On 16 August 1822, it took Lord George Byron, his friend Edward Trelawny, a gaggle of Tuscan soldiers and a local health official an hour to find the spot on the beach near Viareggio where Percy Bysshe Shelley’s corpse had been left two weeks before in the burning yellow sand.They started to dig it out. It was the dull thud of a mattock on the skull that first uncovered the body, a dark indigo blue from the lime that had been spread during the temporary burial to arrest decomposition. The limbs and the trunk were still in one entire piece, and the whole was lifted into the iron-furnace, specially ordered for the occasion by Trelawny in Leghorn (today’s Livorno), and could then be manoeuvred into position rather awkwardly on its poles.
The improvised pyre was made from the timber of wrecks left on the beach and pine from the local forest. Once the fire was applied, the wine, oil and salt with which they had coated Shelley’s remains, and the pine resin, made the flames quiver in the wavy glare of the heat. Because the head was resting on the red-hot iron at the base, the brains, Trelawny wrote in his description, ‘literally seethed, bubbled and boiled’.But as the body fell open he was able to snatch the heart from the fire undamaged. For Byron it was all too much. He often wrote about agonizing scenes in his poetry, but the actuality always reduced him to an abject pity that he was not always successful at controlling or hiding. On this, the most famous of all such incidents, he took himself into the sea and swam away from the shoreline, as he had once swum across the Bosphorus, with large, powerful strokes and the club foot that moved better in the water than on the land, while watching the gleaming outline of the Apennines in the distance. It was a searing-hot day.
Relics from the burning of Shelley’s corpse later became a cause célèbre, with claims attached to locks of hair and splinters of bone; the cremation became a source of mythology in its own right. But the heart was naturally the most discussed item. Byron had taken it to the widow, Mary Shelley, wrapped in black silk, and many wrongly believed that it was included in the long-delayed interment along with the ashes in Rome’s Cimitero degli inglesi in January 1823 (all such non-Catholic ceremonies had, by local regulation, to take place in time of darkness). In fact Mary Shelley had taken the heart back to England with her when, the previous July, she had departed Italy after the tragedy, ‘truly iced’, as she put it, in her own heart. One story went that once at home she would take the organ around with her.
What happened to the heart in the end nobody knows, though there was a rumour that it disappeared when Mary’s home in Chelsea was burgled. She and her son certainly did not have it with them when they made their only visit to Percy’s grave in 1843. By then the site had already become a place of cultural pilgrimage, especially for British and American travellers in Rome who were pleased, as one writer remarks, to have a respite from all the classicism and Catholicism of the Holy City, the poignancy enhanced by the proximity of Shelley’s spot to the final resting place of John Keats. The nook was then quiet and attractively rustic, rather than the rather dusty and well-trodden place that it became in later years. When one future poet laureate, Alfred Austen, was there in 1863 the tomb was already covered in lichen and grass, and he had to tidy it up. Today the cemetery borders a road junction heaving with suburban traffic and with a bustling metro station close by.
We shall return later to Percy Shelley’s drowning in the Bay of Spezia on one of his beloved yachts – water fascinated him both in nature and as a metaphor of the human condition – as well as the rather gruesome aftermath of a necessarily improvised cremation. But if there was a totemic moment in the history of the Anglo-Mediterranean cultural encounter, this was it; even, it seemed in long retrospect, the quintessential embodiment of English Romanticism. It is certainly hard to think of any comparable event touching the same chord in the canon of British culture, including its global outreach. The death of Byron himself in Greece two years later did not come to resonate in the same way, for reasons we shall discuss. The effect came about not only because of who Shelley was – he was detested by many of his own countrymen as a revolutionary and an atheist far more than he was ever admired in his lifetime – but because of where the event occurred, and how it relates to a quasi-sanctification occupied by the Mediterranean in British life.
Robert Holland is one of the world’s leading historians of the Mediterranean. He is visiting professor at the Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College London.