Previous post on this walk: From the Duomo to the Isle of the Dead. Before continuing on, a little context might be helpful.
The nineteenth century saw Florence flooded with English and American visitors. The Royal Hotel de L’Arno, which abutted Borgo Santi Apostoli, hosted Dickens, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Charles Swinburne, among others. (the current hotel Portrait Firenze is built on the L’Arno’s site).
Many chose to stay and live in the city. Americans who stayed months or years include writers Henry James, Mark Twain, James Fennimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the sculptor Hiram Powers, and the Transcendentalist, abolitionist, minister, Theodore Parker (whose words are quoted by social activists to this day). British residents included Frances Trollope (a novelist and travel writer; she was also the mother of Anthony Trollope), writer and poet Walter Savage Landor, poet Arthur Hugh Clough, and the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt. The Anglo-American community in Florence was large enough to support shops and services devoted just to expatriates.
Perhaps the most famous of the English residents of Florence at the time would be poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who lived in Florence shortly after their elopement. The lived in a few flats, but their longest stay was in an apartment, the piano nobile or main floor, of the 15th century Casa Guidi, a house in Piazza San Felice very near the Palazzo Pitti. The couple spent their time in Florence writing, touring, and holding salons, at which they would entertain friends. Their only child, Pen, was born here. The Brownings lived here for 14 years until Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death. A year after her death, Browning returned to England. Casa Guidi is now a museum and the headquarters for the Robert Browning Society. For more on the Brownings in Florence, please see this link.
When Elizabeth Barrett Browning passed, she was buried in Cimitero degli inglesi, which is kind of a misnomer. “The English Cemetery” is Swiss, and it’s actually called the Cimitero Protestante. It’s called “English” as the majority of its occupants were British and American. The Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church founded the cemetery in 1827. Originally located outside of the city’s limits (Protestants and Jews weren’t permitted burial within the city), the cemetery was closed when those city limits changed to include the property in 1877. It’s now re-opened for visitors and for cremated remains.
The cemetery is on an island, literally–a hill within a traffic circle—the Piazzale Donatello—which is part of a major road. At first view from across the street, densely-packed poplars soar into the air and call to mind quite a famous painting (more later). Crossing that road via crosswalk is safe enough, but don’t try to dodge between vehicles as a short cut.
The main entrance is through an arched gate; a main pavement leads your through, with trail branches squirreling throughout the property.
At rest here along with Barrett Browning are Walter Savage Landor, Arthur Hugh Clough, Frances Trollope, Fanny, wife of William Holman Hunt, and Theodore Parker.
Some of the tombs and gravestones are well-tended, while others—such as Walter Savage Landor’s (center tomb, by the base of a tree) don’t seem to be in the best shape. I felt a bit bad for Landor, really. His tomb is pretty much inaccessible. You have to lean way over from the walkway and squint to make out his name.
I was a bit warm from walking here, and the gravel underfoot didn’t feel great, but it was a beautifully sunny day, which is probably a good thing.
Some of the monuments are on the creepy side.
The Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) lived in Florence for a while; his studio stood near the cemetery, where his small daughter had been interred. It’s a general assumption that the cemetery provided Böcklin’s inspiration (or one of the inspirations) for his painting Die Toteninsel (The Isle of the Dead).
Böcklin initially called the work a “dream painting;” an American widow, Marie Berna, saw an incomplete version of the painting and commissioned Böcklin to finish it—with the addition of a few figures–as a memorial to her late husband. Ultimately, Böcklin created five versions of this scene; you can view this, the first version, in the Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland.
If you have any questions or corrections, please let me know in the comments!