In Florence, Finding the Legacy of One of Literature’s Great Couples

Sculling on the River Arno, beneath the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the city where the poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning lived for 15 years.

They were an unlikely couple: he a young writer, dashing and ambitious, she a highly lauded poet six years his senior, a middle-aged invalid whose father kept her housebound. But when Robert Browning sent Elizabeth Barrett a fan letter in January 1845 — “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” he gushed — he ignited a romance that defied not only her weak constitution, but also her controlling father’s prohibition of marriage, as well as the conventions of Victorian England. After a 20-month courtship — conducted mainly within the sickroom that she hardly ever left — the pair married secretly and ran away, escaping the forbidding chill of London for a city that could feed their poetic souls with warmth and beauty. They moved to Florence.

For nearly 15 years, the Brownings lived under the spell of this elegant Renaissance capital. Inspired by its magnificent architecture and piazzas, embraced by its artistic expatriate community, they produced some of their most famous works — including Browning’s “Men and Women,” and Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh” — and this period is widely considered the most productive of their lives.But more than 150 years after Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death ended the couple’s Florentine idyll, the pair seems largely forgotten by their muse, overshadowed by Dante, Michelangelo’s David and the city’s other treasures. There is no doubt that Florence left a mark on the Brownings. But during a visit last May, I set out to discover whether the Brownings had left their mark on Florence.

Even in the 19th century, Florence was a popular tourist destination, particularly for upper-crust Victorians who, continuing the previous century’s tradition of the Grand Tour, flocked here to enhance their knowledge of art and the classics. Indeed, the city’s touristy reputation initially deterred the Brownings — freshly arrived from England, they lingered for months in Pisa, planning only a brief stop in Florence before heading to Rome. But when they arrived in Florence in 1847, they found themselves captured by the city’s sublime beauty. “Florence holds us with a glittering eye; there’s a charm cast round us, and we can’t get away,” Elizabeth wrote in a letter to a friend.

After a few false starts, the couple (along with Elizabeth’s loyal lady’s maid, Wilson, and dog, Flush) settled “six paces from the Piazza Pitti” in a grand suite of rooms they called Casa Guidi. “I am very happy — happier and happier,”wrote Elizabeth in one of her many letters. Tuscany’s temperate climate suited her frail health — and Italy’s reasonable prices suited both poets’ slim pocketbooks (which were even slimmer after Elizabeth’s father, furious at her marriage, disowned her).They quickly made friends within a large community of English-speaking artists and writers who had moved to the city for similar reasons.

Armed with a reprint of an antique map, I set out to find some of the Anglo-Florentine haunts of the Brownings and their set. At first glance, the city’s center — its magnificent, well-manicured architecture shining with eternal beauty — appeared untouched since the Renaissance. But the particular establishments I sought, once popular among the Brownings and their set, had long ago disappeared. At Piazza Santa Trinita, I gazed at the Palazzo Bartolini Salembeni, a majestic structure that once housed the Hotel du Nord, popular among well-heeled travelers; today the building is privately owned, its doors firmly shut and bolted. On the elegant shopping street, Via de’ Tornabuoni, I looked for the ornate, gilded interiors of the Gran Caffé Doney — a British favorite featured in the Franco Zeffirelli film “Tea with Mussolini” — but instead found a boutique hotel. Even the British Consulate had vanished; I later learned that it closed in 2011, shuttered after 500 years of diplomatic presence in Florence.

At the massive Palazzo Strozzi, I did find the Gabinetto Vieusseux, a private lending library frequented by Robert where, for a hefty membership fee, he read English periodicals and exchanged ideas with other expatriates. But the institute moved to its current location only several decades ago, and the collection is open to visitors solely by appointment.

I crossed to the other side of the Arno, pausing to admire the statues on the Ponte Santa Trinita. The river sparkled before me, edged with pastel-colored Renaissance buildings, the gaptoothed, medieval clock tower of the Palazzo Vecchio looming above jagged red rooftops. It occurred to me that here, in this “most beautiful of cities devised by man,” as Elizabeth once described it, perhaps the luster of the Brownings had simply faded — and compared to all this, whose wouldn’t?

Still endeavoring to retrace their daily footsteps, I entered the Boboli Gardens from a side gate on Via Romana. Their rent at Casa Guidi included free admission to these manicured grounds of the Palazzo Pitti, and the couple often came here with their son, Pen, a beloved only child who was born in Florence in 1849after Elizabeth had suffered two miscarriages (childhood illness, combined with a lifelong morphine addiction, compounded her health problems). Lined with clipped hedges, dotted with elaborate grottos and serene reflecting pools, the formal gardens seemed like an odd place for a child to frolic. Then again, Pen was surely no ordinary child, dressed by his mother to resemble a Renaissance prince, with embroidered blouses, velvet trousers, and long curls flowing under wide-brimmed hats, as was the fashion among the Anglo-Florentine coterie.

