Monday, October 31, 2011


Considering it's Halloween, and tomorrow All Saint’s Day, I thought it appropriate to write a few lines on the so-called ‘English cemetery’ in Florence. Located in piazzale Donatello, the cemetery appears like an elevated island of the dead in the middle of the ever-busy ring road around Florence. However when first constructed it would have looked quite different.

Contrary to the nickname of the cemetery, it wasn’t created exclusively for English citizens -  quite the opposite. The Swiss Evangelical reformed church bought the land from the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II, in 1828, to build an ecumenical cemetery (thus, open to all Christian faiths; Orthodox and Protestant), the first in the area. It was located outside the still standing and perfectly intact medieval city’s walls from the 1330’s.

In 1865 when Florence became the capital of the newly unified Italian peninsula, the city’s walls were destroyed as part of the renovation project headed by Giuseppe Poggi. The cemetery became engulfed into Poggi’s renovation project and finished by being in the middle of a busy multiple lane dense traffic thoroughfare, as well as being was remodeled into the current oval shape. The medieval walls were torn down and replaced with a tree-lined ring-road encircling the city. Neoclassical buildings were built along the ring-road and suburbs renovated. Many of the new Florentine residents moving to the city due to its new capital status, as well as the bourgeois Florentine families, bought houses along these avenues. Moreover, Poggi planned for artist’s studios to be in the area surrounding the cemetery island thus giving name to one of the major streets leading off the ring-road ‘via degli artisti’.

Tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
There is a predominance of English buried in the cemetary, hence the nickname. However, this belies the intention of the place which is conveyed by the tombstones. The inscriptions are in numerous languages, French, German, Cyrillic, Greek, Danish and Romansh. The cemetery was closed in 1877, however the Florentine council has recently allowed it to be used by the Swiss church (which still owns it) for cremated remains only. One of the most famous people buried here is the English Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), who lived for many years in Florence with her husband, the poet Robert Browning (he is buried in Poet’s corner in Westminster Abbey). The Swiss Giampietro Vieusseux, founder of the Gabinetto Vieusseux (a reading room which became the one of the main meeting places for intellectuals in Florence during the Risorgimento) is also buried here.

Tomb of Gabinetto Vieusseux
The best known painting by Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901), the Swiss symbolist artist, is the ‘Isle of the Dead’ of which there are four versions painted by the artist, inspired by the English cemetery of Florence. The first three versions of the subject were painted in Florence, he had his studio very close by, and they are deeply personal as it was where he had buried his seven month old daughter. The painting shows a dense cluster of Cypres trees on an isolated area with an aura of eternity.

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Bocklin 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Since the medieval period, the lion has been the animal symbol of Fiorenza (medieval Florence).
The lion, representing the Republic of Florence, became known as the Marzocco. The origin of the name is believed to derive from Martocus – or little Marte or Mars, referring to the god of War. When the statue of Mars, at the foot of the ponte vecchio bridge, washed away with the bridge in the 1333 flood, it was replaced by a lion sculpture which the citizens called little Mars.

In the 1300’s a Marzocco lion sculpture, the collective symbol of Florence, was the only sculpture in the town hall square (Piazza della Signoria). All the other sculpture was placed there much later, from the 1490’s onwards. The lion can be seen in the background of one of the scenes from the private family chapel of the Sassetti family in the Santa Trinita church by Domenico Ghirlandaio, frescoed in the early 1480’s. 

The lion is to the left of the town hall building and there is no other sculpture in the square nor under the open portico loggia. The Marzocco that is now there is a copy of the splendid sculpture by Donatello. Carved out of local grey ‘pietra serena’ stone from the surrounding Florentine hills, he proudly holds the coat of arms of the Florentine Repubblic, the giglio (red lily on a white back ground).

The Marzocco by Donatello was placed here in 1812 when the original medieval lion was in a bad state of affairs.  He had been made for the new snazzy papal apartments in Santa Maria Novella for the advent visit of Pope Nicholas V.

The street behind the town hall is called the Lion street (via dei Leoni) precisely because it was here that they kept live lions in cages for the authentic rendering of their animal symbolism. Already, from the 1200's, live lions in the flesh were kept in the Bargello building, which was then the Palazzo della PodestĂ  (home to the official elected foreign arbitrator to oversee Florentine matters of council). The lions were then moved to the area near to the Baptistry, before being located to the area behind the town hall in 1350 and, thus, giving name to the street. They remained here for circa two hundred years until Cosimo I de Medici, in the middle of the 1500's, moved them to the area near San Marco, at the recently constructed ‘Giardino dei Semplici’ (the botanical garden).

