Shelley in Italy

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Shelley's time in Italy, between 1818 and 1822, divides into two periods. During the first, he and his family moved from place to place, visiting all the sights of the Grand Tour. During the second, they settled in and around Pisa. In the process, Shelley turned from a tourist into an expatriate. This change altered his relation to inherited perceptions of Italian landscape and Italian culture. It increased his receptiveness to the otherness of Italy and the Italians. And, thirdly, it had an influence upon his sense of himself as a Romantic poet.

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'Il bel paese'

Shelley spent the last four years of his life in Italy. He left England in March 1818, soon after publishing The Revolt of Islam, and travelled through France and Switzerland to Milan. After a year and a half spent visiting the major tourist centres of Italy--Venice, Rome, Naples, and Florence--Shelley and his family settled near Pisa until a few months before his death in spring 1822.

The immediate pretext for going abroad in 1818 was Byron's insistence that Shelley bring him his illegitimate daughter, Allegra. Allegra's mother, Claire Clairmont was Mary Shelley's step-sister and a long-standing member of the Shelley household. Byron's demands, though, served Shelley's purpose: he was already restless and unwell in England, keen to renew his friendship with Byron and eager to see classical and Renaissance Italian art at first-hand. Over the four years he spent in Italy, however, all the original motives for his journey either altered or disappeared. Shelley took root for the first time in one place and community; he placed his relations with Byron on a different footing; he thought through afresh his way of seeing a country that was filled with antiquity.

These changes brought him gradually into dispute with contemporary English taste. While abroad Shelley went through a process of discovering how to co-ordinate inherited ideas of Italy with the place as it was. This accompanied a new understanding of his place within a social circle and altered his way of thinking about the role of the individual amidst events. It changed, therefore, his sense of his relationship to 'Life'.

The Continent had been largely closed to English visitors during the Napoleonic Wars. When, in the years after 1815, foreign travel was possible again, the English arrived in a rush, expecting to see Italian landscapes that made Claude Lorrain's paintings real and hoping to wander around Shakespeare's Venice or Virgil's Cumae. (1) Italy had been so fully portrayed in advance, through literature, painting, and the currently fashionable travel-guides, that travellers found confirmation or disappointment everywhere. Entering Italy via the Simplon Pass, a Mrs Hinde remarked in 1819: 'Here I felt for the first time that I actually was in Italy, that country of which I had read so much and so long wished to see.' (2)

Samuel Rogers catches the same feeling of astonishment at being 'actually' there:

   Am I in Italy? Is this the Mincius? [...]
   Such questions hourly do I ask myself;
   And not a finger-post on the road-side
   'To Mantua'--'To Ferrara'--but excites
   Surprise, and doubt, and self-congratulation. (3)

Lady Morgan, the raconteur and novelist, found her reading brought to life: 'There was likewise no want of figures that might well pass current for Shylocks; and the gentle Jessica is to be traced in almost every sunny female face that passes in the streets.' (4) Effusive, Lady Morgan was also self-aware. 'Even the most Gothic traveller', she says, 'comes to Rome influenced by associations imbibed with early love, incorporated with youthful prepossession, and connected with childhood's first dream' (ii, 455). John Chetwood Eustace, a classicist and Roman Catholic, shares the feeling of recognition and endorses it: 'How natural then is the emotion of the traveller when he first beholds the distant domes of a city of such figures in the History of the Universe, of such weight in the destinies of mankind, so familiar to the imagination of the boy, so interesting to the feelings of the man! …