It has been (and perhaps still is?) common practice for people to keep a lock of hair from a loved one as a memento. John Keats’ friend Leigh Hunt was particularly interested in doing so.
There are two locks of Keats’ hair that I know of, both taken by Hunt.
One lock is on display at the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome. I’m afraid my photo of it is a tad out of focus, as of course it is kept safe under glass, but this will give you an idea!
I was particularly struck by the reddish tint still obvious in his mid-brown locks. Keats’ personal beauty was often remarked upon by his friends, and here is proof enough that his thick head of curly / wavy hair was indeed attractive. Mind you, I always did have a thing for redheads.
A second lock taken by Hunt was included in an album he owned, along with twenty other locks from authors and public figures. This album is now held by the University of Texas in Austin, USA. I am very grateful to the University for making the whole album viewable online – this link will take you to the exact page.
There are notations, presumably by Hunt, that he took “two locks” and that this one is “the later lock”. I am not sure that we have exact dates for either, but will look into it. The album included a (supposed) lock of Milton’s hair. Keats was inspired by viewing this to write the poem “Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair”, so he would have been delighted to have his own lock included in the same album.
The page includes a print of the drawing Severn did of Keats on his death bed in Rome, with the caption, “The last life sketch of Keats, by his friend Joseph Severn.” (Note that Keats’ year of birth, which was 1795, is given incorrectly here as “1796”.)
Again, the reddish-brown colour of this lock is striking. This was the generation before photographs became widely available – but these locks of hair, along with the life and death masks taken of Keats, enable us to feel confident of his appearance. You probably realise by now that I think he was a handsome fellow! ♥
I found these truly lovely images on Mashable. They are ‘colour’ photos of Rome dating from c. 1890, sourced from the Library of Congress. These were taken seventy years after Keats was in Rome, but it still feels like a glimpse into the world that he would have recognised. Joseph Severn would have known this Rome, as he died only ten or eleven years before.
I’ve copied the two most relevant images here (with great respect, but without permission) and you can see the rest via the link below.
The Cimitero Acattolico (or ‘Non-Catholic Cemetery‘) in Rome is John Keats’ final resting place. He is buried in the old part of the cemetery, near the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius.
The Keats Connection
John Keats died in Rome on Friday 23 February 1821, and was buried early on the following Monday.
The Catholic Church’s ecclesiastical laws meant that only Catholic believers could be buried in Catholic churches or in consecrated ground. Burial places for non-Catholics were therefore required, especially for harbour cities such as Livorno and Venice, where a variety of people visited and mingled. These burial places have been known as ‘Protestant Cemeteries’, but of course they do not cater only for Protestant believers, and therefore the term ‘Non-Catholic’ is more appropriate and a proper translation – even if it doesn’t roll quite so smoothly off the tongue.
The Pyramid of Cestius was built in 18-12 BC as a tomb for Roman magistrate Gaius Cestius. It is quite stunning to see, standing 37 metres high, with a very sharp slope, and clad in white marble. The Pyramid would have originally stood in open countryside, but as Rome grew the city began to encroach on the Pyramid. When the city’s Aurelian Walls were built in 271-275 AD, the Pyramid was incorporated in the walls – which has helped ensure its preservation. The contrast between the Pyramid’s white marble (when it’s clean!) and the red stone of the walls, has a remarkable effect.
There are records of burials in the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome dating back to 1716, when members of the Stuart court (exiled from England) were buried in front of the Pyramid. The earliest grave which has actually been found in the cemetery, though, is of George Langton, a graduate of Oxford, who was buried in 1738.
Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley’s beloved son William died at three years of age in Rome, in 1819, and was buried near the Pyramid. There is a grave marker, though apparently it is not quite in the right location.
Over 60 people in all were buried in the old part of the cemetery. Keats was one of the last to be buried there in that period, as it was decided the Pyramid should not be crowded out. A new cemetery was established beside the old one, with the Aurelian Wall providing one long boundary for the whole.
Percy Bysshe Shelley died in 1822, drowned off the coast of Tuscany, and (most of!) his cremated remains were buried in the new part of the cemetery, up against the Aurelian Wall. His friend Edward John Trelawny was buried beside him when he died in 1881.
Joseph Severn, who loyally nursed John Keats through his last months, died in 1879, and at his request was buried in the old part of the cemetery next to Keats. Just behind them is the grave of Joseph’s son Arthur Severn, who died at eight months old in 1837.
By its very nature, the cemetery contains a wide range of people – in terms of nationalities, languages and occupations – including Goethe’s son August, and Tolstoy’s daughter Tatiana, not to mention a grandson of Johann Sebastian Bach. (And the number of times the words ‘friend of Henry James’ appear in the list of burials makes me suspect him of being rather careless.) Whether you recognise other names, such as Antonio Gramsci or Constance Fenimore Woolson, will depend on your particular areas of interest.
Oscar Wilde, visiting in 1877, declared it ‘the holiest place in Rome’.
The Cemetery is managed by an association formed of the 15 foreign embassies in Rome which have nationals buried there. This includes Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Russian Federation, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
This private cemetery receives no government funding, and is therefore dependent on direct income and maintenance fees, fundraising and donations. The Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome maintains Keats’ and Shelley’s graves, but if you can help the Cemetery take care of the rest of their responsibilities, that would be marvellous!
