Cemetery of the Week #108: the English Cemetery

View of the English Cemetery, taken by Mason Jones.

View of the English Cemetery, taken by Mason Jones.

The English Cemetery of Florence
aka Il Cimitero degli Inglesi
or officially Il Cimitero Protestante di Porta di Pinti
The Protestant Cemetery of Porte di Pinti
Piazzale Donatello, 38 50132 Florence, Italy
Telephone: +39 055 582608
Founded: 1827
Size: small
Number of interments: 1400 +
Open: (As of 2010) Monday 9 a.m. to noon, Tuesday to Friday 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. (summer) or 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. (winter)

Traffic whips by on the streets that encircle the cemetery’s small plaza, so take care as you scurry across. The streets isolate the cemetery, which feels like an island. One of the guidebooks mentions Arnold Boecklin’s series called “Isle of the Dead,” painted in his studio nearby. One version hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A small island near Corfu had inspired those paintings, but here at the edge of the graveyard, we had a very definite sense of being set apart from the bustle of life.

When the cemetery was founded in 1827, it stood outside the Pinti Gate, outside the walls of Florence. The land had been used as a dump and pieces of broken china still sometimes surface after a good rain.

Once the caretaker allows you through the gate, follow her through the gatehouse – whch also serves as a museum and library dedicated to the works of those buried in the cemetery. Julia Bolton Holloway, an expert on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, has served as the cemetery’s caretaker for decades.

When the city walls were demolished in 1869, the cemetery became part of the city of Florence. As such, it fell under the Napoleonic edict that there could be no burials within city limits. The last burial took place in 1877 – and for 130 years, the cemetery was basically abandoned and allowed to fall apart. During World War II, Allied bombs did even more damage. Money is welcomed to help with the repairs and restoration.

Past the gatehouse, a path leads up a gentle hill. One-of-a-kind white marble sculpture jams the cemetery, climbing the hill in ranks of stone like chess pieces or an army mustered at attention.

Part way up, just to the left of the path, stands the monument to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The poet came to Florence in 1847 with her husband Robert Browning to escape the cold damp of England and her possessive father, who’d declared that none of his children would ever leave home. Elizabeth celebrated her new residence in the poem “Casa Guidi Windows.” She and Robert hosted salons and publicized the Florentine charms so well that the city became a stop on the Grand Tour.

The monument of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The monument of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

In 1861, Elizabeth succumbed to the weakness in her lungs. Robert saw her buried in the ground, then immediately left Florence, unable to bear it without his wife. He lies in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in London. Elizabeth remained behind beneath a marble sarcophagus upheld by six classical columns. A cameo of the muse of poetry ornaments the box.

The sarcophagus of Fanny Waugh Hunt

The sarcophagus of Fanny Waugh Hunt

Just behind Elizabeth’s marble confection lies the grave of Fanny Waugh Hunt, wife, model, and muse of the Pre-Raphaelite painter W. Holman Hunt. He immortalized her radiant beauty in his “Isabella and the Pot of Basil.” She died in childbirth and was buried beneath a sarcophagus sculpted by her husband. It’s a rounded capsule of marble with a peaked lid that seems to float on stone clouds above a granite base.

Walter Savage Landor, a poet-leader of the early English Romantic movement, is also interred here, under a simple marble tablet.

In part because Elizabeth’s grave became a place for pilgrimage — no person of sensitivity could go to Florence in the 19th century and not visit her — the cemetery became known as the English Cemetery. Officially, it’s called the Cimitero Protestante di Porta di Pinti: the Protestant Cemetery of the Pinti Gate. The Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church owns the land.

A pelican feeding her young on her own blood.

A pelican feeding her young on her own blood.

The iconography here is different than elsewhere, even in Italy. We saw lots of butterflies, more than one ouroboros, pelicans feeding their young, and hourglasses winged with swan’s wings, bat’s wings, and everything in between.

The pelican appears in the writings of St. Augustine. For some reason, early Christians believed that the pelican tore open its breast to feed its young on its own blood. For centuries, the pelican symbolized Christ, spilling his blood to nourish his believers with eternal life. On these graves, the pelican seemed to speak of sacrifices made for the church.

Many of the people buried in the “English” Cemetery are in fact Italians, who had been persecuted for their Protestant beliefs. Challenging the Pope’s authority in Italy in the 19th century had been a criminal offense, punishable by imprisonment and also refusal to be buried in sanctified ground.

The Grim Reaper, English Cemetery, Florence, Italy

The Grim Reaper, English Cemetery, Florence, Italy

In this sea of sculpture, the most amazing monument marks an Italian’s grave. A larger-than-life skeleton brandishes a scythe, about to slice down a clump of stone lilies. The Reaper wears his shroud like a cloak, tossed jauntily over one shoulder. The raw bones of his shin and thigh peep out at the bottom. A rag blindfolds his eye sockets but doesn’t mask his grimacing teeth. I’d never seen anything like him. I haven’t been able to discover any information about Andrea di Mariano Casentini (1855-1870), but clearly Mama and Papa had some message to give the world when they lost their child.

Useful links:

Historical notes about the Florence Cemetery

The Swiss Evangelical history of the cemetery

The caretaker’s blog seeks to raise interest, participation, funds to repair and restore the cemetery.

About the English in the English Cemetery

Aerial view of the cemetery

Beautiful photos of the English Cemetery:

The Cemetery Traveler visits the English Cemetery

My review of Permanent Italians: An Illustrated, Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of Italy

Other Florentine cemeteries that appear on Cemetery Travel:

Santa Croce

The Medici Chapels

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