The English Cemetery is located just outside the historic center of Florence, in the Donatello square, where was once one of the gateways to the city, the Porta Pinti.
In 1827 the area was sold by the grand-ducal government to the Reformed Church of Switzerland and enlarged in 1860 after the purchase of an additional parcel of land. Here was built the first non-Catholic cemetery in the city.
Before that, non-Catholics and non-Jews who died in Florence could only be buried in Livorno, historically the most cosmopolitan city in Italy.
The English Cemetery’s Building
As a Protestant burial site, this cemetery was placed outside city walls. The cemetery lay on top of a natural hill where Florentines used to go in the early 19th century to watch ball games being played on the adjoining piece of flat land.
Charles Reishammer, a young architect, was the first to draw a map of the cemetery. The square took on its present-day appearance in 1870. The current layout of the cemetery was devised by the architect Giuseppe Poggi, when Florence became the capital of Kingdom of Italy in 1861 until 1870.
The “Florence Capital” plan involved the demolition of the city walls and the creation of Piazzale Donatello, with gardens and trees to the north. Giuseppe Poggi replaced the original polygonal shape with an oval one, hence the resemblance to an island and the nickname “Isle of the Dead”.
The English Cemetery’s Burials
The cemetery was closed in 1877: being included in the new city, the Protestant community was forbidden from using the site for new burials.
There were 1409 graves relating to sixteen different countries, but English burials were the most common. This, coupled with the tendency to associate Protestants with English people, led to the cemetery being identified by the Florentines as ‘English’, in spite of being actually Swiss property. In fact, during the nineteenth century, Florence was very popular and was frequented by artists, poets, and Anglo-Saxon writers.
Probably the English Cemetery was the model that inspired Arnold Böcklin for his painting The Isle of the Dead, one of the eighteenth century’s most discussed symbolism painting.
The entire cemetery is still a great testimony to the international nature of Florence, which has become a true European center of reference and call for the greatest artistic minds of the time.
A Nineteenth-century Cemetery
The layout of the cemetery is simple and logical: two main gravel paths run into each other at right angles, with a column erected by Frederick William of Prussia in 1858 at the point where the two paths meet.
The graves are not laid out in regularly ordered rows as in Catholic cemeteries, but in a romantically landscaped manner, creating a natural feel that is accentuated by the lie of the land and the presence of a variety of trees and shrubs.
There are many varieties of plants and shrubs as it wanted the nineteenth-century style of Romanticism. During the Second World War it was damaged by bombing, but thanks to a careful restoration was returned to its original splendor.
The Graves of Celebrities
The cemetery is an interesting reminder of the foreign community that lived in Florence. Among the many famous people buried there are the Swiss writer Giovan Pietro Vieusseux, the pedagogue Enrico Schneider, the writer Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the poet Arthur Hugh Clough, the writer Walter Savage Landor, as well as the novelist Frances Trollope and his daughter-in-law Theodosia.
Also not to be forgotten are Beatrice Shakespeare and Edward Claude Shakespeare Clench, the last descendants of William Shakespeare.
Pictures by Wikipedia