In the past, our wanderings through Rome had always been random and unfocused. Inspecting an ancient doorway or fountain, peering into a hidden courtyard or just participating in the vivid pageant of Roman street life were all right up our vicolo. But inspired by the Roman experiences of Hawthorne, the Brownings, Dickens, James and others, we decided this time to organize our own walking tour of places intimately associated with some of the great writers who have lived, worked and occasionally died in Rome.

The outcome was more than rewarding. Our tour combined the thrill of discovering and recognizing places that either have affected or have entered our literature with the non-cerebral pleasures of a stroll through some of Rome's most agreeable areas. Equally satisfying was our discovery that these literary haunts of yesteryear remain very much as they were. So only a little imagination can transport you back to a time when Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Hans Christian Andersen or Henry James might have sat at the next table or lived just around the corner.

Most of us, absorbed by the Roman Trinity of tombs, temples and trattorie, tend to forget that, aside from its past glories and present delights, this "city of cities" has been a literary lure almost since Day One more than 2,600 years ago. All roads really did lead to Rome for provincial writers such as Terence, Virgil, Catullus and countless others. Much later the Grand Tour of the 18th and 19th centuries brought hundreds of European and American writers as literary pilgrims seeking both classical literary roots and new inspiration.

Our tour of Rome's literary landmarks took only one day -- the minimum for such a random meander. Time and again we were lured down medieval side streets and cobbled alleys to investigate the street scenes, markets, shops and other delights of Lord Byron's "city of the soul." Your own soul will probably be happier with a more leisurely pace. Even on the second half of our tour, when we left downtown Rome to visit the Protestant Cemetery in a more modern part of town, we still found unexpected diversions that could have extended our wanderings by hours or even days. We also discovered that, while the cemetery and several other places of literary interest are open to the public, most are still private apartments, just as they were when great writers called them home many years ago.

My wife and I began our contemporary Grand Tour of literary Rome in the Piazza di Spagna, the traditional target for literary visitors. Off to our left, the Via del Babuino led to the Porta del Popolo, which in the 18th and 19th centuries served as Rome's magnificent front door for visitors from England and the United States. After reaching the Piazza di Spagna, most foreign travelers sought lodging in the immediate area, and not just because of the superb setting.

In those days, the piazza was literally the end of the line. The large traveling coaches simply could not enter the narrow surrounding streets and were forced to discharge passengers and cargo at the foot of the Spanish Steps. To remind us of this, the Via delle Carrozze ("carriages"), near the western end of the piazza, marks the place where these massive coaches were repaired after their long journeys.

Aside from eminently practical considerations, the intrepid 18th-century British traveler and author Tobias Smollett, who lived on the piazza, pointed out that it "is open, airy and pleasantly situated ... here most of the English reside." Today, if you close your eyes slightly and use a little imagination, you can find yourself back in that long-ago piazza. Buildings there in Smollett's time still ring the square. The Spanish Embassy that gave the piazza its name centuries ago still functions at No. 56. Bernini's Barcaccia Fountain spouts water, as it has since 1629. And the Spanish Steps continue to display the latest version of Roman and foreign youth.

We paid our respects to the travelers of Smollett's day by visiting Babington's Tea Rooms at Piazza di Spagna 23, a relic of that era, still serving massive breakfasts, scones, shepherd's pie and other British delights. This ancient cafe, with its heavy wooden furniture, fusty decorations and creaky floors, virtually reeks of times long past. Mascherino the house cat, who visited our table, rounded out what the English call a homey atmosphere. Expect 18th-century service and 21st-century prices. A cup of tea ran about $5.

Next we crossed the Spanish Steps to visit the piazza's best-known literary landmark, the Keats-Shelley Memorial at No. 26. Here the poet John Keats spent three painful and sad months before his death in 1821 from tuberculosis at the age of 25. The museum contains a fine library and copies of Keats's manuscripts, letters and other memorabilia along with his death mask. It also has a large collection of mementos and relics of Shelley and other 19th-century British writers. On the Spanish Steps outside, today's lively youth scene contrasts poignantly with the tragedy of young Keats's struggle during a long and dreary Roman winter.

At Piazza di Spagna 66, the poet George Gordon Byron took lodging in 1817 and continued work on his epic "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage." It was here he carried out first-hand research on the fourth canto with its moving descriptions of classical Rome, its monuments, tombs and, of course, the "dying gladiator."

We then moved from the Piazza di Spagna on to the Via Condotti, where many visiting writers once took lodging. Now it is Rome's center for conspicuous consumption. At No. 86, we entered the Caffe` Greco, one of Europe's major literary shrines, where for more than two centuries writers and artists from all over have gathered and gossiped. Once you might have found Casanova awaiting an assignation described in his memoirs, or perhaps less athletic luminaries such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Nikolai Gogol, Mark Twain and the Brownings.

