, since Vatican law of the time decreed that everything should be burned, the prevaling practice at the time, attached to the disease tuberculosis. The Keats room contains memorabilia including the painting above and his death mask which is found on a table near the bed.

Keats' death mask

In the Salon there are large display cases filled with books which one is free to look at, to read or to use for research. I sat down in one of a number of high backed chairs and looked through a well thumbed book of Keats poems. 

         "That I might drink and leave the world unseen,
           and with thee fade away into the forest dim"
                                              from Ode to a Nightingale

         " Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all
           Ye know on earth and all you need to know!
                                              from Ode on a Grecian Urn

         " A thing of beauty is a joy forever;
           It's loveliness increases; it will never
           Pass into nothingness
                                                           from A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever

He wrote of beauty, of joy, of youth, of timelessness, of eternity but most of all he wrote of love.

            "To feel forever it's soft swell and fall,
              Awake forever in a sweet unrest
              Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath
              And so live ever - or else swoon to death"
                             from Bright Star, Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art

Keats' last days in Rome were not easy ones, not only was he dying but he had also left Fanny Brawne, the love of his life back in England. He was depressed, weighed down not only by illness, but also a very sensitive nature, for which "the power of love was life-altering....life threatening." 

        "I have been astonished that men could die for religion-
        I have shuddered at it. I shudder no more-
        I could be martyred for my religion.
       Love is my religion - I could die for that."
                                               John Keats

When John Keats died, he was unknown, in addition his published works had been severly criticized. Sitting there in that room, reading poems that were familiar, poems that were read not only because they were required reading in high school, one cannot fail to reflect on "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".

Coming out of one's reverie, the sounds of the running water from the Fontana, people's voices and footsteps on the Spanish Steps and even the clatter of horses hooves, (from carriages bringing visitors around the piazza) striking the cobblestone begin to intrude, and a final thought ... sounds (several times magnified) that Keats must have also heard from this window.


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