Friday, July 2, 2010

Gypsies in the English Cemetery

In 2008, I visited The English Cemetery (also known as the Protestant Cemetery) in Florence Italy. My wife and I had just seen Michelangelo's "David" at the Accademia and decided to spend a few hours on individual missions. Mine was to continue walking about a half mile to the Piazzalle Donatello, site of the only cemetery in Florence.

The only traditionally Victorian cemetery, that is. Since these tend to have more statuary and other ornamentation than do the catacombs, I wanted to see it. Florence and Rome each have such an above ground outdoor Victorian cemetery, but most of the cities' dead are buried in catacombs. The name "Victorian" implies that the cemetery was designed during the era 1837 - 1901 (the reign of Britain's Queen Victoria). Owned by the Swiss and managed by the English, this cemetery originated as an ecumenical burial spot for non-Catholics and non-Jews  (who were previously not allowed burial in the city of Florence).

On approaching the grounds, I noted with dismay that the gates were locked. As I tried to figure out how to get in, I noticed a woman in a light blue habit scurrying around the cemetery buildings. A nun! I headed over to talk with her and she was most gracious--even though the cemetery was closed, she let me in to photograph the statuary. I spent about an hour amidst the magnificent artwork (as you can see by the life-sized skeleton, American sculpture can hardly hold a candle to Italian craftsmanship), before asking her where Elizabeth Barrett Browning's grave was.

The nun--who turned out to be the accomplished author Julia Bolton Holloway, PhD-- was the most amazing host! Caretaker of the English Cemetery, Julia is from Britain (her PhD is in Medieval Studies). She retired from academics as Professor Emerita to join an Anglican convent. She explained to me the history of the cemetery, as well as its curious upkeep. It seems that Julia routinely affords sanctuary to gypsies traveling west from Romania (it is illegal for them to be in Florence). She educates their children, while in return, the adults spend the weeks restoring rusted ironwork (see photo of ancher) and rebuilding stone walls and monuments. She marvels at their abilities and explains that this is the predominant method of restoration here.

Julia took me to where Browning's monument stood. As you may be able to tell, the grave monument (essentially a catafalque) is rather large--possibly the largest in the cemetery. I was of course embarassed that I'd walked right past it--several times! Afterward, Julia offered to show me the "historic" photographs. We went into the gatehouse, through a library where 4 or 5 monks pored over architectural drawings of the cemetery, then into a darkened room with framed photographs on the walls. Each piece had a small curtain over it to protect it from light degradation. You had to pull the material aside to see the image. All were original black and white images of the cemetery, made in the late 1800s. On the way out through the library, I noticed all the childrens' crayon drawings on the walls. I asked her why some of the gypsy children's artwork involved helicopters. She told me that police raids and arrests by helicopter are a common occurrance among the gypsies.

I also noted a small stack of copies of  the book, "Aurora Leigh and Other Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning." I mentioned that it seemed like a good idea to sell copies of such things here to raise money for the cemetery. Julia modestly stated that she was the editor of the text! I purchased a copy and asked her to autograph it for me, which she did. You can see the book by clicking the icon at left. As a fitting end to my visit to the English Cemetery, my proper British host called me a cab on her cell phone and bid me good day. For more information on this most amazing place, please visit The English Cemetery's website.