On the bicentenary of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1822 - 2022) death, I feel it is my duty to remember this most important English poet of the 19th century by framing it within the period, albeit brief but particularly intense in terms of poetic creativity, which coincides with his stay in Este, in the province of Padua.
We are at the foot of the Euganean Hills, in the southern part of this famous hilly area that appears (but it would be more correct to write emerges) unexpectedly in the midst of the Venetian Plain. The ancient city of Este preserves among its treasures the remains of a medieval castle, whose walls rise above a hill overlooking its historic center. A short distance from the towers and the east wall that extends upward is the house that hosted Percy Bysshe Shelley for a couple of months between October and November 1818. This villa, in full neoclassical style, had been rented by Byron a year earlier, when the poet had wanted to pay homage to Francesco Petrarch by going to visit the nearby town of Arquà, where the house and tomb of the illustrious Italian poet are located. A visit that had already been part of the itineraries of those who undertook the traditional Grand Tour through Europe, with Italy as a key destination, which was custom during the 17th to the early 19th Century. And from which the eccentric and brilliant English poet certainly could not evade.
The villa is surrounded by lush parkland and still clearly recognisable today, as well more shielded from noise coming from both inside the house and outside from farm work. In short, it was an ideal place for Shelley to withdraw and write. The poet's activity in that brief period was animated by an exceptional creative impetus, which was probably due to the suggestive nature of not only the adjacent historical environment, but also its proximity to those places Petrarch had frequented, which he undoubtedly visited on one of his many excursions - both on foot and on horseback - in the Euganean Hills. Here he wrote the poem “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills” (which was published a year later and that contained an important clarification, namely that the inspiration came from an outing to the top of Mount Venda, the highest point in the Euganean Hills), and other masterpieces, including Prometheus Unbound and “Julian and Maddalo.” It is likely that during the same period Shelley's wife, Mary, also became captivated by the Euganean landscape and the castle she could admire daily from her home and began to pen the novel Valperga, which contains pages entirely devoted to the Castle of Este and the surrounding hills. Unfortunately, that sojourn was upset by the death of their daughter Clara; however, it is to be believed that it was precisely the tranquility offered by the place, along with the many excursions in the Euganean Hills, that provided some solace from such great sorrow.
In order to recall that sojourn, and to give further emphasis to one of the most relevant poetic figures of the Francesco Petrarch Literary Park and the Euganean Hills, we wanted to involve Francesco Rognoni, Professor of English Language and Literature at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan and translator of Shelley’s works into Italian, by asking him some questions about this relevant moment in Shelley’s artistic and human journey and that of his friend and fellow poet Lord Byron.
Francesco Rognoni lived for a long time in the United States, studying at Yale University. He taught for years at the University of Udine and held courses at Barnard College of Columbia University, N.Y. He currently teaches English language and literature and Anglo-American anthropology and culture at the Catholic University of Milan and Brescia. He has written on various English and American authors (J. Milton, J. Keats, R. Browning, F. O'Hara, R. Lowell, etc.) and edited editions of classics and contemporaries, including the Pléiade Einaudi-Gallimard of the "Works" by P.B. Shelley (Betocchi Award for poetic translation, 1995), and the last and greatest tribute dedicated to Shelley in italian: Shelley. Teatro, prose e lettere, i Meridiani, Mondadori, 2018.
Paolo Gobbi (PG): How far back does your interest in the poet Shelley go? I ask because the "double translation" signals an interest in this author that seems to go beyond simple translation: it is as if Shelley has so thoroughly enthralled you that he has become a sort of happy obsession.
Francesco Rognoni (FR): It’s definitely an obsession, but I don't know if I’d call it a happy one! Both translations, however, arose from publishing opportunities; they were, I would almost say, “commissioned.” During my years as a student at Yale University, I had been very taken by English Romantic poetry under the guidance of the late author and literary critic Professor Harold Bloom and other experts. Thus, as soon as I returned to Italy, I had proposed to the Italian publishing house Einaudi a translation his The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts but Pietro Gelli and Guido Davico Bonino soon realized that they had no works by Shelley in their catalog and offered me a counter-proposal to prepare a large anthology, which I accepted. That said, after having devoted many years - and in diverse “eras” of my life - to translating and commenting on Shelley, I must say that my relationship with him by now has inevitably become one of love-hate!
PG: Let's turn to the poet's relationship with the Euganean Hills: can we consider Shelley (along with his friend Byron) the initiator of the Grand Tour custom that made visits to Petrarch's tomb and house in Arquà required stops?
FR: I think the custom was well established even in the 1700s. Let us say that Shelley and Byron revived it after the interlude of the Napoleonic wars, during which the traditional Grand Tour of Europe had been “suspended” for reasons of force majeure.
PG: In this regard, could you tell me what the figure of Petrarch represented for both Shelley and Byron?