Grand duke Pietro Leopoldo of the Lorraine-Hapsburg family (the rulers after the extinction of the Medici line from 1737 until unification in 1861), in the second half of the 1700’s, decided to do away with them altogether. In the chronicles much is written about the lions, their behaviour, births and their characters. There were sometimes up to the twenty-eight in the cages behind the town hall. On the night of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s death, two of the lions tore one another to pieces!
The two lions patrolling the entrance to the loggia dei Lanzi were placed here in 1789 by the Lorraine-Hapsburgs, having brought them up from the Villa Medici in Rome where they had been guarding the staircase in the villa’s garden since 1600. 

The lion above is from the 2nd century B.C and the one on the left is from the 1590’s, commissioned to pair his ancient brother by the Grand Duke Ferdinand de Medici, a great lover and collector of antiquities. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I love a good chevalric order and the symbol of the uber prestigious Order of the Golden Fleece is my absolute favourite.
Cosimo I de Medici, Duke of Florence at the time, was awarded the honour of becoming a member of the much coveted boys club in 1545. It was a limited membership of 50 (increased in 1516 ) and couldn’t be passed on to heirs.

Portrait of Cosimo I de Medici wearing the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece by Bronzino
The order originated in 1430, by the Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Good) in celebration of his wedding to the Portuguese princess Isabella of Aviz. The Burgundian lands were subsequently absorbed into the domain of the Hapsburgs, explaining why Cosimo received the knightly membership from the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V of the Hapsburg family.  Membership was excluded to heretics and so it became an exclusive catholic order during the Reformation.  The dedication of the order to the ‘golden fleece’ refers to the mythological story of Jason, who, along with his team, the Argonauts, managed to obtain the golden fleece which was being kept in a tree guarded by a dragon, a deed which was necessary for him to claim his birthright.

Jason with the Golden Fleece by Peter Francavilla in the Bargello
The order’s patron saint is St Andrew, whose calendar day is 11 August, the day on which Cosimo I received the honour in the cathedral of Florence. The badge of the order is in the shape of a gold fleece hanging from a jeweled collar of fire steels in the shape of B (for Burgandy) and linked by flints. Cosimo is shown wearing the collar in many portraits as well as appearing painted into various political scenes in the Medici palaces

Fresco on the ceiling of the staircase from the first to the second floor of the granducal apartments, showing the Golden Fleece collar
In 1561 Cosimo received the authority from Pope Pius IV to create his own chivalric order, the Order of St Stephen, Pope and Martyr. He was the first Grand Master of the order and his successors, as the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, inherited the leadership. 

Medici arms surmounted by a coronet and surrounded by the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece
The objective of the order when formed was to combat the growing threat of the Turks on the Tyrannian sea.  The initial seat of the order was in Elba but was later moved to Pisa. It was an ingenious way to unite the nobles from the recently conquered Siena and Pisa, now under the rule of the Medici dukes, with the Florentines in a unified front against a common enemy. St Stephen, Pope and Martyr was important to Cosimo as it was on this saint’s calendar day, 2nd August in 1554, that he defeated the French led by the exiled Florentine Marshal Strozzi at the battle of Marciano. The two bronze statues in the chapel of the Princes show the Medici Grand Dukes wearing the cloak of the Grand Master of the Order.

Cameo of Cosimo I (holding the collar) and Eleanora with children in the Silver Museum in the Pitti Palace

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


The gastronomic adventure never ceases here in Italy. I have just spent the weekend in Sardegna and discovered two new types of pasta typical to this lovely wild island: fregola and culurgiones.

Culurgiones is a type of pasta which originated from the Ogliastra area (central east of Sardegna) and now enjoyed all over the island. It belongs in the same family as the tortello and raviolo, being a ‘pasta ripiena’ or pasta with filling inside. This filling changes slightly according to the season and the area, but the form stays the same. Inside is a potato base with either goat or sheep cheese according to the season, with mint or garlic.

The culurgiones are oblong in shape and have a slight half moon curve to them due to the way that the fresh pasta is closed at either end with the fingers. They are decorated with some diagonal incisions which, when combined with the shape, take the form of sheaves of wheat when on a plate. Served warm with a pecorino cheese grated on top they're delicious. They can also be served with a tomato sugo.

Fregola is completely different - it is similar to couscous only slightly larger in form. These small balls of pasta are often served with fish broth or a fish sugo or a more delicate and light broth. They are made by rubbing the mixture (semola grano duro and water) together between the hands until the little balls form, thus giving origin to the name  (‘sfregare’ means to rub one's hands together). 

Typically from Cagliari and Oristano, the pasta is found packaged in shops all over Sardegna, though it is not necessarily on the menu in trattorias outside of its native region.