The Brownings and Florence

At the age of 43 year old Elizabeth Barrett Browning gave birth to her first and only child, her son Pen, in the bedroom of the Casa Guidi in Florence. The most celebrated woman poet of her time had found new reserves of stamina since her departure from the life of a quasi-invalid in the stuffy bedroom at Wimpole St. And she had, at the age of 40, found love. Husband Robert whose devotion seems never to have wavered called her “A soul of fire in a shell of pearl.”

A visitor who rents the Brownings’ Italian home from the Landmark Trust can sleep in that bedroom (where Elizabeth was to die 12 years later) though not in the original bed. The furnishings were all sold at auction at Sothebys in 1912. Only the efforts of the Browning Society of New York saved the apartment itself from being converted to offices in the 1970s.

When I was spending a winter in Florence in the early 90s, I attended a rather forlorn cocktail party at the Casa Guidi just opposite the Palazzo Pitti. The rooms were almost empty except for portraits of the poets. The American hosts from the Browning Institute served us sherry and spoke in that valiant American way of their plans to retrieve or replace all the furniture so that the place would look the way it had in the Browning’s day. I didn’t think they had much hope of success. The restoration plan did prove difficult but help came in 1993 when ownership was transferred to Eton College. The Landmark Trust was brought into act as agents and in July 1995, the restored Casa Guidi was reopened for rent to up to six people.

Anybody who has looked for a flat in London will find comfort in reading of how Robert Browning traipsed around Florence “returning in despair,” in Elizabeth’s words, when he was looking for a cool summer place for them to rent. He finally found the Casa Guidi and for that first summer they replaced a Russian prince and lived among his luxurious furnishings. When they returned the following year they bought their own furnishings and drapes. Although a lot of the original furniture has been lost, one of their favourite pieces an exuberant rococo mirror with very plump cherubs clutching candlesticks, still hangs on the drawing room wall. Elizabeth’s mother-of- pearl tea caddy is displayed on a table. The portrait of her father, who never forgave her for marrying, still hangs in the bedroom.

In our driven workaholic age, I found it refreshing to read that in their early years at Casa Guidi, these two great poets didn’t bother writing much poetry. Robert sculpted and painted. He confessed to a friend that he could “with an unutterably easy heart, never write another line.” He went out a lot in the evenings and was very popular with women although he seems to have remained devoted to his wife. Elizabeth wrote to a friend that “being too happy doesn’t agree with literary activity.” More reclusive than her husband she was content to lie around on one of her eight sofas reading “wicked” French novels. Most of all and hard to believe in our cynical times, they seemed happy just to be together, walking on the narrow terrace in the evenings, going to Doney’s café for an ice cream or sitting on the Ponte Vecchio. When they did venture out, for example to hear “Signor Verdi’s very passionate and dramatic new opera “Il Trovatore” at the Pergola theatre, the low cost of living in Florence meant that they could do it in style and rent a box and order champagne. When they stayed home they ordered in from the trattoria across the road.

A lot of what the Brownings did in Florence is not that different from what a contemporary visitor would do today. Doney’s café only disappeared a few years ago. Nowadays the Pergola theatre tends to concentrate on prose with the Teatro Communale providing the operas. A visit to the Casa Guidi is a good opportunity to discover the “Oltrarno” district of Florence. Traditionally the poorest district of Florence, it is earthier, less fashionable, more of a neighborhood than the other side of the river. Conscious of the traffic problems in the cramped, narrow streets, the city has introduced electrical “Bussini ecologici “- little ecological buses. Line D will take you round the Oltrarno district with frequencies every eight minutes. On the second Sunday of each month a flea market is held just a block from Casa Guidi on Piazza Santo Spirito.

Elizabeth Browning is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, situated these days in the middle of the Viale, the ring road that circles central Florence. I tried to cross and pay her a return visit but the traffic was too frenetic. I retreated gratefully to the peace of my 21st century hotel.

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Anonymous said...

By Val De Beer "Val De Beer" - See all my reviews

I was so delighted to find "The Singing House" on, for two reasons:
1) Because when my much-loved, much read copy falls apart as it must eventually do, because it's been handled so much by me, I know that there will be another copy for me to buy,
2)Because it is such a pleasure to review this book and to imagine the sheer pleasure when someone reads it for the first time.
You don't have to know about opera in order to enjoy the book, because when the singing referred to in the book is described, it is dealt with so lovingly and sensitively that you are caught up in the joy of the moment.
When Leo dalla Vigna, the great bass singer is in an aeroplane at the height of a storm, he begins to sing - listen to these words: " His voice surged up through his chest and head, pushing out doubt, fear and Das Ende.As always, his voice, the air from within him, wove him into harmony with the whirling air in the world outside....his voice had also filled the cabin and wrapped itself like a muffler around the fear and desperation of the other passengers."
Oh that is so beautiful!!!
It is the story of Rose, who falls in love with Leo, who lives with his stunningly beautiful wife in their loveless marriage and its tragic secret, on the shores of Lake Como.
She travels with a pair of middle-aged twins all over Europe and it is the account of her experiences and of the experiences of Leo and the people who form an integral part of his life, that form the basis of this stunning book.
Janette Griffiths' ability to conjure up images of the atmosphere is uncanny:
"The great winds of the autumn gave way to the great snows of winter. What started as a light sleet that wan December morning in London, spread and rippled and thinly coated France, then folded back upon itself and covered the whole continent...Slow, heavy and deliberate, it fell without ceasing, muffling the rooftops of the great singing houses of Northern Italy, Germany and Austria."
With excitement, we follow Rose as she discovers Leo's secret and remembers his words "I now know that whenever I go out onto a stage to sing, that I sing for you."
She joins the ranks of women who have fallen in love with the "bellissima voce" of opera singers and with the singer as well, but will this be enough to base her life on, this troubled man with the tragic story?
I wish that I were about to read this book for the first time, however, having written this review now, I am inspired to read it yet again for its wonderful narrative and its spectacular imagery.
Don't deny yourself the pleasure of a magnificent story, read it!

I am so happy to have a chance to tell you how much I loved your book!

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