In 2006, the World Monuments Fund included the Cemetery on its Watch List of the most endangered sites on earth. The establishment of the Friends of the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome has helped address the issues.
The Non-Catholic Cemetery is an astonishing place to visit. The pleasant pastoral feel of the old cemetery, and the dramatic yet not imposing Pyramid, are unforgettable.
The new cemetery is a huge contrast, with almost every inch containing a grave, many with monuments, and barely enough room left for pathways. It is a beautiful place, though, and somehow full of light rather than gloom. And some of the statues – such as the ‘Angel of Grief’ draped over the tomb of the sculptor William Wetmore Story and his wife Emelyn – are amazing.
A bench is placed before Keats’ and Severn’s graves, where you can sit and contemplate them quite peacefully. The cats of the cemetery may come and join you for a while. I cannot imagine a lovelier place for Keats to rest.
If you cannot make visiting hours, an ‘arrow slit’ in the outer wall allows you to peer in and pay your respects to Keats, who lies only a few feet distant.
On a practical note, there are conveniences available, and a Visitors Centre. There are no refreshments available, but there are shops and cafes nearby, especially near the Piramide Metro station.
Address: Via Caio Cestio 6, 00153 Rome
Metro: Piramide on Line B
Opening hours: Open every day, but for only a half day on Sundays and public holidays. Check the details on the official site before you make firm plans!
There is no entry fee, but donations are requested.
The Keats-Shelley Memorial House is a ‘writer’s home museum’ in honour of John Keats, who spent the last four months of his life there between November 1820 and February 1821. The Memorial House also honours Keats’ contemporary and friend, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who spent time in Rome while living for some years in Italy. Both Keats and Shelley are buried in Rome’s ‘Non-Catholic Cemetery’.
The Keats Connection
John Keats was advised to seek a warmer climate for the sake of his health. After various delays, Keats finally left England by ship in September 1820, accompanied by his artist friend, Joseph Severn. They landed at Naples, Italy in October, and arrived in Rome on 14 November.
It had already been arranged for Dr James Clark to attend Keats, and Dr Clark had taken rooms for them on the second floor of the building at number 26, Piazza di Spagna, at the foot of the Spanish Steps. Their landlady, Anna Angeletti, occupied the rooms at the back of the second floor, and Keats and Severn had the rooms at the front, overlooking the Spanish Steps and the burbling fountain in the Piazza, the Fontana della Barcaccia.
Unfortunately, Keats’ health only worsened despite Severn’s diligent care of him. John Keats died in the little corner bedroom of these rooms, late at night on Friday 23 February 1821.
The funeral procession left from the Piazza before dawn on Monday 26 February.
Due to Rome’s health laws, the room in which Keats died was stripped and scraped back, and everything burned. It has since been restored to its former condition, with the carved and painted daisies in the ceiling, just as Keats had known.
The rooms were occupied privately for the rest of the 1800s, and became quite dilapidated, despite a constant stream of visitors wanting to see the room where Keats had died.
The efforts to purchase the rooms, and turn them into a museum began in 1903, with support and fundraising coming from America and Britain as well as Italy. The purchase occurred in 1906, and restoration began. A dedication was carried out by the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, on 3 April 1809, and the museum was formally opened to the public.
During the Second World War, anticipating the German occupation of Rome, the House preserved itself by taking down its signage and appearing to be just another anonymous set of rooms. The thousands of books remained where they were. However, two boxes of particular treasures – including letters, first editions, and locks of Keats’ and Shelley’s hair – were sent to the Abbey of Monte Cassino for safekeeping. The Abbey’s archivist then took the boxes with him when the Abbey was evacuated in 1943, ahead of German occupation and Allied bombing. Eventually, with the Allied forces arriving in Rome, the boxes and their contents were restored to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, and formally unsealed and opened in June 1944.
The House now contains a significant library and extensive memorabilia associated with the Romantic poets. The walls of the main rooms are lined with beautiful book shelves and display cases, though Keats’ bedroom is preserved as he would have known it.
The House is run by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association. It occupies all of the second floor of the building, and has now expanded into parts of the first floor as well.
I have loved visiting the Keats-Shelley Memorial House. Despite the sadness of Keats’ early death, there is a sense of peace and contentment there … not to mention a cool selection of items in the gift shop!
NB: The museum is reached via a few steps up to the front door, and then a relatively wide stairwell going up two stories. Staff are willing to help where they can, but there is no lift, and therefore people with restricted mobility will need to plan ahead with all this in mind.
I have felt all the luck and privilege associated with being able to view a lock of Keats’ hair – so distinctively reddish-brown! – and the original of Severn’s last portrait of him sketched while Keats was dying.
There are regular talks given for visitors, lectures and events, as well as an annual poetry competition for school children.
Address: Piazza di Spagna 26, 00187 Rome
Metro: Spagna on Line A
Opening hours: The House is open Monday to Saturday each week, and closes for an hour at lunchtime. Check the details on the website before you travel!