Back on the Via Romana, I turned toward the Casa Guidi, only a few steps away.Sweeping across the first floor of a 15th-century palazzo, the Brownings’ former apartment is today owned by Eton College, which maintains it as a museum, open three days a week from April to November; the Landmark Trust, a British nonprofit organization, also manages it as a holiday rental. Inside the imposing, high-ceilinged rooms I gazed at décor replicated from the Brownings’ era, including stiff Victorian furniture, drawing room walls of sea-foam green and heavy red curtains. Elizabeth’s desk stands in the center of the drawing room, facing a bank of tall windows. In this spot, she wrote some of her finest work, including “Casa Guidi Windows,”a book-length poem inspired by the pageantry unfolding on the street below.

On Sept. 12, 1847 — the Brownings’ first wedding anniversary — the couple watched 40,000 peopleparade past their windows in an enormous political demonstration heralding the Risorgimento, the movement for Italian unification. The crowd’s “joy and exultation,” “the white handkerchiefs fluttering like doves,” the banners reading “Liberty,” “The Union of Italy,” and “the Memory of the Martyrs,” so deeply affected Elizabeth that she wrote “Casa Guidi Windows” in passionate support of the Italian struggle for liberty:

For the heart of man beat higher

that day in Florence

flooding all her streets

And piazzas with a

tumult and desire …. How we gazed

from Casa Guidi windows

while, in trains of orderly procession —

banners raised,

And intermittent bursts of

martial strains

Which died upon the shout,

as if amazed

By gladness beyond music —

they passed on!

Though the poem has been largely overlooked by the English literary canon, for Italians it became an anthem, and Elizabeth their champion. Her passionate support of the Italian cause was considered crucial to the movement’s success.

“She was so famous among Italian intellectuals and patriots,” said Elena Capolino, the curator at Casa Guidi. “She did so much for unification. Even today Elizabeth Barrett Browning is considered the poet of the Risorgimento.”

Alas, Elizabeth never witnessed Italy’s unification, which wasn’t fully realized until 1871. She succumbed to a final illness in 1861 — “we believe it was tuberculosis,” Ms. Capolino said — and died at Casa Guidi. (Modern scholars have posited that she suffered and died from a rare muscle disorder.) On the day of her funeral, the shops lining the Brownings’ street, Via Maggio, were closed in her honor. Her coffin was carried through the city to the Protestant Cemetery of Florence, which is known as the English cemetery.She is buried there, her tomb a striking marble sarcophagus designed by Lord Frederic Leighton, the famed English artist. Shortly after her death, a grieving Robert left Florence, never to return.

On the exterior wall of Casa Guidi, a plaque honors “Elisabetta Barret Browning / Who in her woman’s heart reconciled / a scholar’s learning and a poet’s spirit / And whose poems forged a golden ring / between Italy and England,” placed there in 1861 by a “grateful Florence.”

It was just one small sign in a bustling city. But it was a sign, nevertheless, that Florence has not forgotten the Brownings after all.

The Brownings’ home is now a museum, Casa Guidi (Piazza San Felice, 8), open Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 3 to 6 p.m., April to November.The apartment is also available for short-term holiday rental through the Landmark Trust.

Steps away from Casa Guidi, the Brownings probably entered the manicured Boboli Gardens (Via Romana, 37/a) of the Pitti Palace via a side gate, the Annalena entrance, at Via Romana, 37/a.

Though the Brownings most likely frequented Florence’s English pharmacy, which has long ago disappeared, they may also have visited Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (Via della Scala, 16), a renowned perfumery and apothecary, which dates to 1612.The sumptuous interiors feature gilt-edged paneling and 14th-century frescoes; the almond hand cream was a favorite souvenir of Victorian tourists.

The Brownings had tiny appetites and unusual eating habits — one biography of the couple claims they were once seen sharing a squab. They subsisted largely on coffee, bread, chestnuts and grapes — all of which are available at Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio (Piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti), a lively food market. Though it dates to the 19th century, the poets most likely did not shop here; Elizabeth’s lady’s maid, Wilson, bargained for her.

“Flush,” by Virginia Woolf, tells the story of the Brownings as portrayed through the biography of Elizabeth’s beloved cocker spaniel.

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