The English Cemetery, Gypsies & Irises

A lay nun, Julia Holloway, custodian of Florence’s “English cemetery,” spontaneously gave English lessons to — four gypsies, a husband and wife, a sister and a cousin — who in return restored 60 of the Victorian-era monuments and planted a field of irises between the tombs that are now in bloom.  To see a photo gallery, visit Florence’s La Repubblica news site.

During the 19th century the word “English” was synonymous with “foreigner,” since Florentines did not differentiate among stranieri (non Italians). The cemetery was outside the walls since Florence denied Protestants burial rights within the city.

Built in 1828, the “English cemetery” was redesigned by Giuseppe Poggi into its distinct oval shape during the construction of Piazzale Donatello and the boulevards (viali) when Florence became the temporary capital of Italy in 1865. The final resting place of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (d. 1861), the multitude of trees and marble statues at the Cimitero degli Inglesi is a picturesque representation mirroring the romanticism of the 19th century.

Belying its name, it is not exclusively an English cemetery. During the 19th century the word “English” was synonymous with “foreigner,” since Italians did not differentiate among stranieri.   It was the Swiss Evangelical Reform Church, however, that acquired the land in 1827 to bury their dead. The cemetery was outside the walls of catholic Florence, which lawfully denied Protestants burial rights within the city. Today the cemetery looms above the boulevard that follows the former circuit of the old city walls, much like a ship or an island parting the waters.

The wear of time is apparent in the graveyard, where you can still view cracked and crumbling tombstones and wander among statues of weeping angels, the Grim Reaper and Egyptian serpents. This eerie setting is the final resting place of many celebrated foreigners who lived and died in Florence. The most notable migrants who chose to be buried here include Walter Savage Landor and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

A boatman ferries a figure draped in flowing white to a mysterious and somber island. The shadows that play across cold, jagged cliffs produce a forbidding atmosphere in the painting “Isola dei Morti.” The boatman, the island, and the sprouting cypress trees, which symbolize death in Italian culture, come from the brush of a man who painted solely from the dark reaches of his memory, surrounded by the blackened walls of his studio. It is widely believed that Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin’s painting, “The Island of the Dead,” was inspired by Florence’s island-like English Cemetery.

Cemetery president Francesca Paoletti said, “the venue now resembles an island of flowers rather than an island of tombs.”