di Ed Vulliamy*


The house in which the most restlessly innovative of the great English romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was resident when he died – beside the sea at Lerici – opens to the public for the first time on September 6, as a fitting climax to the Suoni del Golfo festival. Shelley drowned while living there in 1822.

The narrative of Shelley in Italy is riveting and instructive. He arrived in 1818 with his wife Mary and a friend, Claire Claremont, in order to return to his fellow poet Lord Byron a daughter by Claire, Allegra. While here, Shelley and Mary lost two children of their own to disease, Allegra also died and Shelley lost a further daughter, Elena, whom he sired with another – mystery – woman.

But Italy inspired Shelley; he adored it: “Italy at first acquaintance seemed to awake so many correspondences and resonances in Shelley’s mind that it came like a revelation”, writes his biographer Richard Holmes. So that these domestically traumatic years were also a time of explosive creativity for Shelley, and produced four great masterpieces in all English literature, each entirely different from one another: a translation of Plato’s Symposium, the remarkable philosophical epic poem Prometheus Unbound; his taught, dark domestic tragedy The Cenci and an insurgent tirade against the politics of his homeland, The Mask of Anarchy. They were written at his various addresses: in Bagni di Luca, Venice, Napoli, Rome, Pisa, Livorno and finally Lerici.

Shelley was the most overtly erotic and political of the romantics: for him, morality was revolutionary, and vice-versa, and the poetic muse essential to both – fittingly, the engagement of music in the real world is the theme of the festival. Shelley can be seen as prescient of the kind of romantic (rather than Marxian) radicalism of the early 19th Century that later inspired Mazzini and Giuseppe Verdi, and forged unified Italy.

Shelley had been under close surveillance in Britain for his atheist republicanism, French Jacobin sympathies and pamphlets on the Irish cause, and – to a degree even greater than Byron and John Keats – also in Italy – he was in flight from persecution and a stultifying atmosphere of crude reaction back home in the realm.

My God, does that not echo into our times!? – as tens of thousands of British intellectuals, artists, professional people and other sane folk plan their escape to Europe from the abomination of Brexit ?! There is one searing difference, however: the great poets on the run from Wellington’s reactionary militarism needed not to think twice about their right of abode and right to work in Italy. Now, we in flight from the belligerent ignorance of Boris Johnson and Theresa May, are terrified that those idiots will ‘negotiate’ away our right to be here. Shelley, Byron and Keats may have been exiles, but they were not extracommunitari – we are.

*Ed Vulliamy, inviato di guerra del Guardian e dell’Observer, è uno dei più noti giornalisti inglesi. Ha scritto libri di inchiesta sul narcotraffico in Messico, come Amexica. E’ amico di Liguritutti