Florence’s Protestant Cemetery Needs Help....

by Philip Henderson, Mulino dell’Opera, Near Bagni di Lucca

Known generally as The English Cemetery, this oval graveyard is in the Piazzale Donatello, north east of the Duomo, some 500 metres or so along the Via di Pinti. It contains about 700 tombs of some 1400 burials, most dating from the latter half of the 19th century, some 50% are English people of varying fame; the rest include Swiss, Americans and Russians - indeed a whole assortment of nationalities. Unquestionably the most famous grave is that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who died in Florence in 1861 aged 55, but she is not the only famous English writer lying there – others of importance include Arthur Hugh Clough, Walter Savage Landor, Fanny Trollope (Anthony’s mother) and her daughter-in-law Theodosia Garrow Trollope and Isa Blagden. Other graves associated with internationally famous people are those, for example, of Holman Hunt’s young wife Fanny, Dr William Somerville (Mary Somerville’s husband) as well as Shakespeare’s last known descendents. Some graves are adorned with sculptures by important artists, not least by Holman Hunt for his wife and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope for his daughter. Sir Robert Keith Arbuthnot, 2nd Bt lies here.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Tomb
(designed by Frederick Leighton)

The graveyard, for reasons that are somewhat obscure, was purchased from the Grand Duke in 1827 by the Chiesa Evangelica Riformata Svizzera and for the last century and a bit, they have cared for it. However in 2000, they had to raise half a million Euros to repair the wall and, not being permitted by the Comune to bury people – other than their ashes – in the cemetery, the cost has become too much. It was therefore recommended in 2005 that it be closed and abandoned. To anyone with even a vestige of appreciation of Victorian history, artists poets and writers, such a thought should be unthinkable. But in order for the cemetery, which today is somewhat derelict, to be restored and ‘kept alive’, it needs money – in the short term, at least Euros 300,000 – and effort so to put pressure on innumerable societies/government ministries across the world to urge them to spend the money to restore the graves of at least their most important patriots buried here; some monuments are now in such disarray that they are collapsing, thereby putting visitors at risk.

Julia Bolton Holloway of the Aureo Anello Society, an indefatigable lady who edited Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Julian of Norwich, has already martialled a formidable array of ‘guns’ to avert the closure, including Andrew Motion (the Poet Laureate), Timothy Wilson of the Ashmolean Museum, Lady Lucinda Lambton and Sir Roy Strong, in addition to the various "Browning’s Societies and Foundations" that exist - she has hopes of its becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Notwithstanding, the tangible support of the public at large – not least British expats and visitors to Tuscany – will play a significant role in bringing the site back to what it should be; one is reminded of Sam Wanamaker and London’s ‘new’ Globe Theatre. This cemetery contains an important element in the history of our countries – both Italy and Great Britain especially - and it would be tragic if for want of just a little effort, it was to be lost. Sister Julia has got together a number of items of interest – e.g hand-crafted limited editions of Elizabeth’s Ballads and Sonnets – available for people to acquire in exchange for a donation for the benefit of the cemetery, as well as her organizing specific events to raise the requisite funds.

However at the end of the day, one either believes these monuments to our past are important and that is incentive enough for us to help – or one doesn’t. And if you are of the latter camp, you have my sympathy…

Should you wish to assist in this vital endeavour, please contact: Julia Bolton Holloway at: juliana@tin.it or The ‘English’ Cemetery, Piazzale Donatello 38, 50132 FIRENZE, ITALY or Timothy Collins at the Cemetery or on: 0044 1732 867745; e-mail: cllnsmthy@aol.com ; or, if really pushed me at: philiphe@interfree.it   For details of the appeal and its progress, please read: http://piazzaledonatello.blogspot.com