Magazine article The Spectator

Last Farewells

Magazine article The Spectator

Last Farewells

Article excerpt

Just outside Florence's city walls, marooned in the middle of a huge great ring road, lies a foreign field that is for ever England.

Well, it's really for ever Switzerland. The English Cemetery of Florence is owned by the Swiss Reformed Evangelical Church and is officially called the Protestant Cemetery of Florence. But, because the English presence looms so large in Florence, the Florentines call it the Cimitero degli Inglesi.

Certainly, most of the 1,700 dead interred since the cemetery's foundation in 1827 are British, with many fewer Swiss, Americans, Russians and Protestant Italians. There are still 70 x 70 cm plots for urns available, now open to anyone of any religious persuasion.

Most of the epitaphs, too, are in English.

There is something peculiar -- yet intensely moving and enjoyable -- about stumbling around broken Doric columns under a harsh Italian sun, shaded by soaring cypresses, and reading English poetry.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote an epitaph for one neighbour in the cemetery, Alice Cottrell, who died aged one in 1849: 'And here, among the English tombs, / In Tuscan ground we lay her, / While the blue Tuscan sky endomes/ Our English words of prayer.' Browning herself is buried around the corner in a neoclassical tomb designed by Lord Leighton, decorated with a profile of Poetry crowned with laurel. Nearby is her fellow poet Arthur Hugh Clough, with his epitaph by Matthew Arnold -- 'The Last Farewell of his Affectionate Wife and Sister'. Like many in the cemetery, Clough died young, in 1861 at the age of 42, long before his poem 'Say not the Struggle naught Availeth' had found fame. The Italian climate, supposedly so good for dying Englishmen, was fatal, with its searing summers and River Arno damps. Not far from Clough is Fanny Hunt, dead at 33 after a blissful single year of marriage to the painter Holman Hunt. Hunt designed the pleasant, swelling lines of her sarcophagus.

I spent several happy hours trawling through the cemetery, digging up, as it were, splendid figures: Charles and Thomas Otley who, with Charles's son 'il biondo Enrico', founded Florence's jockey club in the mid19th century. Princess Laura Pandolfina di Temple (died 1877), a British woman who married a Sicilian prince, lies near the poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864).

A stone's throw away is Trollope's mother, Frances Trollope-Milton (1780-1863).

Despite these treasures, the tourist buses that rumble around the cemetery all day never stop off. …

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