If you have learned anything about Meg and I, other than the fact that we are serious tightwads, it’s probably that we like weird, creepy stuff (in fact, if you’re ever at a party and overhear someone suggesting scary story time – that’s me). Even though Meg and I love the feeling of a good chill down our spines, we also find nothing more calming than an afternoon stroll through a peaceful cemetery. Ok, maybe hanging out with dead people isn’t for everyone. But hear us out. Although it was our unusual affinity for graveyards that brought us to the English Cemetery in the first place, it is our affinity for culture, history and saving money that we bring it to you today. Rather than finding ghosts and goblins here, you will discover inspiring art, an intriguing history, and be pleasantly surprised to see who has made this little cemetery their final resting place.
It’s no secret that the streets and piazzas of Florence can be a hot-Italian-mess (and I mean that in the best way possible). Finding a small oasis of peace and quiet in Florence, while a challenge, is a must. The English Cemetery is one such taschino of tranquility among the ever-bustling city.
To reach the cemetery, walk east from the city center to the Viale (the thoroughfare that outlines the historic center). Once you reach the Viale head north along the busy road which will bring you to Piazzalle Donatello. Heavy traffic whizzes around the raised, gated cemetery in the center of the piazza. In all honesty, my fear of crazy Italian high school students on Vespas kept me from the cemetery longer than I would like to admit. Eventually, however, I learned that the only way to cross an Italian street is with a sure step and a prayer (a short skirt doesn’t hurt either). Learn this lesson early so you can find yourself at the 19th-century gate of this enchanting cemetery sooner rather than later. Wonky hours can leave tourists frustrated when they find locked gates. So do yourself a favor and write down these hours before you make your visit.
Monday 9 AM – Noon, Tuesday – Friday 3 PM – 6PM (summer) and 2 PM – 5 PM (winter)
Distance: 1.7 km
Time: 20 minutes
Once you pass through the gatehouse take a moment to breathe and enjoy the peace and quiet. Although I preferred to venture to the cemetery of San Miniato al Monte when I needed a true mental escape, the close proximity of the English Cemetery made this little oasis the next best thing. If you are exploring the cemetery in the fall, enjoy the crunching leaves beneath your feet (a simple pleasure that is hard to come by in the cobblestone-covered city center). If you save it for the spring you will find the blooming irises a special treat and pop of color among the white marble tombstones. Most importantly, simply enjoy the tranquility. Places like this are few and far between in this charmingly chaotic city.
The cemetery was built in 1827 by the Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church. Wait, Swiss? Allow me to explain. The official name for the cemetery was originally Cimitero Protestante di Porta a Pinti. Overtime, however, the increase of prominent Englishmen and women buried here, as well as the Florentines’ tendency to associate Protestantism with the English, the cemetery became more widely known as the Cimitero degli Inglesi. The location, across from the former Porta a Pinti, was due to the mandate that forbade burials within the city walls. The Swiss clearly didn’t take into account city growth projections however. In 1869 Florence expanded its walls beyond Piazzale Donatello deeming burials here illegal. The cemetery officially closed in 1877 and only recently have its gates been reopened for visitors.
Now, onto the fun part – tombstone scavenger hunt! This cemetery is the resting place of some well-known creative, intellectual, and influential minds of 19th-century England and America. As it turns out, the English-speaking world of the Victorian Age found Florence to be just as inspiring and intriguing as you do. Those who died in Florence, whilst seeking creative and intellectual inspiration, found a permanent home in their beloved city in the English Cemetery.
Notable headstones to add to your scavenger hunt list include: poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, poet Arthur Clough, writer Frances Milton Trollope, writer Walter Savage Landor, American reformist and abolitionist Theodore Parker, and the last descendants of William Shakespeare – Beatrice and Claude Shakespeare.
One of the more moving tombstones belongs to the estranged wife of Walter Savage Landor, who is immortalized mourning her son. Emotional statues such as Mrs. Landor’s serve as a reminder of the deep history and countless stories buried here.
On your way out of the cemetery take a peek in the gatehouse. This former home of Beatrice and Claude Shakespeare now houses a collection of works by the illustrious authors which rest inside the gates.
Culture, art, history, and a little peace and quiet. If hanging out in cemeteries like this is wrong, then I don’t want to be right!