The “English” Cemetery in Florence is , despite it’s name , in fact owned by the Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church, which bought land outside the medieval wall of the city in 1827 from Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Their intention was to create an international and ecumenical cemetery, open to non-Catholics from all over the world , not just England, and indeed there are graves from many nations within the walls of the “English” Cemetery – but somehow the ever-Imperial English have managed to claim it as their own!
These graves are listed and catalogued in the White Silence website which also gives a history of the Cemetery and the lives of some of the famous people buried in this traffic “Island of the Dead”
Author and Cemetery Custodian Julia Bolton Holloway gave a talk at the British Institute of Florence yesterday (7.10.14) to outline her 23 years experience working at the so-called English Cemetery restoring the area to the floral peace and tranquillity expected from a graveyard of such importance.
The cemetery and it’s importance to the English was immortalised by a flakey Dame Judi Dench and a dismissive Dame Maggie Smith in their worship of poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Franco Zefferelli’s semi -autobiographical film Tea with Mussolini.
Originally this location had been developed by Arnolfo di Cambio , it’s walls were later revised by non less than Michaelangelo Buonarroti, only to be torn down again by Guisseppi Pioggi in 1861 as part of the renovation of Florence as the Capital of the newly United Country of Italy.
For the 30 years prior to Souer Julia’s custodianship, the area had been regarded as a nuisance and as such been subjected to control by harsh gravel and strong weed-killer – which also effectively killed the Iris and Wild strawberries that used to thrive there – although the target enemy – the nettles which stung the little Sister through her sandals – remained unaffected by all pesticides.
Not only has this remarkable woman, with her seraphic smile, enabled the restoration of many famous graves that have disintegrated throughout these years of neglect , she has arranged for this work to be completed in an eco-friendly fashion, at a reasonable price.
This was all done as part of a worthwhile campaign that she has led to get the many Zingari – Roma gypsies, previously begging on the streets of Florence, into an education programme leading to valuable paid employment that they can be justifiably proud of.
The council have also agreed to stop the excessive use of weed-killer and the Giglio and wild strawberries flourish again
Soeur Julia had been booked to give her presentation to AILO for some time and her subject matter was proud and positive news through from beginning to the end of the lecture when, unexpectedly, she showed us photos of the devastation caused by the recent hail storm that overtook Florence on 19th September 2014
The impact of hailstones as huge as cherries was felt on the Uffizi, the Boboli Gardens and the Botanic Gardens – all of which have been closed to the public as a result until a couple of days ago.
Unfortunately it also devastated half of The English Cemetery, which has no public funding, which means it now has little hope of restoration in less than four years of sustained hard work , and that only if it can raise substantial charitable donations from the visiting public.
There was a stunned silence following this announcement – followed by lots of offers of help both manual and financial – but due to it’s specific charitable status it is difficult for Soeur Julia to collect money directly from people.
A group of my friends are coming with me to visit the Cemetery next week and as soon as we are told of the number to contact to make a donation to the Cemetery – I will
1) post some money
2) advise anyone who is keen to donate to this good cause of the number to contact to make a contribution.
At the moment the safe part of the English Cemetery is still open to the public on Monday mornings and Tues, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in the afternoons