I picked this guidebook up from the caretaker at the English Cemetery in Florence. The little chapbook contains a scant amount of history, followed by 63 capsule biographies of people buried in the cemetery. Despite being commonly called the English Cemetery, the permanent residents include expats of 16 nations. They skew toward British, followed by more than 400 Swiss, nearly a hundred North Americans, 50-some Orthodox Russians, and more than 80 Italians.
The booklet delves briefly into the prejudice faced by non-Catholics in Italy in the 19th century. In fact, Catholic clergy led attacks on freshly dug graves in the cemetery’s earliest years. Most of the earliest Italians buried here died in prison after being jailed for their beliefs. I could have used more background on the persecution.
The historical overview is, unfortunately, the weakest part of the book. I suspect it was translated from the Italian, but that wouldn’t explain why the first page opens with a modern description of the cemetery, then jumps back to the cemetery’s foundation, then leaps back 600 years earlier to when the medieval wall was built around the city, before skipping forward to the Renaissance. It helped me to take notes as I was reading.
While the booklet does include both color and black-and-white photos, they aren’t labeled and also aren’t placed in the book anywhere near the text they illustrate. For example, the photo of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s monument appears on a page after her biography — but unless you knew what you were looking at or were reading with a magnifying glass, you’d never see the connection at all.
Clearly, the world needs a new, improved, updated guide to this lovely little cemetery full of history and one-of-a-kind artwork.
There is one copy listed for sale on Amazon, but it’s $89. At this moment, there’s also one for under $5 for sale on ebay.
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
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
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.
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
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.
Illustrated with luminous black & white photos, this vntage guidebook to the statuary and graves in the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence and its Medici Chapels is a good introduction to this beautiful place. Of course, black and white does not do justice to the amazing chapels created out of precious stones, but it does capture Michelangelo’s statuary and allow you to examine it more closely that you’re able to do in person.
The text is an academic translation from the Italian, so it gives less detail than a modern reader might prefer and is much less descriptive that necessary. Then again, I didn’t buy it for the text.
Exterior of the Chapel of the Princes, Church of San Lorenzo, Florence. All photos come from The Church of San Lorenzo in Florence and Its Medici Chapels, which is reviewed on 8/1/13.
The Church of San Lorenzo
Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini, 6, 50123 Florence, Italy Founded: 1442 Number of interments: 40-some? Open: Daily from 8:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. or from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the last entry at 5:30. These hours may be seasonal, but I’m having trouble getting a straight answer from the internet tonight. The church is closed the second and fourth Sundays of the month, as well as on the first, third, and fifth Mondays of the month. It’s also closed January 1st, May 1st, and Christmas Day. Admission: There is an admission fee, but the Church’s website is down tonight and I can’t confirm it for you.
Saint Laurence was a 28-year-old deacon martyred by the Emperor Valerian on August 10, 258 CE. A church was dedicated to his memory in Florence in the fourth century. Of the original Church of San Lorenzo, nothing remains.
The tomb of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, by Michelangelo
The wealthy families of Florence decided in December 1418 to enlarge the old Romanesque church. The Medici family took responsibility for remodeling one of the chapels and the sacristy, where the priest’s vestments and other objects used in the service are kept. Cosimo de Medici started paying for the chapel in 1442. In 22 years, he spent sums that can’t even be estimated now. In that time, San Lorenzo had become the parish church of the Medici family. Cosimo himself is buried in the crypt, below the altar, to be nearest the holy relics.
The first Medici had been buried in a poor and obscure church in the Old Market, according to The Church of San Lorenzo in Florence and the Medici Chapels. Now that the Medicis were spending their fortune on the church, they wanted to be buried there as well. Cardinal Guilio de Medici and his cousin Pope Leo X decided in 1520 to move Lorenzo the Magnificent (died 1492) and his brother Guiliano, who had been assassinated in the cathedral in 1478, as well as the Dukes of Nemours (died 1515) and Urbino (died 1517) into what would become the New Sacristy.
Detail of the tomb of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino
Michelangelo Buonarroti was hired to build suitable tombs for them and turned in his initial plan in November 1520. He hoped the space would become the final resting place of Dante, who still has not been returned to Florence to this day. (See Rest in Pieces for the full story.)
Construction of the New Sacristy began in March 1521 and proceeded rapidly. Michelangelo completed several sculptures for it, including a Madonna, the two “captains” who would represent Lorenzo and Guiliano, and began the allegorical figures that would adorn the tombs. Pope Leo commanded that Michelangelo accept no other commissions on pain of excommunication until the Sacristy was finished, but Leo’s death in 1532 rescinded that order. Michelangelo was called to Rome to paint The Final Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. He did not return to Florence until after his death.
Night, detail on the tomb of Guiliano, Duke of Nemours. She is the only allegorical figure Michelangelo completed.
