The Shelleys in Rome – Wanted in Rome

The Keats-Shelley House in Rome marks the 200th anniversary of the drowning of Percy Bysshe Shelley with a series of events including an outdoor screening of the short film Shelley in Rome on the evening of Saturday February 19.

The three months that Percy and Mary Shelley and Mary’s half-sister, Claire Clairmont, spent in Rome between March and June 1819 began happily but ended with the tragic and sudden death of William, Percy and Mary’s son, on the 7th June.

The three of them buried three-year-old Willmouse in the non-Catholic cemetery and then fled the city. Percy was never to return. Just over three years later, after drowning off Lerici in Tuscany on July 8, 1822, his ashes were brought back to Rome to be buried in the same cemetery.

This year, Maison Keats-Shelley celebrates the 200th anniversary of the poet’s death with a series of events in Rome, Naples, Lerici and the UK. One of the first events was a video made for the Keats-Shelley House in Rome by the production company 313. It is now available on YouTube and the museum has received permission from the Comune di Roma to screen it on the facade of the House in Piazza di Spagna on February 19 from 6.30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Arrival in Rome

The Shelleys arrived in Rome after a difficult and emotionally draining time in Naples. Percy and Claire had been ill, but the real reason for the tension was the birth of a baby girl, Elena Adelaide, whom Percy recorded as his and Mary’s. There is no doubt that Percy was the father, but Mary was definitely not the mother. Why then did she allow her name to be used in the recording? This mystery has never been solved.

Certain rumors of the time, in particular coming from the entourage of Lord Byron, pointed the finger at Claire. But the Shelleys maintained that Elena was the daughter of their servant Elize. Regardless of the truth of the matter, Percy still intended to return to Naples to retrieve Elena from her adoptive parents. But tragically, Elena died on June 9, 2020 before Percy could return to Naples. It is doubtful that if Claire had been the mother she would have shown so little emotional interest in the child, especially since she had recently entrusted her daughter, Allegra, to the guardianship of father, Lord Byron, and clearly regretted the decision.

Inspired by Rome

The Shelleys may have fled Naples in February 1819 to escape this tragedy. Admittedly, their stay in Rome, until William’s unexpected death in June of the same year, was relatively peaceful. But above all, he inspired three of Shelley’s greatest works, Prometheus unbound, The Cenci and Adonais upon Keats’ death.

Rome must have looked like paradise in comparison with the incessant travels of the previous year, the tragic death in Venice of Clara, the 18-month-old daughter of Percy and Mary, in September 1818, followed by the shattering events of Naples at the end of that same year. What must have made the Roman interlude even happier was that Mary was pregnant again, with Percy Florence, their only surviving child, born in Florence at the end of 1819.

Baths of Caracalla

One of Percy’s main inspirations in Rome was the Baths of Caracalla, as we know not only from his letters, and from the preface to Prometheus unbound, but also the famous 1845 painting by Joseph Severn depicting Percy seated in the Baths of Caracalla. Commissioned by Mary Shelley long after her death, it now hangs in the Keats-Shelley house.

Shelley describes her feelings for the Baths of Caracalla in the preface to Prometheus unbound:

“This poem was principally written on the mountainous ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, among flowery glades and fragrant groves of flowering trees, which stretch in ever-winding labyrinths over its immense platforms and dizzyingly suspended arches in the air, the blue sky of Rome, and the effect of the vigorous awakening of spring in this most divine climate, and the new life with which it inundates the minds to the point of intoxication, were the inspiration of this drama. “

The influence of the Baths and their importance to his poetry comes out even more clearly in the same preface when he describes what he believes to be the role of the poet.

“A poet is a combined product of such internal powers which modify the nature of others, and such external influences which excite and sustain these powers; he is not one, but both. The spirit of every man is, at this respect, modified by all the objects of nature and art, by every work and every suggestion which he ever admitted to acting on his consciousness, it is the mirror in which all forms are reflected, and in which they compose a form. Poets, not otherwise than philosophers, painters, sculptors and musicians, are, in one sense, the creators, and, in another, the creations, of their time.

