When Bysshe and the others didn’t return when they should have, Mary and Jane Williams grew ever more frantic. They went to Livorno, where they found that Ariel had indeed sailed that day. It wasn’t until July 18 that Trelawny learned that bodies had washed ashore at Viareggio, about thirty miles south of Casa Magni, about eighty miles north of Livorno.
No one’s entirely certain what happened. There was a sudden storm that sent experienced sailors to the nearest port. Bysshe and the others were not experienced—and Bysshe could not swim (as I’ve said). The boat capsized—and there would be questions about the stability of its design, then and now—and no one survived. That’s about all we know. Later, the boat was discovered, raised, sailed again by others.
Trelawny had the horrible task of telling Mary and Jane that their husbands were dead. There’s really no information about the family of the boy Charles Vivian who’d died, as well. Trelawny escorted the widows to Pisa, where they stayed with Byron while Trelawny sorted things out.
Local laws mandated a cremation on the beach, and Trelawny arranged it all. It occurred on August 15, a week after the discovery of the bodies, bodies that were badly damaged by their time in the Gulf of Spezia. Biographer Richard Holmes is graphic: The exposed flesh of Shelley’s’ arms and face had been entirely eaten away …. According to local law, again, the bodies were buried in quicklime in the sand until such time as the survivors could arrange a cremation.
Bysshe’s identity was confirmed by his clothing—and by a book they found in his pocket—a copy of Keats’ poems.
On Saturday, April 24, 1999, I took a train from Pisa to Viareggio, a short ride of about fourteen miles north along the coast. Here’s a bit from my journal about my beach visit:
Viareggio is very developed, a resort town w/ all that’s associated. There is a nice, long promenade, all of which I walked in a vain search for beach Il Bambo. Oh well, I got some good shots of the waterfront, where I saw fishermen selling their catch, & the beach—which was the whole point, I guess.
So, I didn’t find the exact spot where the bodies washed up. Then, just recently, I checked the Web, where, of course, I found that there’s a monument to Shelley near the beach. It’s been there since 1894. From what I can tell from the map, I was very near it. But didn’t see. And obviously didn’t even know it was there! (Hmmm, anyone see a metaphor here?)
Pictures from that 1999 visit to Viareggio ...