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English Poets in Florence

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In spring 1818, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley moved to Italy with his young wife Mary, who had just published the Gothic novel Frankenstein. The Shelleys were accompanied by Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. A year before, Claire had given birth to Lord Byron’s daughter Allegra, following a brief liaison with the poet in England.

Byron was at that time living at the Palazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal in Venice, where he wrote Cantos 1–2 of Don Juan. A plaque between the two windows to the right of the entrance records his stay there from 1818 to 1819. Byron avoided Florence, which he believed to be full of “gossip-loving” English people.

The Shelleys settled in Florence in October 1819. Their address was the Palazzo Marini at Via Valfonda 4395, which had a sixteenth-century garden. Their son, Percy Florence Shelley, was born there in November 1819. The street now runs alongside Santa Maria Novella railway station, but the building itself was destroyed in the Second World War.

One day in October 1819, while walking in the public park of Le Cascine, Shelley was caught in a storm and took refuge at a pyramidal fountain called the Fonte di Narciso, where he was inspired to write Ode to the West Wind. A memorial tablet on the side of the fountain commemorates this event: “At this fountain named Narcissus, the poet Shelley in autumn 1819 wrote Ode to the West Wind.”

In January 1820, the Shelleys moved to Pisa, where the Torre dei Gualandi on the Piazza dei Cavalieri was a source of inspiration for Shelley’s poem Tower of Famine. In 1208, in a dark incident described in Dante’s Inferno, Ugolino della Gherardesca was locked up in the tower, along with his sons and grandsons, and left to starve to death.

On 25 October 1821, Percy and Mary Shelley moved into an apartment occupying the entire top floor of the Tre Palazzi di Chiesa, overlooking the Ponte della Fortezza at the far end of the Lungarno Galileo Galilei. They negotiated the lease on a marble palace diagonally opposite for Byron. This was the Palazzo Lanfranchi at Lungarno Mediceo 17, which had a sixteenth-century facade ascribed to Michelangelo.

Lord Byron lived in Pisa from November 1821 to September 1822, when he moved to Genoa for a year and then left Italy forever. He allegedly climbed the stairs riding his horse and spent hours writing in the dark underground rooms. Byron finished Cantos 6-12 of Don Juan at the Palazzo Lanfranchi, which is now the home of the State Archives.

Another Romantic poet, John Keats, moved to Rome after contracting tuberculosis in 1820. He lived at Piazza di Spagna 26, the pink house by the Spanish Steps, which is now the Keats-Shelley Memorial House. In 1821, Keats died there at the age of twenty-five and was buried in the Cimitero degli Inglesi. Shelley observed that “it might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”

Ironically, Shelley ended up there next to Keats the following year. In a mysterious and tragic accident, he drowned off the coast of Livorno on 8 July 1822, when his boat, the Don Juan, was caught in a violent storm and sank. His fish-eaten corpse was later identified by the copy of Keats’ poetry, Endymion, found in his pocket.

Shelley’s body was ceremoniously cremated on the beach of Viareggio by Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt, who doused his body in wine. Hunt allegedly reached into the burning pit and took out his heart for Mary, who carried it in a silk shroud wherever she went. The rest of Shelley’s remains were buried alongside Keats in Rome.

On Shelley’s last home in the bay of Lerici, just north of Pisa, there is a plaque in Italian which reads: “Upon this terrace, once protected by the shadow of an ancient oak-tree, Mary Shelley and Jane Williams awaited with weeping anxiety the return of Percy Shelley who, sailing from Livorno in his fragile craft, had come to shore by sudden chance among the silences of the Elysian Isles – O blessed shores, where Love, Liberty and Dreams have no chains.”

After Shelley’s death, Mary Shelley returned to England, while Claire Clairmont went to Russia as a governess to the children of senator Zakhar Posnikov. She lived in Moscow from 1825 to 1828, travelling round Europe for the next two decades and only returning to England in 1846.

Claire tried her hand at fiction in 1832 with a short story called The Pole, which was edited by and wrongly attributed to “the author of Frankenstein.” The two sisters quarrelled and broke off relations after Alexander Knox, a friend of Mary and Percy Florence Shelley, eloped with Claire’s niece Clara Clairmont in 1849.

In 1859, Claire Clairmont moved to Florence, where she spent the last twenty years of her life. She died peacefully at Via Romana 43 on 19 March 1879. Claire was buried with Shelley’s shawl in the cemetery of the Misericordia di Santa Maria all’Antella at Via Montisoni 14, three miles outside Florence.

Between 1847 and 1861, Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett rented an apartment near Claire Clairmont’s final residence. Their home at Piazza San Felice 8 gave its name to one of Elizabeth’s most celebrated books, Casa Guidi Windows. Their son, Pen Browning, was born in the house in 1849, while Elizabeth died there on 29 June 1861.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was buried at the Cimitero degli Inglesi in Florence. Robert Browning left Florence after her death and died in Venice in 1889. The Casa Guidi is now partly owned by Eton College and is open to the public from 3 pm to 5 pm, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, between April and November.

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