Posted on: Thursday 23rd April, 2015
Now in its second century of existence as a museum and library dedicated to the English Romantic poets who lived in, and were inspired by, Italy, the Keats-Shelley House in Rome means lots of different things to different people, and might therefore be defined and categorised in a variety of ways. Yes, it’s a literary shrine to which thousands of Keats devotees come each year to pay their respects to their hero, John Keats, who died here of tuberculosis in 1821 aged just 25. Yes, it’s a museum which seeks to educate visitors coming from all levels of prior knowledge and inspire them to find out more about Keats and his fellow Romantics. Yes, it’s a place of scholarship, to which academic researchers and writers from all over the world come to access our library and archives. And yes it’s a living, breathing centre for the contemporary creative arts and for poetry in particular.
But how can a relatively small institution like the Keats-Shelley House seek to ensure that all of the different expectations that have come to be placed on it (by those who turn to us for inspiration) are met? Part of the answer, we feel, will come from re-envisioning ourselves as a Poetry House, and not only as a Literary House Museum, though the one classification need not exclude the other.
Over the last century and a half hundreds of literary museums have opened their doors for the first time all over Europe, many of which are housed in the former homes of famous, canonical writers who spent significant part of their lives there. This trend, whose origins lay in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, continues through to the present day, with several exciting new projects coming to the fore in recent years, including of course the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation in the UK, which has already worked wonders to establish itself as a Poetry House through a vibrant cultural programme, even though the House itself has not yet opened to the public. We believe we have a lot to learn from, and share with, our sister Poetry Houses across Europe and the foundations that care from them, and that this process will be all the more fruitful when reciprocated across a range of institutions who, in their sheer diversity, can support and generate new ideas through their common commitment to poetry.
At the Keats-Shelley House we are, of course, excited to be taking the lead on academic conferences within the Kindred Spirits project. This is fairly new territory for us. While we’ve held, and continue to hold, several academic talks and lectures, in October 2014 we ventured to hold our first full-scale academic conference at the House in order to mark the bicentenary of the composition of ‘Imitation of Spenser’, Keats’s earliest extant poem. Working closely with the Keats Foundation in London and with the British School at Rome, we put out a call for papers which attracted a healthy response from Keats scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. Our keynote speaker was Professor Nadia Fusini, Italy’s leading Keats scholar. It was a great start to what we anticipate will be a productive, flourishing academic conference programme. That we can develop this programme with our new partners will, we feel, ensure its success.
The fact that the constituent members of the Kindred Spirits network come from various national traditions and backgrounds – and that they are by no means all predominantly museums – is a genuine plus point for a network such as this. In recent years the Keats-Shelley House has been expanding its cultural and educational programme, and increasingly this has included working with artists, musicians, poets and other creative practitioners who have helped us explore new ways to tell the stories of our key poets, of our collection, of the House, and by extension of the history of the Piazza di Spagna area and the myriad of meanings associated with the lure of Rome and of the Grand Tour.
While our annual poetry competition for children and young people is, at the time of writing, in its twenty-fifth year, and is gaining ever-greater numbers of entries, we are increasingly commissioning new creative projects which are performed on-site at the House itself, as well as off-site across a range of locations across Rome. We now try to do at least one original theatrical production every year, and have recently worked with upcoming and well-established writers such as Pele Cox, former Creative Writing Fellow in Residence at the Royal Academy of Arts, and Valeria Patera, a powerful new presence in contemporary Italian theatre. The number of poets who’ve done readings here in recent years is too large to mention but we do try to encourage new work as much as we can, for example Helen Burke’s wonderful poetic production Watcher of the Skies, inspired by the life of Keats, which we staged in 2014.
We’ve even been luckly enough to work with Oscar winner, such as Piero Tosi, who designed a fabulous Mary Shelley costume for us based on the dress she wore in the famous Richard Rothwell portrait of her (just before receiving a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award for his show-stealing costumes), and Academy Award nominee Galatea Ranzi, who played the role of Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, in an enchanting drama first written for and staged at the House. We’ve had artists – and by artists we mean film-makers and installation artsts as well as sculptors and painters – come from all over the world, and have even recently hosted a piano-based concert in our historic salone, as well as a ballerina in a dance interpretation of the life of the Shelleys. In short, our creative collaborations are getting ever bigger and bolder and we now find ourselves in a position where, in order to go forward, we must collaborate more with other institutions on an international level.
We’re not exactly sure, at this preliminary stage, where these next collaborative steps will take us – indeed that’s the beauty of creative partnerships! – but we’re sure we want to take them with Kindred Spirits.