Shelley’s Perfect Villa

By Louise De Salvo

Casa Magni, Internet Archive Book Images - courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As the critic Louise De Salvo sold the house in Montclair, New Jersey where she’d raised her children, and moved into her dream home, she expected to find happiness.  Instead she felt confusion, sadness and nostalgia for the cramped rooms she’d  left behind.  De Salvo turned to other writers to make sense of her experience, exploring Virginia Woolf’s many attempts to return to London after enduring a depression in the countryside; Mark Doty’s relief when his lover, dying of AIDS, sold the house they’d renovated and moved into a new one to say goodbye; and Percy Busshe Shelley’s search for the perfect Italian villa—an obsession that came at a stunning cost to him and to his family.   The following is an excerpt from de Salvo’s book, On Moving:  A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts and Finding Home Again (Bloomsbury, 2009).  

When the poet Percy Shelley was living in exile in Italy he wrote the Epipsychidion, a poem describing a house that appeared to him in a dream, the quintessential poem about a dream house.

 

The isle and house are mine, and I have vowed                                                                            Thee to be Lady of the solitude—                                                                                                    And I have fitted up some chambers there                                                                              Looking towards the golden Eastern air                                                                                          And  level with the living winds, which flow.                                                                                  Like waves above the living waves below.

 

The house in this dream had everything Shelley desired. It was far from the political upheaval that plagued him in England. It was a solitary place in a remote location where a woman—his wife Mary? A lover?—could dwell with him; it was set in an area of profound and wild natural beauty; it was located on a body of water where Shelley could launch a sailboat to journey toward the proverbial east.

Shelley believed any house he lived in profoundly affected his spirit, his health, and his work.  “Who lives in my house in Marlow now?” he wondered. “I am seriously persuaded that the situation was injurious to my health.” He believed in the power of the house’s aura, that a house could cure him or contaminate him. He thought that living in the right house would change him without any effort on his part.

In England, Shelley’s health was poor and he was deeply depressed; he blamed his ills on living there, on “the smoke of cities, and the tumult of human kind, on the chilling fogs and rain.”

Shelley believed that moving to Italy would change everything.  “Health, competence, tranquility,” he wrote a friend “all these Italy permits, and England takes away.”  His chief pleasure in life was “the contemplation of nature” and Italy’s natural beauty would satisfy him as no other place could.

Before long reality intruded on Shelley’s fantasy of Italy’s curative powers. In his first summer in Bagni di Lucca, Shelley admitted having “busy thoughts and dispiriting cares” he wished he could shake off, but he couldn’t.  In Naples, he described “depression enough of spirits and not good health,” though he still clung to the fantasy that “the warm air” of the city was beneficial.

Sometimes Shelley acknowledged that Italy alone wasn’t a cure-all, that you must “find your happiness in yourself” for it to be “a most delightful and commodious place.” Still he reverted to his belief that Italy was salubrious and ignored the real dangers facing his family.

Italy claimed the lives of four children and Shelley’s extended family. His son, William, died in Rome of malaria; his sister-in-law Claire Clairmont’s daughter, Allegra, in the convent she was consigned to at Bagnicavallo, of typhus or malaria; his ward Elena left in the care of foster parents in Naples; his daughter Clara after suffering convulsions in Venice. In a rare admission, Shelley attributed Clara’s death to a “disorder peculiar to the climate.”  Nevertheless, he maintained that if only he could find the right place in Italy—Naples perhaps because of its warmth?—all would be well.

In 1822, when Shelley heard about Casa Magni on the Bay of Lerici in the gulf of Spezia, he believed he found the place that had appeared to him in his dream. He believed that living there would finally reverse his bad fortune—he was still short of money—and that he would at last find peace and solitude.

 

Posthumous portrait of Shelley, writing Prometheus Unbound.

Casa Magni was a white stucco house with a wide loggia and seven open arches standing close to the sea. The Shelley clan moved into the house in April 1822.  Richard Holmes, Shelley’s biographer, describes it as the least hospitable house one could imagine, especially ill-suited to the Shelly household. It was far too small for the Shelly clan and their friends the Williamsons, who joined them in May, having arrived in Lerici without accommodation, desperate for a place to stay. It contained only three habitable rooms for the five adults and three children. Food, household supplies, and mail had to be ferried from a distance. Mary was expecting and there was no doctor nearby. And it was dangerously close to the sea. The “howling wind” seemed to be ever present, and the city “roared unremittingly.”  A visitor remarked it was nearly impossible to sleep on nights when there were rough seas—the sound of the swells breaking on the beach sounded “like the discharge of heavy artillery.”

Moving to Casa Magni, even for the spring and summer, made no sense. But Shelley’s desire to inhabit his presumed dream house distorted his capacity to assess what his family needed. The house was in that wild and out-of-the-way place inhabited by a handful of fisherfolk Shelley yearned for. And there was the “divine bay” just beyond the house where Shelley could sail.

But Mary despised the place from the first. Although she did not insist they leave, she was pregnant, ill, and unhappy. She called it “a dungeon,” feared what might happen there and warned a friend to stay away.

Quite possibly her foreboding was exacerbated by Shelley flirting with Williams’s wife. Shelley enjoyed their joint household; he believed they were living “so intimately, so happily.” Mary had always wanted a more conventional life with Shelley, apart from hangers on. At Casa Magni, she chafed at Shelley’s insistence on having an extended household of like-minded friends and women Shelley could dazzle.  After Shelly’s death, Mary would write, “No words can tell you how I hated our house and the country around it.”

The sea that Shelley believed would always be benign finally claimed him. His boat foundered in heavy seas; it filled with water and sank. Ten days later his body washed up on the beach at Viareggio.

In one of his last letters from Casa Magni Shelly wrote, “My boat is swift and beautiful…we drive along this delightful day in the evening winds, under the summer moon, until the Earth appears another world.”

Engraving, Bay of Spezia, 1877. Fifty-five years after Shelley's death.

Louise A. DeSalvo (1942-2018) was was also a renowned Virginia Woolf scholar who taught memoir writing as a part of CUNY Hunter College‘s MFA Program in Creative Writing. DeSalvo’s publications include the memoir, Vertigo, which received the Gay Talese award and was a finalist for Italy’s Primo Acerbi prize for literature. DeSalvo has also given us a memoir, Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family, and Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.

Our thanks to Bloomsbury Books for permission to reprint this excerpt from Louise De Salvo’s book On Moving.

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