thu 23/05/2024

theartsdesk in Florence: The British Are Going | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Florence: The British Are Going

theartsdesk in Florence: The British Are Going

The closure of the British consulate this month is a notable moment in the historic relationship

The Duomo in Florence: the city's fabric - even its famous cathedral - has been shaped by the English presence

In the 1450s in Florence, Alberti was working on the facade of Santa Maria Novella, Donatello and Fra Filippo Lippi were active, while Leonardo was born in nearby village of Vinci. And the English established a diplomatic presence. It has continued almost uninterrupted, pausing only in times of direct conflict. This month, it ends as the British consulate closes its doors for the last time.

Cuts to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget and global geopolitical shifts mean that the United Kingdom no longer needs a man in Florence to tend to the needs of tourists and expats. It is an important moment in a relationship which has been very largely cultural.

Of all the cultures with which Florence has formed a lasting relationship, the one with the English has been most profound. The English Florence is famously celebrated in books and in films. Or both, in the case of EM Forster's A Room with a View. It's there in the name of one of our heroines, Nurse Nightingale, the first of many daughters to have the city memorialised in her name by sentimental parents. The city fabric - its architecture, even its famous cathedral - has been discreetly shaped by the English presence.

It begins in the tangled web of alleys in the very heart of the city. Somewhere in here is the tiny Via dell'Arte della Lana, modest in length, long in history. The Arte della Lana was the wool guild, and the industry from which the medieval city derived much of its wealth. Before the Black Death nearly a third of all Florentines were supported by it. The evidence of that wealth resides here in Palazzo dell'Arte della Lana, a foursquare thug of a medieval building which bristles on a corner (pictured right).

Completed in 1308, it is one of the oldest surviving structures in Florence. It largely owes its existence to millions of sheep grazing a thousand miles to the north, because the lion's share of the wool which built this palazzo came from English fleeces. A gallery - an enclosed walkway - connects it with the mighty granary, Orsanmichele. Once the wool had been beaten and washed, it was taken down to the River Arno for rinsing. So in a way these sheep were the first English pilgrims to enjoy a Florentine baptism.

If English wool plumped the city's coffers, the English fleeced Florence in another sense. Florentine bankers loaned huge sums back to Edward III as he prosecuted the Hundred Years War. The relationship turned a trifle sour in 1339 when he defaulted on the loan. The city's three biggest banks collapsed in an almighty medieval credit crunch. The names of the families who owned the banks are still all over the city in the names of palazzi and pizzerie, chapels and streets: Bardi, Peruzzi and Acciauoli.

The Via dei Bardi - a tall, sunless winding street where you imagine internecine stabbings were the done thing - later inspired George Eliot as she wrote the almost indigestible Romola. (Pictured left: Niccolò at Work: one of Frederic Lord Leighton's illustrations for Romola). But the long line of English residents spools back much further. The proof is in the cathedral. Brunelleschi's miraculous freestanding dome is the magnet that lures most visitors to the city - "Cupula, worthie to bee seen of all travellars," marvelled Sir Thomas Hoby in his pioneering Elizabethan tour of Italy. The Duomo is notable for its lack of ornamental frippery, but high on the wall in the left nave is a rare piece of decoration. Mounted on a formidable warhorse is a rather gentle-looking old soldier. This fresco is the first permanent tribute ever paid by Florence to a private individual.

But he's not one of the city's own. He's not Dante or Boccaccio or one of the Medici who in the 1400s put Florence on the map. He's a mercenary from Essex. Or as the inscription on this trompe l'oeil tombstone has him, "Ioannes Acutus Eques Britannicus". Don't be deceived by the kindly old face. Sir John Hawkwood - the Florentines preferred their own spelling - was a terrifying condottiere. Florence, among his employers, expressed their gratitude for defending them from Milan by giving him a farm and, 40 years after his death, this splendid memorial. It's not quite as splendid as originally conceived - he was due to get a statue. But this magnificent portrait by Uccello of Hawkwood as a Herculean liberator incorporates the latest principles of bas-relief and perspective (pictured below right).