We threaded our way through a series of crowded rooms filled with tobacco smoke to the back room, where we sipped cappuccino in the midst of a large and eclectic collection of prints, books, albums and other relics of the Greco's illustrious past. Today's customers are mainly tourists and shoppers rather than literary giants. But the waiters in swallow-tail coats, the elegance of the service and the marble tables decorated with flowers made it easy for us to visualize its literary years.

Although many literary visitors practically lived at the Caffe` Greco, one of the 19th century's best-known and best-loved writers, Hans Christian Andersen, actually did live there in 1861. Andersen's own sketch of his rooms in fact adorns one of the Caffe`'s walls. Although this visit lasted only a month, it was long enough for him to establish a strong friendship with the kingpin of Rome's 19th-century expatriate community, the American sculptor W.W. Story.

The Story apartment in the Palazzo Barberini, about half a mile east of the Greco and now the home of the National Gallery of Ancient Art, was the scene of a memorable children's birthday party during which Andersen read "The Ugly Duckling" to the children and poet Robert Browning narrated "The Pied Piper," followed by a grand march led by Story (with flute), Andersen and Browning through the apartment. Across the street from the Greco, Via Condotti 11 was home to novelist William Thackeray and poet Alfred Lord Tennyson during their Roman visits.

We next turned left from Via Condotti into Via Bocca di Leone, where the elegant Hotel D'Inghilterra at No. 14 has distinguished literary connections that go back to its earliest days. American novelist and humorist Mark Twain stayed here in 1867 when writing "Innocents Abroad." Two years later another American novelist, Henry James, checked in on his first arrival in Rome on Oct. 30, 1869. We could easily imagine that super-refined gentleman feeling right at home at today's Inghilterra. Its handsome rooms are filled with antique furniture, and the service is impeccable. It was at the Inghilterra that James experienced the ecstasy that affects many first-time visitors to the city:

At last -- for the first time -- I live! It beats everything. It leaves the Rome of your fancy -- your education -- nowhere ... I went reeling and moaning through the streets in a fever of enjoyment.

On that same morning, leaving the Inghilterra, James raced out too excited to eat breakfast and was "promptly rewarded, on the adjacent edge of Via Condotti, by the brightest and strangest {vision} of them all ... the great rumbling, black-horses coach of the Pope." We retraced James's steps down to the Via Condotti, then to the Via del Corso and another stop in the Rome of Henry James. On the right, at Via del Corso 126, stands the Hotel Plaza, then as now one of Rome's best -- and still redolent with the atmosphere of that era.

Back in 1872, the Plaza was called the Hotel du Rome. James stayed here when he returned on the second of his four visits to Rome. A few days after checking in, he began work on "From a Roman Notebook," which chronicled his intense social and intellectual participation in Rome's American colony and his explorations of Rome and surrounding countryside.

By contrast with the Via Condotti, the Via del Corso, once one of Rome's most elegant streets, is now largely given over to jeans, hamburgers, sweat shirts and other elements of teenage consumption. It is always crowded, and even in the last century James observed that it was a "perpetual crush.".

Via del Corso 20 was the home of Goethe, the German poet and dramatist, during his stay from 1786 to 1788. Although a plaque on the palazzo wall marks the occasion, the best memento of all is "Italian Journey," Goethe's fascinating and detailed travel diary. The first reaction of this rigid and repressed North European to Rome's sensuality and vitality was no less ecstatic than that of the buttoned-up Henry James. On the day of his arrival, Goethe wrote, "At last I have arrived in the first city of the world {where} one feels exhausted after so much looking and admiring."

The "Casa di Goethe" now contains a museum of photographs, prints, books and other materials related to Goethe's travels in Italy.

The Hotel du Russie, located just off the Piazza del Popolo at Via del Babuino 9, is now the Rome headquarters of RAI, the Italian state radio and television. But in 1844, the Russie was home to English author Charles Dickens during an extended visit to Rome. His wanderings and highly subjective opinions about the city, its art and its people were later included in his "Pictures From Italy." In this masterpiece of travel writing, Dickens brings Rome to life as vividly as the London of his novels.

Dickens entered Rome on a cold and blustery day in January 1844, just in time for the last two days of Carnival, when celebrations were at their rowdiest. In those days, the Corso was the center of all activity, with horse races down its entire length, excited and elaborately costumed Romans pelting each other with confetti and cakes and, at the end, the long-vanished tradition of the moccoli, where thousands of celebrants attempt to extinguish each others candles.

After the last moccolo went out, Dickens began "conscientiously to work, to see Rome ... making acquaintance with every post and pillar in the city." This was no exaggeration. Dickens saw it all, including a public execution near the church of San Giovanni Decollato and the equally gory paintings of bygone martyrdoms in the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, which can still horrify us as they did him.