Beatrice Cence

Portrait of Guido Reni by Beatrice Cenci at the Palazzo Barberini

The second great work inspired by Rome was The Cenci, a drama that was underrated in the past but perhaps has greater resonance today thanks to its themes of rape, parricide and injustice. Beatrice Cenci, immortalized by the painting by Guido Reni now in the collection of Palazzo Barberini, was executed on Ponte S. Angelo on September 11, 1599. A plaque was placed on the wall at Via di Monserrato 42 by the Comune di Roma to mark the 400th anniversary of his imprisonment there and execution on nearby Ponte S. Angelo.

Shelley explains his own interest in history in his preface to the work:

“On my arrival in Rome, I found that the history of the Cenci was a subject not to be mentioned in Italian society without arousing a deep and breathless interest; and that the feelings of society never failed to bow towards a romantic pity for the wrongs., and a passionate exculpation of the horrible action to which they urged her, which for two centuries has mingled with the vulgar dust.All sorts of people knew the contours of this story, and participated to the overwhelming interest which it seems to have the magic to excite in the human heart. I had a copy of the picture of Beatrice de Guido which is kept in Palazzo Colonna, and my servant immediately recognized it as being the portrait of La Cenci.

And even:

“The Palace of Cenci is of great extent; and though partly modernized, there still remains a vast and gloomy heap of feudal architecture in the same condition as during the dreadful scenes which are the subject of this tragedy. The palace is located in an obscure corner of Rome, near the Jewish Quarter, and from the upper windows you see the huge ruins of the Palatine Hill half hidden under their abundance of trees.There is a courtyard in one part of the palace (perhaps the one in which Cenci built the Chapel of St. Thomas), supported by granite columns and adorned with finely crafted antique friezes, and built, according to the old Italian fashion, with open balcony upon balcony. of the Palace gates formed of huge stones and leading through a passage, dark and lofty and opening into dark subterranean chambers, particularly struck me.”


The final Rome-inspired work was Adonais. Shelley began writing this in memory of her son when the family made a hasty move from Rome to Livorno immediately after William’s tragic death. But Shelley never managed to finish it to his satisfaction until he learned of Keats’s death, several months after the poet’s death in Rome in February 1821.

From Adonais

Go to Rome, — immediately to Paradise,
The Tomb, the City, and the Desert;
And where her wrecks rise like broken mountains.
And flowering weeds, and fragrant groves dress
Bones of Desolation’s Nakedness
Pass, until the spirit of the place leads
Your steps towards a green access slope
Where, like a child’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers spreads along the grass;

And the gray walls are moldy, on which the dull weather
Feeds, like a slow fire on a white mark;
And a sharp pyramid with a sublime corner,
Pavilion the dust of the one who planned
This refuge for his memory, stands
Like a flame transformed into marble; and below,
A field stretches, over which a newer band
Have planted their death camp in the smile of Heaven.
By welcoming it, we lose our breath barely extinguished.

Pause here: these graves are still too young
To have overcome the sorrow that has consigned
His charge to each; and if the seal is set,
Here on a fountain of a grieving spirit,
Don’t you break it! you will surely find
Your well is full, if you go home,
Tears and gall. From the bitter wind of the world
Take shelter in the shadow of the tomb.
What is Adonis, why do we fear becoming him?

Shelley’s grave in the non-Catholic cemetery in Rome

Just over a year after writing this, Percy’s ashes were brought to the non-Catholic cemetery in Rome. Mary’s plan was for them to be buried in the same grave as their son William. But in the grave they thought contained the baby’s body, they found the bones of a man instead. By then the old cemetery where Keats and baby William were buried had been closed and the new part had just been opened. And that’s where Percy’s ashes still lie, near the Aurelian Wall.

By Mary Wilsey

For the schedule of Shelley Bicentennial events, see the Keats-Shelley website. Cover image: Portrait of Joseph Severn of Shelley at the Baths of Caracalla, from the Keats-Shelley House Collection.

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