For bibliophiles traveling in Europe, capitals like London, Paris or even Edinburgh are the usual storybook spots that spring to mind. Yet, take a second glance and, as with so much else, you’ll realise even literary roads all lead to Rome. Charles Dickens, John Keats, Lord Byron, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mark Twain – the list goes on – all spent time in The Eternal City. Captivated by Rome’s classical wonders, warm climate and uninhibited atmosphere, many of these literary giants came to call the city home.
Piazza di Spagna
Piazza di Spagna © Paolo Fefe/Flickr
Visit the famed Spanish Steps today and you’ll immediately notice chic designer shops and throngs of tourists catching a breath as they lap overpriced gelato. Yet, all in all, this lovely square hasn’t changed all that much since writers like Keats, Byron, and Thackeray lived here. At the time, the area was especially popular with British travellers and Babington’s Tea Rooms (23 Piazza di Spagna) has the history to prove it. Since opening its doors in 1893, Babington’s has served Romans and ex-pats alike English favourites like strong tea, scones and other delights. Stop by Babington’s today and you’ll realise the biggest change in its 123-year history is the prices.
Library at Keats-Shelley Memorial House
Just a few doors down is the piazza’s most sombre literary memorial – the Keats-Shelley Memorial House (26 Piazza di Spagna). This small apartment was where the young John Keats lived his last few months until his early death in 1821. Today, bibliophiles can see the very bedroom where Keats breathed his last and marvel over countless precious volumes, like rare first editions of works by Keats and Shelley. When I visited on a hot June afternoon, I had the museum almost all to myself. The rooms were quiet, drenched in sunlight and had the comforting smell of old books. As I walked from room to room and lingered at the entryway to Keats’ bedroom, it wasn’t hard to grasp the isolation and loneliness this young poet must have felt.
Unlike Keats, Lord Byron’s time in Rome was marked by significant writerly progress. During his time living in Piazza di Spagna 66, Byron researched and wrote the fourth canto of his epic “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” While his former residence is now a language school, stroll by and you’ll see why the audacious poet could feel at home in this sophisticated dwelling.
Anitco Caffè Greco
Just off Piazza di Spagna on Via Condotti 86, is the famed Antico Caffè Greco, one of Rome’s oldest, and certainly most distinguished, places to sip cappuccino. Since 1760, writers like Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, Goethe along with the aforementioned poets came here to discuss their manuscripts; brush elbows with other literati and, of course, to enjoy coffee as can only be had in Italy. Beloved 19th century writer Hans Christian Anderson actually lived above the café in 1861 and, today, visitors can see his bedroom sketch adorning a café wall. During their time in Rome, novelist William Thackeray and poet Lord Tennyson lived just across the street on Via Condotti 11.
Casa di Goethe
Casa di Goethe
If you have the time, finding the locales where other notable writers lived is easily done. American novelist Henry James lived at the Hotel du Rome, now The Hotel Plaza, in 1872. The Hotel du Russie became Charles Dickens’ home away from home in 1844 while Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol lived at Via Sistina 126 between 1838 and 1842. The list goes on. For a more substantial peek into one of literatures’ most influential figures, step inside the home of Goethe.
Located just a stone’s throw from Pizza del Popolo on Via del Corso 20, the Casa di Goethe was home to the German poet and theorist from 1786 to 1788. Today, it’s a vibrant museum featuring treasures like Warhol’s portrait of Goethe along with sketches and Italian drawings by the intellectual heavyweight himself. Goethe considered Rome as the high point of his life as his abundance of letters, diary entries and manuscripts on display here reveal.
The Protestant Cemetery
John Keats' grave at the Protestant Cemetary © poetsgraves.com
Tucked behind the mighty Pyramid of Cestius and resting beneath the shade of cypress trees on Via Caio Cestio 6, lies the quiet Protestant Cemetery. Since 1730, non-Catholic foreigners have been laid to rest here, including English poets Keats and Shelley. Far from feeling morbid or creepy, the cemetery is peaceful, lush with foliage, little purple flowers and the occasional cat. (The cemetery is also home to a cat sanctuary). As Percy Shelley wrote, “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”
The writers who lived and died in Rome came for a shared purpose: to discover this compelling city and, in turn, to refresh their passion, voice and commitment to the written word. Lucky for us they did.