PG: For both, Petrarch was, of course, a great poet - but less significant, less inescapable than Dante. Byron lavishes great praise on him in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, his most “romantic” work; but in diaries and letters - and in Don Juan, his masterpiece - the jibes are more frequent than the appreciations. Before Byron had set foot in Italy, he had described the sonnet as “the most stentorian, paralysing, the most stupidly platonic kind of compositions,” stating soon afterward, "I detest the Petrarch so much, that I would not be the man even to have obtained his Laura, which the metaphysical, whining dotard never could" (Diary, 18 December 1813). But even after visiting (more than once!) Petrarch's tomb, he will not be willing to be too enchanted: in Don Juan, the least “Petrarchan” poem imaginable, Petrarch is referred to as “the Platonic pimp of all posterity,” and his monotonous productivity is seen as directly proportional to the “unavailability” of women: “Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch's wife, / He would have written sonnets all his life?” (Canto V, st. I and VIII). Shelley - who, unlike Byron, loved the sonnet form and wrote some beautiful ones - found a connection with Petrarch. In his book entitled A Defense of Poetry, he says that Petrarch's verses “are as spells, which unseal the inmost enchanted foundations of the delight which is in the grief of love. It is impossible to feel them without becoming a portion of that beauty which we contemplate” (but he also, immediately afterwards, says that “Dante understood the secrets things of love even more than Petrarch”).
PG: Two months were enough for Shelley to take possession of the morphological and geological peculiarities of this eccentric and original hilly area: the “islands in bloom” seen from the lagoon and the volcanism (“these mountains seemed to tower as from burning waves”). Does all this stem from the famous rides on the beaches of the Lido and, I imagine, along the Euganean paths? Is it the fruit of poetry en plein air? What else about this landscape may have intrigued the poet?
FR: I would say that your question already contains its answer. Shelley lived in an “accelerated” manner: he read, wrote, married, traveled, and ate faster than the rest of us (partly because he was a vegetarian and actually ate very little!). And yes, he loved doing all of these things (and more) en plein air; and in this way he immediately entered into communication with the genius loci, which revealed to him the secrets of his place!
PG: And to close then, let's come to his stay at the villa in Este rented by Byron: a complicated and uneasy entanglement among the guests of that Euganean holiday, if we think about the rather difficult relations between some of them, along with Byron in the background. How would you recount this brief but exciting experience?
FR: You are quite right, it’s a complicated story. Among the reasons for Shelley's trip to Italy in the spring of 1818 was to bring to his father Allegra, the child Byron had had from his reluctant affair with Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley's half-sister (therefore sister-in-law, and perhaps Shelley's occasional mistress): a loveless affair that began in London, and consummated in the famous summer of 1816, on the shores of Lake Geneva -where, while Claire was being impregnated by Byron (but perhaps it had already happened in London), Mary was conceiving her book Frankenstein. Unfortunately, along with the child, Byron had soon also developed a terrible aversion to the mother. Therefore, when Allegra was born on 17 January 1817 in Bath, England he declared that he was willing to recognise and raise her, but without - I don’t mean marrying or even living - ever seeing Claire again.
As I mentioned, Shelley's trip to Italy had as its first motivation that of taking Allegra to Byron. At first, the Shelleys hoped that Byron, who had been living all too happily in Venice for the past year and a half, would come to his senses and join them on Lake Como; then they have to resign themselves to the fact that the Lord is serious, he wants to take the child (also to compensate for the loss of his legitimate daughter, Ada, after his separation from his wife), but wants nothing to do with her mother. Therefore - and against Shelley’s advice, who put natural affections before the supposed advantages of a noble title - Claire decides to turn over the child to Byron, complete with a nursemaid, entrusting her to the trustworthy man Byron had sent to Como to collect her. So the Shelleys moved to Tuscany, with the intention of spending the winter in Rome or Naples. Veneto, well, was not on the agenda.
But after only three months it becomes clear that Claire cannot cope with such unnatural deprivation, also because rather alarming news arrives from Venice about Allegra's health and mood. At this point - we are in the second half of August - Shelley and Claire, leaving Mary with their two young children and servants in Bagni di Lucca, set off for Venice. The idea is to ask Byron's permission for Allegra to follow the “maternal” family to Florence, at least for that autumn; Byron's counterproposal that the entire group - except for himself, of course, who is obviously incompatible with Claire - take a holiday at his villa in Este called “I Cappuccini” for a week that will extend until the end of October. The “holiday” will bear magnificent fruits (Shelley will not only begin in Este the poems aforementioned, but also Prometheus Unbound), but also, indirectly, be the cause of a personal tragedy: Clara, the Shelleys’ youngest daughter, a baby just over a year old, will fall ill during the very tiring journey from Bagni di Lucca to Este and will die a few weeks later, in Venice, where she had been taken in a last desperate attempt for medical treatment.
Translated by Amy K. Rosenthal
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Images by the Francesco Petrarca Literary Park
“Se solo potessi mostrarti il secondo Elicona che per te e le Muse ho allestito sui Colli Euganei, penso proprio che di lì non vorresti mai più andartene”. Francesco Petrarca, Epistole varie, 46, a Moggio Moggi di Parma (20 giugno 1369)