Near the Pitti Palace in Florence is an apartment known as Casa Guidi, once the home of the poets Elizabeth Barrett (1806 – 1861) and Robert Browning (1812 – 1889). Three of its rooms are open to the public while the whole (with modern ‘trappings’) is available for short lets through the Landmark Trust, and is at times used by Eton College pupils for art history and English literary studies. The school, which has helped to restore the apartment, reckons the environment encourages ‘cerebral osmosis’!
One Eton teacher, Roland Martin, recalls leading one such school visit with his wife Kerri: ‘As we’re both English teachers, to be breathing the air where the Brownings lived was absolutely wonderful, magical.’ School leaders are privileged to sleep in the Browning’s bedroom with its ducal size bed, similar to the poets’ own.
‘It was a little overwhelming,’ admits Roland, ‘because Elizabeth died there, but it’s still very romantic. In the evenings the boys would sit in the drawing room dramatising and reciting Robert Browning’s poetry and, once, scenes from Shakespeare. My son, Tom, who enjoyed one of these study trips, remembers how very special, very Victorian the atmosphere and furniture of the drawing room was – the experience of living and eating and learning in the home, where they lived – so unusual.’
The Brownings’ life long union was sealed when Elizabeth, an illustrious, bed-ridden 40-year-old poet, descended from Jamaican slave-owners, loved and eloped with a poor bank clerk’s son – a poet, six years her junior. She bore a healthy son (Robert, nick-named ‘Pen’) and was happy. Yet for many years Elizabeth had been unwell, suffering from spinal injury, ‘nervous disorder’ and congested lungs, and rarely ventured away from her privileged London home. Her poetry was her life, her medicine. Upon reading one of her published verses Robert was sparked to write a letter of fervent appreciation to her, marking the beginning of an epistolary courtship. Many months later, they married in secret in the parish church of St Marylebone. Elizabeth’s father, peculiarly, vehemently the opposed marriage of any of his 12 children. He never forgave Elizabeth for eloping with Robert.
The Brownings settled in Italy, as the Mediterranean climate was more favourable to Elizabeth’s health than the nagging damp of Britain. In Florence they could easily nourish their artistic interests, visiting galleries and museums and attending theatre and opera. Robert could pursue his drawing, sculpture and painting. The enjoyed friendships with writers and poets such as Frederick Tennyson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edward Lear and artists such as the sculptor William Wetmore Story. At Casa Guidi the poets wrote some of their most notable poems. Elizabeth’s ‘Casa Guidi Windows’ and ‘Poems Before Congress’ reveal her sympathy with the Italian cause for freedom from Austrian domination. ‘Aurora Leigh’ shows her concern with women’s rights, while Robert’s ‘Men and Women’ displays psychological insight and mastery of the dramatic monologue. And although written before her marriage, Elizabeth’s Sonnets from the Portuguese was published in 1850 while she lived at Casa Guidi. Sonnet 43 is the famous ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’.
Although not wealthy the Brownings had a comfortable income from royalties, Elizabeth’s investments and sub-letting the flat while venturing to cooler climes during the summer, and they employed one or two servants. In The Brownings of Casa Guidi, a chatty ‘upstairs and downstairs’ account of the family’s day-to-day life, Edward McAleer remarks that there was then almost no crime in Florence and few police. Elizabeth, McAleer writes, commented that ‘in Italy people of all classes walked in the same gardens…mingled in the same crowds with gladness and harmony. She wondered why English crowds should vent themselves in outbursts of drunkenness, brutality, fisticuffs, and blasphemy despite their advantages of “scriptural instruction”.’ Do her reflections echo nowadays?
Of the 17 rooms available for rent in the Guidi family’s building, the Brownings occupied, on the piano nobile (first floor), initially six and later seven: a maid’s room, nursery, bedroom, a drawing room measuring 20 by 33 feet, dining room, a small sitting room where Robert wrote, and (later on) a studio, where Robert kept casts, artistic machinery, mannequins and a human skeleton to assist his study of anatomy. They also had the use of an entrance hall, narrow terrace (from which they enjoyed watching the street life) and a pantry (which served as a kitchen). The home was part of a palazzo formed in the eighteenth century by linking two buildings built by the Ridolfi family in the fifteenth century, both of which had passed to the politically influential Guidi family.
