If you’ve driven along the viali, Florence’s ring roads, chances are you’ve skirted the English Cemetery or “Cimitero degli Inglesi” near piazzale Donatello; what is now a small island of land of ovoid form that is quite literally a traffic island was initially a plot just outside the city walls. Answering the needs of a growing international population at the start of the 19th century, the English Cemetery in Florence welcomed non-Christians and anyone who could not be buried in a Catholic cemetery, including Protestants, Anglicans and the Orthodox but also suicides, atheists, slaves and paupers. As such, it makes for a most interesting visit, accompanied by the guide written by the cemetery’s guardian, sister and Professor Julia Bolton Holloway.

English cemetary in florence

The English Cemetary in Florence, May 1, 2022. All photos by Alexandra Korey.

Strangely enough, in my over twenty years in the city, I’d never made a point of visiting this cemetery! Upon hearing rather last minute of a special opening and tour by the volunteer association Angeli del Bello, I grabbed two spots and visited with my mother in law, an aficionado of English literature. The occasion was made even more special by the flowering of the thousands of purple irises that cover the entire space, so I’d suggest that this might be the best time of year to visit.

The cemetery, as I mentioned, was created at a time when Florence was an important stop on the Grand Tour and many foreigners made the city and the surrounding hills their home. It was actually the Swiss church, not an English one, that acquired this plot of land in 1827 and made it available to literally anyone. Before this, the bodies of foreigners who died in Florence had to be transported at great expense to the nearest non-Catholic cemetary in Livorno, the port city that had a large multicultural community.

The cemetery had a rather short life marked by some important changes. In 1858, the then King of Prussia asked to visit, so the central pathway was created for greater décor, and in appreciation, he gifted the column that now provides a focal point for the entry. In the 1860s, you’ve probably heard of Giuseppe Poggi, the architect tasked with bringing Florence up to par to become the capital of Italy; at this time he demolished the walls that delimited the city, leaving some strategic porte or gates as memory. These are the modern-day viali or ring roads that, in our case, encircle the cemetery. Then in 1877 it was decreed that burials could not take place within 100 meters of the city, so burials were suspended here, making the “life” of this place only about 50 years. For some time, a gardener and guardian lived at its entrance and cared for it, until the 1950s, when it fell into abandon. This special place once again has a guardian and careful historian, and has been brought back to life since 2000. Tombs have been restored and the irises, symbol of Florence, were planted.

The tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Florence's English Cemetary
The tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Florence's English Cemetary

Many of the famous international poets and men and women of the arts and sciences who populated Florence’s literary salons in the nineteenth century are buried here. Lovers of this period of literature will probably know their names; for me, many are familiar from years of reading the local newspaper The Florentine, and from helping edit the book Famous Expats in Italy by Deirdre Pirro. Perhaps the most famous is the tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a sarcophagus that rests on columns. Almost anonymous, with a blandly attractive female portrait in a medallion and just the initials EBB, the tomb reflects the will of the sculptor and of Robert Browning, but not of Browning’s friend, Lord Leighton, who had designed it, causing a rift between the two. It’s so anonymous in fact that a modern signpost has been added in front to ensure that visitors don’t miss it.

 

Visitor information

The English Cemetery of Florence can be visited without reservations on Mondays from 9am to noon, and from Tuesday to Friday in the afternoon from 3pm to 6pm.

Complete information is available on the detailed website written by the custodian.

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