He also visited the Vatican often, both for religious spectaculars like the papal foot washing, complete with a reenactment of the "Last Supper," and the Vatican Museums, which gave him opportunities to dispense opinions on the works of the baroque sculptor Giovanni Lorenzo Bernin -- "the most detestable class of productions in the wide world" -- and most of Rome's other sculptures -- "intolerable abortions."

Moving on down the Via del Babuino past expensive antique shops and art galleries, we entered the Rome of English poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning by turning right on the Via Vittoria. At the corner with the Via Bocca di Leone stood the home of "the wretched Comparini" and their daughter Pompilia, whose lives and deaths (a triple homicide committed in 1698 by Pompilia's husband, Count Franceschini) were immortalized 150 years later by Robert Browning in his epic poem, "The Ring and the Book." In 1853, the Brownings lived across the street, at Bocca di Leone 43, an experience that some years later was used as background for this tragic tale.

Like the Comparini home across the way, the Browning house is a classic example of dwellings in central Rome for many centuries, combining street-level shops with upstairs apartments. It is now the center of a lively street market, where we armed ourselves with fruit for a short side trip to the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina -- "Lorenzo's church" -- where Pompilia was married and buried.

San Lorenzo, which dates from 366 A.D., is of much more interest for the sundial of the Emperor Augustus and the Roman houses that lie beneath it -- tours are offered every Saturday at 11 a.m. -- rather than for its present interior. As Browning aficionados, however, we immediately recognized the 12th-century stone lions in the church portico as the fierce marble creatures of Pompilia's childhood, "eating the figure of a prostrate man (to the right, it is, of entry by the door)".

On July 31, 1906, the 24-year-old James Joyce, accompanied by Nora Barnacle and their infant son, arrived in Rome from Trieste. Joyce had been working in Trieste as a language teacher but had been lured to Rome by the prospect of better pay as the English-language correspondent at a Rome bank and of more time for writing. The Joyces settled in immediately at Via Frattina 52, in a second-floor apartment owned by a Madame Dufour. It was in this building (where today you can buy records, hosiery or the latest hairdo) that Joyce began work on his masterpiece, "Ulysses," and completed "The Dubliners."

Joyce's stay in Rome proved disastrous. His job in the bank -- the building still stands as a bank at Via San Claudio 87, corner of Via del Corso -- consumed time Joyce had hoped to spend writing. Also, financial difficulties impelled him to moonlight as a teacher in a local language school.

Evidently even this did not suffice, for the Joyce family was evicted by Madame Dufour, spending their final days in Rome in dingy rooms by the Tiber River at Via Monte Brianzo 51.

After this visit with the Brownings, the Comparini and the Joyces, we returned to the Piazza di Spagna and climbed the Spanish Steps, keeping in mind Dickens's description of the steps in the last century, when they were used as a showcase for artist's models seeking work:

There is another man in a blue cloak who always pretends to be asleep in the sun and who, I need not say, is always very wide awake and very attentive to the disposition of his legs. This is the dolce far niente model. There is another man in a brown cloak, who leans against the wall, with his arms folded in his mantle, and looks out of the corners of his eyes, which are just visible beneath his broad slouched hat. This is the assassin model.

Via Sistina 126 was the home of Nikolai Gogol, the Russian novelist and dramatist, during his almost four years in Rome between 1838 and 1842. Gogol was already an established playwright by then, having launched his successful play "The Inspector General" in Moscow in 1836. This tormented escapee from the gloom of 19th-century Russia underwent a spectacular transformation during his years in the Italian sun. Gogol adored Rome and was a joyful and practically insatiable visitor, covering the city in vast touristic swoops and gulps, effusing and sketching all the way, even on the table tops at the Caffe` Greco.

This ecstatic condition even induced him to begin dating his letters back to Moscow from the year of Rome's founding, i.e. "2588." Gogol's voracious habits unfortunately extended to the table, and there are numerous accounts of his gluttony in favorite trattorie all over town. Fortunately for all of us, the pen is mightier than the fork; Gogol's time in Rome was also one of great literary achievement.

Standing at his desk in the apartment on Via Sistina, Gogol dictated much of what was to become his most famous work, "Dead Souls," the masterful and incisive novel of Russian life in the early 19th century. Although Gogol's apartment is not open to visitors, we entered the ground-floor courtyard and could see that the palazzo had evidently changed very little in the intervening years.

Retracing our steps, we turned onto the Via Francesco Crispi, which runs steeply uphill from the Via Sistina. In classical times it was called the Via Salaria Vetus, the last urban stretch of the great consular road connecting Rome with the Adriatic port of Brindisi to the far south and to the Middle East. But during the first half of 1858, it was home to Nathaniel Hawthorne, the American author who, with his wife and two daughters, took an apartment in the still-elegant Palazzo Sarazani at Via Crispi 90. Hawthorne had just completed an assignment as the American consul in Liverpool, England, and was already well-known, thanks to the earlier publication of "The House of the Seven Gables" and "The Scarlet Letter."

