May 24, 2013
Following the footsteps of the Romantic poets in Italy
by Claire Kelley
In the mountains above Lucca in Tuscany, hill towns nestled on tree-lined ridges with dense foliage, wildflowers, grape vines, and narrow roads with hairpin turns, look down over the Lima River Valley onto Bagni di Lucca. The town has been known for its thermal baths since the Estruscan and Roman ages, and was a fashionable spa town in the early 19th century.
Bagni di Lucca was also a favorite destination of the Romantic poets, including Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont, who had an affair and a child with Lord Byron.
These exiles found political freedom in Italy as revolutionaries and radicals; all of them were advocates of womens’ rights, having been influenced by Mary’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft. They also left for Italy to escape money lenders.
Lord Byron, who was living in Venice, agreed to care for his love child with Claire Clairmont, Allegra, as long as she wouldn’t have anything to do with him anymore, and so Claire sent the fourteen-month-old child with him when she first arrived with the Shelleys in Italy. “I send you my child because I love her too well to keep her,” she wrote. “With you who are powerful and noble and the admiration of the world she will be happy, but I am a miserable and neglected dependant.”
In 1818, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Claire arrived in Bagni di Lucca, where they leased Casa Bertini near a house once occupied by Montaigne. The town’s scenery and the way the light danced across the surrounding mountains inspired his poem, “The Cloud,” which he wrote the following year. He wrote that he “took great delight in watching the changes of atmosphere…the growth of the thunder showers…which break & fade away towards evening into flocks of delicate clouds.”
Shortly after they arrived, books that had been confiscated from Shelley in Chambéry on their journey from London arrived and Shelley annotated seven volumes of Herodotus’s Histories, he read Aeschylus’s The Persians, Xenophon’s Memorbilia Socratis, Aristophanes’ The Clouds, and Barthelemy’s Anarcharsis. On July 7th 1818, he started translating the banquet scene of Plato’s Symposium, and he worked on it for eleven consecutive mornings; it took Mary over two weeks to transcribe his work. He also wrote essays On Love and A Discourse, prose about the nature of love and sex while in Bagni di Lucca. While there is no proof or documentation, it is suspected that he was also romantically involved with Claire Clairmont during this time.
On August 17th, they received word that Allegra was no longer under the care of Lord Byron, and Claire and Percy set out for Venice. Byron had been living with nine women, fourteen servants, and “a menagerie of monkeys, a wolf, a fox, two mastiffs, and caged birds” and the Hoppners, a British couple, felt that this was not an appropriate setting for a young child. Byron didn’t let Claire near her child and arranged to place her in a Capuchin convent in Bagnacavallo, Italy. Allegra later died of typhus at the age of five, and Claire blamed Byron.
Meanwhile back in Bagni di Lucca, Mary Shelley was receiving glowing reviews of Frankenstein, which she had written in Geneva, and had been published earlier in 1818. But tragedy struck a few short years later. On July 8, 1822, less than a month before his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm while sailing back from Livorno in his boat, Don Juan. He was cremated on a funeral pyre on the beach not far from where he drowned.
Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.