It does the heart good to know that an Englishman had such a prominent walk-on role in the Florentine Renaissance, even if his trade was violence. Florence was not involved in significant wars involving the English until the Second World War. Instead, for 500 years, we came to look and to loot. Charles I's emissaries bought up paintings by Florentine artists to enlarge his collection. After the Civil War, Florence became a pitstop of choice for royalists in exile. In the following century, the wealthy sons of the Enlightenment descended on Florence as part of the Grand Tour and bought canvases by the carriage-load. Of course there's no suggestion that the English were the only foreigners to leave their mark on Florence.

A plaque on a building opposite the Palazzo Pitti reveals that Dostoevsky wrote a bit of The Idiot here. For a while Henry James paid annual summer visits. But the visitor who most famously summed up the experience of immersion in the city was Henri-Marie Beyle, the French novelist better known by the pseudonym which gives its name to Stendhal syndrome. Stendhal visited in 1817, and proceeded to write up his travels in the confusingly titled Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio. So overwhelming was his sense of wonderment as he toured the sights that he started to feel faint from a kind of exhilaration.

Subsequent descriptions from 19th-century visitors to Florence exist in which the same set of symptoms recur: they feel dizzy and confused, their heartbeat accelerates, and on occasion they even hallucinate in front of especially beautiful images, or a surfeit of them. The Uffizi was a hotspot. It was given a name only 30 years ago by an Italian psychiatrist. Americans and Japanese, both arriving from more distant cultural worlds, were found to be particularly prone to hospitalisation.

Clinical hypersensitivity to the Renaissance is also known as Florence syndrome. The first mass migration of potential sufferers were English. After the Napoleonic Wars the genteel middle classes started to migrate south, among them great writers. In the Cascine Gardens Shelley wrote his Ode to the West Wind in 1819. The woods to the west of the centre are these days a less than romantic marketplace for trannies hawking their wares. On the other hand Santa Croce, the Franciscan barn of a church where many great Florentines are buried, is much as Ruskin found it in 1874 when he marvelled at masterpieces and sneered at tourists. His Mornings in Florence was a bossy improvement on the guidebook. He stood outside the ill-lit chapel frescoed by Giotto and noticed that "two nice-looking Englishmen, under guard of their valet de place, passed the chapel without so much as looking in".

For the fullest English experience of Florence is found across the river to Casa Guidi. It was here, opposite the monumental Palazzo Pitti, that Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (busts pictured left) made their home from 1847 after eloping. Like many English settlers, the Brownings were not wealthy. The apartment is of modest proportions, but they both wrote much of their greatest poetry in these eight rooms. Furnished and decorated much as it would have been then, it exudes a faintly oppressive atmosphere. You can all but picture Elizabeth draped consumptively on her chaise, battling through damp winters, sweating through virulent summers, slowly dwindling towards death.

She is buried in the so-called English Cemetery. The expats' burial ground was established nearly 200 years ago on a site just outside the old city walls. The oval-shaped island sanctuary nowadays ringed by traffic is a little patch of "home" in this corner of a foreign field. A gravel path leads towards a marble sarcophagus standing on six short Corinthian columns. The letters "EBB OB 1861" are carved into the white marble. It is a fine design by the young Lord Leighton, who studied in Florence. And she is in fine company. Here are the graves of what feels like half of Victorian England's cultural elite. The health of Arthur Hugh Clough failed in Florence while travelling round Europe. Walter Savage Landor retired cantankerously to Fiesole up the hill. Fanny Holman Hunt, the flame-haired Pre-Raphaelite muse, died here in childbirth and her tomb was sculpted by her husband William. Fanny Trollope, the mother of Anthony, lies here alongside four of her household. Even the last two descendants of Shakespeare are buried in the English Cemetery. This is a moving shrine to the life of expatriates drawn to Florence by the finer things.

Near the exit, a verse of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is pinned to a wall. It might have been written for herself. "And here among the English tombs/ In Tuscan ground we lay her,/ While the blue Tuscan sky endomes/ Our English words of prayer". Not sure about "endomes". But you get the picture.

Of all the cultures with which Florence has formed a lasting relationship, the one with the English has been most profound

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters