A very ‘Romantic’ Rome: following the Shelleys’ travels in Italy

When I was asked to write a piece on places associated with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, I was really rather spoilt for choice. Did I opt for Lake Geneva, where they spent that fateful summer with Byron and Frankenstein was born? Or the Ligurian coast, where Shelley drowned in a storm at the age of only 29? Or Naples, or Venice, or any one of half a dozen other places they visited during the three restless years they spent in Italy? But in the end it had to be Rome. Not just because it’s one of my three favourite cities in the world (Oxford and Sydney being the other two), but also because it was both an inspiration to Shelley’s poetic imagination, and the setting for a tragedy that was to leave him believing he was “hunted by calamities.”

The Shelleys arrived in Italy in early 1818, and Shelley had his first sight of Rome in the autumn of that year. He was exhilarated by his first experience of the Eternal City, and spent a week there, returning in early March 1819 with his wife Mary, and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont. This strange and sometimes stormy ménage a trois was one of the inspirations for my novel, The Frankenstein Monster. 

The party rented lodgings on the Corso, near the Piazza Colonna, in an area which is still one of the most fashionable quarters of the city, and the heart of its shopping district. Though Shelley was an ardent atheist they attended several services in St Peter’s, and no visit to Rome is complete without a visit to this beautiful domed basilica, which is home to Michelangelo’s Pietà. The Shelleys also visited the Vatican Museum and art galleries like the famous one at the Villa Borghese, and the extensive gardens that surround it became one of their favourite places for carriage rides. It’s a beautiful green haven in the heart of the city and from the adjacent Pincio belvedere you can get a fantastic view towards the Vatican and down over the lovely Piazza del Popolo, with its twin Baroque churches.

Shelley was captivated with the ancient ruins that lay all about them – the building he loved most was the Pantheon, a Roman temple transformed into a Christian church, but he went many times to the Forum and Colosseum, and was especially entranced with the less-frequented Baths of Caracalla, which were then overgrown with sweet-scented plants, and where fragments of Roman mosaic were still visible in the earth. He wrote much of his verse play Prometheus Unbound there, and the painter Joseph Severn later pictured him sitting with pen and notebook among the ruins. Shelley and Claire also took a trip out to Tivoli, where you can visit the Villa D’Este, which has an extraordinary Renaissance garden laid out with extravagant fountains.

In early May the Shelley party moved to lodgings in the Via Sestina, near the beautiful church of the Trinità dei Monti, which stands above the Spanish Steps leading down to the Piazza di Spagna. This whole area was known at one time as the ‘Romantic’ or ‘English’ quarter, partly because the house where John Keats died is at the bottom of the Steps. For me, this is one of the most poignant places in Rome, and an absolute must for any visitor interested in literature. As you stand in the room where he died, at the age of only 25, you can hear all the sounds of life and laughter on the Steps, just as he must have done in his last terrible days.

Shelley also visited the ancestral home of the Cenci family, and his imagination was so fired by the story of Beatrice Cenci –a bloody Renaissance tale of incest and murder – that he started at once to compose a verse play about it.

And then, without warning, tragedy struck. In late May, their beloved son, four-year-old William, fell sick with a feverish stomach complaint. A doctor attended him, and he seemed to be improving, but on 2nd June he grew suddenly worse. Shelley sat up with him, unceasing, for three days and nights, but it was not enough. Five days later William died, and was buried in the Protestant cemetery outside the old city walls, where John Keats would later also be laid to rest, and which now draws visitors from all over the world. The Shelleys left Rome on June 10th, and the poet never returned to it alive.

It is a sad story, with an even sadder postscript. Three years later, after Shelley’s death, Mary asked that her husband’s ashes should be interred with their son, but when the grave was opened the bones they found were those of a full-grown adult. No-one knows, to this day, where little William lies.

This post was originally written in 2014 for http://www.novelicious.com

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