Palazzo Sarazani today can be identified by the graceful wrought iron "S" over the main door; on the street level are clothing shops, while upstairs the Hawthornes' former salons are occupied by Italians who are probably unaware of Hester Prynne and the goings-on in far-off New England.

Hawthorne's fascinating "Notebooks," which include some of the finest travel writing of the period, recount an astonishing number of visits to Rome's classical sites, trips in the countryside and a hyperactive social life. The "Notebooks" also reveal Hawthorne to have been a thoughtful, even amusing, observer of foreign places and commentator on the foibles of the Americans he found there, himself included. Which of us, for example, has not, deep down, sometimes experienced "that peculiar lassitude and despondency ... which has so often afflicted me while viewing works of art."

It was here that Hawthorne began to sketch out "The Marble Faun," his allegorical novel, in which he put to good use his Roman experiences and sensory recollections. The title comes from Praxiteles' noted statue, "Satyr Resting," which can be found in Room 1 of the Capitoline Museum, exactly where Hawthorne himself came upon it in April 1858.

Retracing our steps to Via Sistina, we turned left and walked down to Piazza Barberini, where there were many choices for a quick lunch. Continuing our tour, we took the subway (metropolitana) from the Piazza Barberini to the Piramide stop.

Here, a few blocks southwest of the Circus Maximus, once ancient Rome's grandest stadium, stands the Porta San Paolo, so named because it was here, in the year 62, that Saint Paul was led from Rome to execution. The original stones of the Via Ostiensis that Paul trod that final day are still there under the ancient gate, while the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, which Paul surely saw on his final journey, still stands gleaming and white, just as it did when he passed by on his way to martyrdom almost 2,000 years ago.

Behind the pyramid and between the massive walls that the emperor Honorius built several centuries later lies one of Rome's most peaceful and tranquil areas, the Protestant Cemetery. The cemetery, with its dark green cypresses and pines, is the final resting place of hundreds of non-Catholic foreigners who, willingly or not, stayed on in Rome forever. The cemetery entrance is at Via Caio Cestio 6. It is open all day, but visitors must ring for admission.

Most Anglo-Americans head immediately for the best-known graves -- those of Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Keats's gravestone, to the left of the cemetery entrance and behind the pyramid, does not even bear his name, referring instead to a "young English poet ... whose name was writ in water." Keats is, however, prominently mentioned on the adjoining stone of his friend Joseph Severn, who in addition to his artistic abilities, and friendship with Keats and other artists, was also the British consul in Rome for many years.

Further along the path is another pair of graves -- those of Shelley and his close friend, poet Edward Trelawney -- which lie next to each other against the ancient town wall. "Cor Cordium" or "heart of all hearts" is the inscription on Shelley's grave, but his heart is not buried with him here in Rome. After he drowned near Viareggio and was subsequently cremated on the beach by Byron and Trelawney, Shelley's heart was returned to England, while his ashes stayed on in Italy.

A few steps from Shelley's grave stands a monument, "The Angel of Grief," which marks the tomb of the American sculptor William Wetmore Story and his wife. "W.W." Story, the son of a prominent Boston jurist, came to Rome in 1846 and stayed on until his death in 1895. The years in between were filled with friendships with almost every notable visitor to Rome, as the dazzling Story family entertained and befriended the Brownings, Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, Hans Christian Andersen and many others. Unfortunately, few Americans now recall Story's accomplishments as a sculptor, but his charm, intelligence and warmth inspired another friend, Henry James, to write an affectionate and inspired biography of him.

A visit to the cemetery can easily be combined with a visit to the Sunday morning flea market at Porta Portese, which is only a few blocks away. One of Europe's longest, cheapest and most touristic streetcar lines, the No. 30 tram, stops within a few feet of the gate.

As we exited the cemetery and reentered the tumult of today's Rome, we realized that our literary sightseeing had given us new perspectives on a city already having many dimensions. Although Rome's monuments and dolce vita have always received more attention, we had just experienced places that typified Rome's age-old appeal to writers of all nations.

But as Americans we were especially proud of the hardy band who, in the first days of our young republic, made a long, arduous and often dangerous ocean voyage to experience, learn from and write about this ancient city. They were the intellectual advance men for America's long love affair with Italy, and the trailblazers for the many who, like us, flock to Rome every year on their own voyages of personal discovery.

For more information about travel to and around Rome, contact the Italian Government Travel Office, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 1565, New York, N.Y. 10111, (212) 245-4822. William B. Whitman is a career diplomat and freelance writer. This is an excerpt from his "Literary Cities of Italy," to be published this month by the Starrhill Press of Washington.