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Keats scholar finds that Roman police investigated poet before death

<span>Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Roman police investigated John Keats shortly before his death, newly discovered 19th-century archive documents reveal.

Keats scholar Alessandro Gallenzi discovered an entry in Roman police registers about the poet, under the misspelt name “John Xeats”. He was recorded as being under investigation, after his landlady asked for him to be removed from her house because he had not disclosed to her that he had tuberculosis. At the time, tuberculosis was considered to be contagious in Rome, so it would have been difficult and expensive for Keats to find accommodation had he been honest about his illness.

The English poet began experiencing shortness of breath and lung haemorrhages in 1820, and his doctors advised him to take an ocean voyage. He set sail for Rome with his friend Joseph Severn, and they arrived on 15 November 1820.

There, Keats was diagnosed with tuberculosis by his doctor, James Clark, who helped his patient find lodgings with a woman who lived across the road, Anna Angeletti.

Related: John Keats: five poets on his best poems, 200 years since his death

In December 1820, Keats experienced “a spitting of blood in such quantity,” wrote Severn, “that he declared it to be a forerunner of his death”. Alarmed, Angeletti filed a complaint with the local police magistrate, Stanislao del Drago, asking for Keats to be removed from her house or, should he die, for her to be reimbursed for the costs incurred by the posthumous sanitisation of Keats’ lodgings.

Gallenzi uncovered that on 18 December, del Drago filed a police report at the head office, and the police opened a case, adding Keats’ name to the investigations register. On 19 December, the governor of Rome, Tommaso Bernetti, forwarded Angeletti’s petition along with a letter to the secretary of the Sacra Consulta, which dealt with public health cases.

Severn heard about the investigation from Clark at four o’clock in the morning on 24 December. On 27 December, the secretary of the Sacra Consulta wrote to special adviser Domenico Morichini, a prominent doctor who the prior year was asked for an opinion on Napoleon’s health.

Morichini met with Clark, and wrote back to the Sacra Consulta to assure them that appropriate sanitation measures would be taken, including the destruction of all Keats’ furniture, the disposal of wools and cottons, the scraping of the floors and whitewashing of walls.

The letter also stated that Clark would make sure that any costs would be reimbursed to the landlady. Keats was “completely broke” at the time, explained Gallenzi, and so the letter reveals “how good” Clark was towards the poet.

While it was previously known that Angeletti filed a police complaint, this was only established from a “passing reference” in one of Severn’s letters, said Gallenzi. It is only now that Angeletti’s letter and the entry in the police register has been found, confirming that Keats had been under investigation.

Keats died on 23 February 1821, at the age of 25. An autopsy was conducted the following day by doctors including Clark and an Italian surgeon, possibly Morichini, which confirmed that the poet died of tuberculosis. His rooms were sanitised, and the furniture was burnt outside the house.

Gallenzi found the files in the Archivio di Stato di Roma. He had written a book about the poet, Written in Water: Keats’s Final Journey, remotely during the pandemic. Preparing to write the second edition, he was able to spend some time in Rome, where he tracked down the documents after “weeks and weeks” of correspondence with archivists.

“No one had suspected that they still existed, that they’ve been preserved, so I think they are an important discovery,” said Gallenzi. The scholar now hopes that he will find Keats’ autopsy report, which he believes would be “exceedingly interesting”.