One night before sleep, I decided that I’d find the English Cemetery in Florence the following day. That decision was a total whim–I knew Elizabeth Barrett Browning was buried there, but that was all I knew. It turns out, however, it was one of my most rewarding journeys around Florence.
From Piazza del Duomo , turn onto Via dei Servi at the restaurant Le Botteghe di Donatello. Travel a few blocks down. The streets are lined with palazzos—many housing restaurants, cafes, and leather shops. Don’t forget to look up, or to pause at each street corner to take in a fuller view of these spectacular buildings—many are richly decorated, and there’s a good variety in architectural styles. Also be sure to check out the walls at street corners for family heralds, religious icons, and other such items.
You’ll soon see the road ends in a piazza. This is Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. It’s claimed that this piazza is the first Renaissance square in the world.
The first thing you’ll meet in the square is the equestrian monument to Ferninando I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1587 to 1609. Nearby are two fountains decorated with creatures that look like a cross between a gargoyle and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The piazza’s real treasures are the elegantly arched buildings that border it. On the right is the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents, originally an orphanage). It was built in the 15th century according to plans designed by Brunnesleschi (the man who designed the Duomo’s dome). Look above the arches for a series of medallions (or tondi–a “tondo” is a round work of art). Andrea della Robbia, the great Florentine ceramics artist, created these reliefs of babies (possibly Jesus Christ) in swaddling clothes. A few of the medallions are later replicas but several are original Della Robbias.
To the right of the hospital is Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, which was built in the 15th century. It was renovated in the 17th century. Directly across from the hospital is the Loggia dei Servi di Maria (1516-25). Both structures were designed or renovated to mirror Brunelleschi’s design for the hospital.
Just around the corner is the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze, which inhabits Palazzo della Crocetta (17th century). It’s an excellent place to discover Etruscan art (including the fabulous bronze Chimera of Arezzo—created in 400 BC). The museum also houses collections of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian antiquities.
From the front of the hospital, travel straight down Via Gino Capponi. Capponi, a member of one of Florence’s ancient and influential families, was a 19th century statesman and historian. His tomb is within the Basilica Santa Croce alongside other notable Florentines. The street named for him passes several educational institutions, gardens, and grand palazzos.
After leaving the piazza, one of the first remarkable things to see is the 16th century Oratory of San Pierino. It’s on the right, and you can recognize it from the terracotta lunette above the door. Continue down. On the corner of Via Gino Capponi and Via Giuseppe Giusti, find Casa Andrea del Sarto. The painter, a contemporary of da Vinci and Michelangelo, built the house in 1520. Del Sarto, perhaps not widely known today, was called “unerring” or “faultless” in his lifetime. Robert Browning wrote one of his dramatic monologues from del Sarto’s point of view. Between 1847 and 1861, Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived in Florence (in an apartment near Palazzo Pitti). He returned to England after her death.
Continuing on, between gardens and palazzos, there are several plaques noting artists who lived on this street; the writer Giuseppe Giusti and composer Giulio Romolo Caccini are memorialized within a block of each other. Actor Tommaso Salvini’s plaque is on the left near the end of the street.
The Palazzo Capponi, the grand, Baroque home of Gino Capponi where he hosted numerous luminaries, lies across from a botanical garden, Giardino dei Semplici (Garden of Simples), which began under the direction of the Grand Duke, Cosimo I. Also facing the garden, but on Via Pier Antonio Micheli, is Palazzo di San Clemente it was built in the 16th century, remodeled in the 17th. On the wall of the house on Via Gino Capponi is a small bas relief of the Madonna and child. A bit further down the street, and you’ll see, on your left, a small bas-relief of Jesus Christ above a small, small door at the site of La chiesa della Capponcina.
At Viale Giacomo Matteotti—a major thoroughfare—turn right. Continue past the sculpture of a small dog. Continue down, past some rather nondescript buildings. Where the Viale becomes Piazzale Donatello, you’ll come across a garden gate, and it looks like it will lead to a fabulous garden. It’s Ghiardino della Gherardesca, but you’re only permitted entry if you’re a patron of the Four Seasons Hotel.
At Via Vittorio Alfieri, cross the two portions of the walk across the Piazzale’s traffic. Enter the Cimitero degli inglesi-Firenze (the English Cemetery), the resting place for several British writers and major influence on Arnold Böcklin’s famous painting Isle of the Dead (1880). The next post will focus on the cemetery.