As Michelangelo knew he was dying, he burned all his notes and sketches for the Medici chapels, so that later artists could not discredit him by completing his work in a substandard way. For that reason, the sculptures are pretty much the way the master left them. Only one of the sculptures is entirely finished. The other three figures are in various stages of incompletion, from lacking background details to lacking a face.
When he died in July 1564, Michelangelo’s funeral was held at San Lorenzo. 80 sculptors and painters were present. Afterward, he was buried in Santa Croce.
The Chapel of the Princes, Church of San Lorenzo, Florence
After Michelangelo had left the building, the Chapel of the Princes was conceived as a third sacristy and the tomb of the “ennobled” Medici in 1568. Its foundation was finally laid in January 1605, but the chapel was far from finished in 1649 when its architect died. Anna Maria Ludovica, the last of the Medicis, left money for its completion in her will, but her wishes were set aside. The House of Lorena, who succeeded the Medici, continued the work and also received the right to burial there. In 1929, the pavement was completed at last and the altar itself erected.
The Chapel of the Princes may be the most beautiful room I’ve ever seen. It’s decorated in pietre dure, precious stones, including the rarest and costliest stones of Italy, Corsica, Bohemia, Spain, France, Flanders, and the Aegean in shades of blue, green, and amber.
The Basilica of Santa Croce
Piazza Santa Croce 16
50122 Florence, Italy
Telephone: +39 (0) 55 2466105 Consecrated: 1433 Open: Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays and holidays from 2 p.m. to 5. Closed New Year’s Day, Easter, St. Anthony of Padua (June 13), St. Francis (October 4), Christmas (December 25), St. Stephen’s Day (December 26). Admission: Full price: 6 euros. Reduced for children 11-17: 4 euros. Children under 11 are free.
Tall, skinny Santa Croce was begun by the Franciscans in 1294, but plagues and floods delayed its consecration until 1433. In 1565, Cosimo de Medici assigned Giorgio Vasari to redesign the interior. Vasari whitewashed the church’s murals, some of which have since been restored. The 1380 frescoes by Gaddi, in the Cappella Maggiore, look like decals stuck on the plain walls. They tell the story of the holy cross (“santa croce” in Italian).
Other art in Santa Croce includes frescoes by Giotto in the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels, which illustrate the lives of St. Francis, whose order served the church, and St. John the Evangelist. Donatello’s Annunciation in gilded limestone adorns the wall of the south nave. One of the chapels was designed by Brunelleschi.
Santa Croce, according to TripAdvisor, is the richest medieval church in Florence, which features one of the finest of all early Renaissance tombs: that of Leonardo Bruni, Chancellor of the Republic. The statue of a man lies on his deathbed, face turned toward potential mourners. His bed balances atop a simple rectangular sarcophagus, which in turn balances atop lions with outsized feet. From the unveiling of the tomb in 1450, Santa Croce became the place to be buried in Florence.
Michelangelo’s tomb photographed without tour groups in the way.
The church’s floor is looped and scalloped with swoops of green or red marble across the cream base. It is lined with grave slabs. Among those buried in the floor is Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, who isn’t buried in his Vasari-designed tomb. Permanent Italians describes the monument as “Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture loung[ing] listlessly around on a sweltering August afternoon.”
Vintage postcard of Machiavelli’s tomb.
Another tomb holds the remains of Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince. A solemn muse, identified by Permanent Italians as Democracy, sits on the claw-foot sarcophagus and holds a cameo of the author. His epitaph translates to “For such a great man, no eulogy is sufficient.”
Gioacchino Rossini died in Paris and was buried in Pere Lachaise for a little more than 20 years before his French wife gave her approval and let his remains come home. His tomb also has an adoring mourner and at claw-foot sarcophagus, but it’s much fancier than Machiavelli’s.
Although there are many other people buried in Santa Croce whose tombs are worth a visit, you shouldn’t miss Galileo Galilei near the back doors. His odd bust depicts a skinny old man from the waist up, clutching a telescope and flanked by statues of Geometry and Astronomy. After being tried by the Inquisition for espousing the Copernican theory of the universe, Galileo was sentenced to house arrest and his books were banned. He was forbidden a Christian burial until 95 years after his death. Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses reports that he spent that time in a “closet-sized room beneath the bell tower.” When a Florentine Pope finally gave permission for Galileo to be reburied inside the church, his tomb held not only his remains but also those of a young woman. It was believed (though apparently not proven) that the second corpse belonged to Maria Celeste, Galileo’s favorite daughter. She was reinterred with him inside his tomb.
Vintage postcard of Rossini’s tomb.
Not actually buried here is native son Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, who was exiled – under pain of being burned alive, should he ever return to Florence – and died in Ravenna. Though they wouldn’t give him back, the Florentines commissioned a cenotaph to his memory.
Santa Croce is a living church, so conservative clothing is required. Silence is encouraged while visiting. Photography is allowed, without use of a flash or a tripod.
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