A Shelley Haunt
— Certainly, memories and mosses are more decorative to a house than turrets or marble facings, and no one will deny that the association of a poet’s name confers charm upon any home. It may not be amiss to describe our summer abode, in which Percy Bysshe Shelley, with his Mary, spent three months of 1818.
Bagni di Lucca, nestling in the green valley of the Lima in one of the most fertile parts of Tuscany, has been for several hundred years a favorite health and pleasure resort, so that it can boast a long list of distinguished visitors. The names of Byron, Landor, Browning, and many another great man are associated with its leafy ways, and memories of Malibran and Catalani cling to the old ducal palace on the hill. The place, like an antiquated belle, remembers past triumphs and grandeur, days when the Dukes of Lucca and the Grand Dukes of Tuscany held court here, and wealthy foreigners came in their carriages to spend the summer. In more than one garret, tattered old sedan-chairs point back to a time when powdered, jeweled beauties were carried up to Her Highness’s balls at the Bagni Caldi, while the generous scale on which all the houses are built indicates a provision for large retinues of servants in every family. Now, with our quicker means of transit, the rich who winter in Rome and Florence go on to .Switzerland and the Tyrol ; and Bagni di Lucca, with its boast of decayed gentility, is left for families who need to economize and for the omnipresent British old maid. The Bagni is composed of three villages, each one with mineral water bathing establishments; two of them, Ponte Seraglio and the Villa, lie a mile apart along the banks of the river, and the third, Bagni Caldi, is perched high on the hillside.
Shelley’s house, overlooking the Villa and on the way to the Bagni Caldi, is too much out of the way to be popular with those who wish for gay summers. Passers stop to look at the big hydrangeas blooming in the tiny sloping garden before it, but grass grows thickly on the path and between the steps which lead up to the narrow arched doorway, and, pronouncing it a “ moated grange,” they go on by. The house itself seems more like an asylum for old ladies. Eighteen windows on the front without shutters (like lidless eyes) give it a staring look, and one must enter to understand why a poet should have chosen the place. It is explained when one issues at the back into a garden fit to revel and to dream in. Masses of jessamine hang over the doorway, and there is a big cool well at the kitchen window. Growing geraniums and lemon-trees are set along the side nearest the house, but the rest of the garden is a broad grassy esplanade, shaded densely by beautiful plane-trees, and seeming to be almost suspended over space. To separate it from the vineyards of the upper mountain slope are a few tall yellow lilies and straggling monthlies, and on the valley side is a dainty hedge of canes, overrun with roses and a grapevine, whose leaves and tendrils gleam green and golden against a background of “ vaporous amethyst.” Lying here in the cool shade, the murmur of the flowing river below floats up to the ear, and the eye dreamily rests on meadow, hillside, and purple height lovely enough to have inspired lines like those written in the Euganean hills. But Shelley was here with a doctor’s warning against the excitement of composition ; so he read Ariosto with Mary and Claire Clairmont, bathed daily in a rushing mountain torrent, and took long rides in the dewy mornings and evenings, absorbing beauty for coming days. In his letters from hereto the Gisborncs and to Peacock, we find reflections of this pleasant life. He says in one letter : “ I take great delight in watching the changes of the atmosphere here, and the growth of the thunder-showers with which the noon is often overshadowed, and which fade away towards evening into flocks of delicate clouds. Our fire-flies are fading away fast ; but there is the planet Jupiter, who rises majestically over the rift in the forest-covered mountains to the south, and the pale summer lightning which is spread out every night, at intervals, over the sky. No doubt Providence has contrived these things, that, when the fire-flies go out, the low-flying owl may see her way home.” In another letter he describes the clear pool and spraying waterfall of his forest bath, where, sitting undressed on “ the rocks to cool off before an icy plunge,” he was accustomed to read Herodotus. While rejoicing in the radiance of the stars, “ the finely woven webs of vapor ” and the growing richness of the chestnut woods, he found time to translate Plato’s Symposium and the Phæedrus, began a Discourse of the Manners of the Ancients relative to the Subject of Love, and, “ to please Mary,” finished Rosalind and Helen.
The interior of this Shelley house is cut up into many small rooms, all frescoed those vivid blues and greens and yellows that seem a specialty of the Bagni, and the drawing-room is furnished with terrible cockney furniture which it is to be hoped the Shelleys never saw. Upstairs, however, is a big garret to go to one’s heart. The dark beams and rafters have never been ceiled, and the walls are only roughly plastered ; but it is hung closely with old-time paintings which formed my delighted amusement in days when Shelley was only a name to me. There are long, narrow landscapes made brilliant in the foreground by sections of watermelon so enormous that they dwarf mountains and towers ; portraits of slim - waisted rouged ladies, and ruffled ancestors, and, most fascinating of all, realistic Bible scenes. In one of these, God the Father, attired in a long blue dressing-gown, is feeling Adam’s head, while Eve, a bold, brazen - faced hussy, stands by with arms folded and an expression of cool indifference. In another, Potiphar’s naughty wife has a firm grip on the scarlet coat of flying Joseph ; and a vis à vis of this shows Joseph’s brethren holding up a disreputable pair of bathingdrawers before the weeping father.
Fortunately, the landlady who brought, this place as dowry to her husband is of too saving a disposition to alter house or furniture, so year after year we find its delicious ugliness untouched ; and the gilt still clinging to the clumsy bedsteads, the cracking inlaid table, and the stained Bartolozzi print remind us that
Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
And hold in mortmain still their old estates.
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through, those earthly mists and vapors dense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.”