Curators' Blog

Horsham Italia

This Easter weekend sees the town open its arms to all things Italian at the annual Piazza Italia event.

One of the key historic links between Horsham and Italy comes via our town’s beloved, home-grown literary giant, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in Warnham, Sussex and his father Sir Timothy Shelley was MP for Horsham from 1790-92. He gained fame as a romantic poet early in life, and was a proponent of the “free love” movement.

In 1822 Shelley and his wife, renowned author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, were living at Lerici, on the North West coast of Italy, and Shelley had bought a boat to sail in with his friend Edward Williams. On 8 July, on a hot summer’s day, Williams and Shelley set out to sea and were caught in a sudden storm. Their bodies were recovered several days later and cremated on the beach. Shelley’s ashes were later buried at the Protestant Cemetery at Rome, not far from the pyramid of Caius Cestius; his heart was rescued from the flames and kept by his widow Mary. It was buried with her when she died in 1851.

An Italian coastal scene with a view of the Castle at Lerici in the Bay of Spezia, painted on glass by Lady Shelley, c.1860s. Lady Shelley was the wife of Percy Florence Shelley, the son of Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley

Print of a painting of Shelley’s grave in Rome, Italy by William Bell Scott, HMAG 1998.2658

Did you know that Horsham was twinned with that fateful town, Lerici, in the 1990s? Ultimately it was decided by the council not to expand on the link and continue with a formal twinning, but the paperwork and agreements still exist. Interestingly, whilst Horsham’s twinning association do not appear to promote the “almost” twinning with Lerici, it is still listed on many websites and article online.

Plaque presented by twin town Lerici, Italy to Horsham District Council; town’s coat of arms printed in colour on a lustre background; shows a shield with a tree with castle turret over, wreath of leaves and scroll with motto underneath; text below on separate plaque underneath ‘Gemellaggio Lerici – Horsham 24 Settembre 1995’. HMAG 2013.121

Plaque presented by twin town Lerici and San Terenzo, Italy to Horsham District Council; mirror with gold decoration and text in Italian; text ‘Comune Di Lerici’ over the town coat of arms; two small pictures with text underneath ‘Lerici’ and ‘San Terenzo’; ‘Gemellagion Con Horsham il consiglio comunale – 1994’, HMAG 2013.120

A party from Lerici actually came to Horsham for the opening of The Shelley Fountain with the mayor of the Italian town describing the (ultimately doomed) sculpture as ‘very brave’. More than 4000 people came to Horsham’s town centre to see the opening of the Shelley Fountain, with a further 3500 people coming to a specially organised temporary visitor desk nearby. The opening of the fountain received widespread coverage in the media.

The fountain is no more, having been dismantled in 2016, but those who want to learn more about Shelley and his time in Italy can come to the Museum’s dedicated Shelley gallery to learn more.

The Shelley Fountain.

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