Piazzale Donatello (between Viale Gramsci and Viale Matteotti)
Open Mondays from 9 to 12AM
Tuesdays to Fridays from 3 to 6 PM. Closed Saturdays and Sundays. Donations welcome
What is locally known as the Cimitero degli Inglesi, the English Cemetery, is actually the Swiss cemetery. And before it was a cemetery, this pleasant little hillock- today an island in a steady stream of traffic- was a trash heap. In 1827 the Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church bought land from Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, so that non-Catholics who died in Florence wouldn’t have to be taken all the way to Leghorn (Livorno) for burial. Think of the logistics: Florence was attracting a burgeoning community of people of all faiths from around the world. But if you weren’t Catholic, and most of Italy was and still is Catholic, you couldn’t be buried in ground consecrated by the Catholic church. Today it takes about an hour to get from Florence to Livorno by car (or hearse); back then by cart or horse-drawn hearse? The powers that were deliberated and decided to grant a small hill of garbage in what was then the countryside outside the medieval walls of Florence for the burials of their foreign friends. And this remained their foreign friends’ favorite spot for fifty years, up until 1877.
While the Italians refer to this cemetery as belonging to the English, degli inglesi, only about half the tombs, 760 out of 1409 to be precise, contain the remains of Brits. The others are filled with citizens of 16 other nations, just to give you an idea of how popular Florence already was with foreigners looking for rooms, and tombs, with views.
And there aren’t just Protestants in here; there are Jews, Orthodox Christians and even a few atheists.
The cemetery was open for non-catholic burials from 1827 to 1877 and is a compendium of Romantic Era grieving.
Some popular themes:
Anchors away at the Cimitero degli Inglesi
Moths, mysterious, beautiful and nocturnal
Pelicans feeding their young off their own blood
The Savoy or figure 8 knot
And the ubiquitous ouroboros, the snake biting its own tail, the eternal return.
While these symbols keep vigil over the remains of the international ex-pats who flocked to Florence and its hillsides before the current swarm of American college students took their place, Sister Julia Holloway, an urban hermit, tends to the day to day life of the cemetery as best she can. Recent storms have badly damaged both trees and tombs and the colorful tribe of gypsies that Sister Julia has hired to do the gardening can’t keep up with the maintenance. Death, decay and neglected beauty dominate.
The Cimitero has its stellar graves and its graves of stars. Elizabeth Barrett Browning rests here in a tomb designed by Frederic, Lord Leighton. Giampietro Vieusseux, the founder of the Gabinetto Vieusseux that used to house the Museo di Anatomia Patologica and where John Ruskin, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky and Robert Browning were readers, is also buried here as is the explorer Walter Savage Landor.
The cemetery may also have inspired Arnold Böcklin’s famous paintings called The Isle of the Dead. This Swiss Symbolist painter lived (and died) in Fiesole and one of the eight children he lost is buried at the Cimitero degli Inglesi. Prints of the work were so popular in the early 20th century that Vladimir Nabokov, in his novel Despair, said that they were “found in every Berlin home.”
Böcklin made five versions of the painting between 1880 and 1886, all of which show a rocky islet with cypress trees, a rowboat, an oarsman and a standing figure dressed in white.
The first version of the painting, now in the Kunstmuseum, Basel, was completed in 1880. Marie Berna admired the half-finished painting when she visited the artist’s Florence studio so Böcklin painted a smaller version, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, for her adding a coffin and the figure in white in allusion to her first husband’s death of diphtheria.
The third version was sold to a noted Böcklin admirer, Adolf Hitler, in 1933. It is now at the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. A fourth version was lost in a bombing in World War II and a fifth version was commissioned in 1886 by the Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig, where it still hangs.