The Brownings, especially Robert, delighted in buying furniture for the apartment and some of what they acquired – a mixture of bric-a-brac and handsome, quite valuable pieces – is on view today. A painting by the Greek artist George Mignaty of the drawing room (a copy of which hangs in the salon) and a catalogue of The Browning Collections sold at auction by Sotheby’s in London in 1913 are useful sources enabling the present owners and Friends of Casa Guidi to find and ‘buy back’ (or in some cases have copies made of) the Brownings’ furniture, sculpture, paintings, letters and mementoes to recreate the social, artistic and literary atmosphere reigning at Casa Guidi during the family’s 14-year stay.
Notable original ‘additions’ are a large carved gilt wood mirror with a scroll design frame and cupids and sconces either side, the bust of Robert Browning by William Wetmore Story, and a painting by Henry William Pickersgill of Elizabeth’s father, Edward Moulton Barrett. Fortunately the doors and fireplaces are original; the walls, ornamental borders and ceilings in the drawing room, the main bedroom and Robert’s study have been painted the same colour as they were in the Brownings’ day. Copies have been made and displayed of Fanny Haworth’s watercolour of Pen playing the piano, an oil painting of St Jerome and a plaque of Aeschylus. The bookcases are similar to the ones owned by the Brownings.
Elizabeth died suddenly in 1861. Robert and Pen settled in London. Robert’s poetic genius burgeoned and he enjoyed a rich social life, though he never remarried. He died, aged 77, in Venice where Pen was living, and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Elizabeth was buried in the English Cemetery on the outskirts of Florence. The cemetery, now undergoing restoration, is a tranquil and elysian oasis. It is open to the public. Robert commissioned Frederic, Lord Leighton to design Elizabeth’s tomb, a marble sarcophagus supported by six pillars. One carving shows a broken slave shackle, recalling Elizabeth’s humanitarian and abolitionist views.
There have been several attempts to restore Casa Guidi as a ‘living shrine’ to the Brownings. In 1893, Pen Browning bought Palazzo Guidi and moved some of their effects to the apartment. After Pen’s death, his widow sold the building to an American Browning admirer, Laura Ellen Centaro. She established a short-lived foundation dedicated to preserving the apartment. After she died, her family let the building and eventually the apartment became a linguistic club run by Ruth Borchardt. Some of the rooms, in their shabby, bare state, were opened to the public to raise restoration funds. Miss Borchardt established a short-lived appeal committee. Fortunately she had wisely sought the help of a friend, Michael Meredith, an Eton master and scholarly Browning enthusiast. Meredith was to prove invaluable in later efforts to secure Casa Guidi’s future.
‘One of the most dilapidated rooms had an ancient ping pong table in it!’ remembers Michael Meredith, chuckling. He notes that another fellow committee member was the portrait artist Pietro Annigoni, famous for his portraits of Queen Elizabeth and pictures for the covers of Time magazine of former US presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and of Pope John XXIII.
When the Centaro family determined to sell the building to commercial developers, the Browning Institute in New York initiated another appeal. Intending to be only a ‘temporary’ owner, the Institute secured funding to buy the apartment in 1971. Eventually, in the early 1990s, the Institute offered Casa Guidi to Eton College, no doubt encouraged both by Michael Meredith’s diligence and energy, and Eton’s intention not only to help restore and maintain the apartment for public viewing, but also to enable pupils and the public to ‘live’ in the flat (available as a holiday let from the Landmark Trust). It is not only a museum but also a memorial to eternally vibrant lives. The Trust deserves credit for furnishing and decorating the home. Indeed, it was fortunate that Sir John Smith, the founder of the Landmark Trust, was an old Etonian!
The Browning memory thrives not only at Casa Guidi and through poetry but also equally through Rudolf Besier’s successful play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and its subsequent film versions. And the memory has been made all the more colourful by Michael Dibdin’s mystery A Rich Full Death, in which Robert Browning features as an amateur sleuth while Elizabeth rests in the background. I hope there will be more ways to count ‘thee’ by.
Special thanks are due to Roland Martin, Eton College Housemaster, and Michael Meredith, Curator of the Modern Collection, Eton College Library, and former president of the London Browning Society, for sharing their knowledge.
This article first appeared in Cassone: The International Online Magazine of Art and Art Books in the May 2011 issue.