the protestant cemetery in florence, commonly known as the english cemetery due to the large number of english victorian notables interred in its grounds, is surrounded by boulevards and faded mansions, an oval island of peace overtaken by city sprawl and traffic just outside the ring of florence's old walls, that nineteenth-century florence only recently being rediscovered after a long stint playing second fiddle to the golden age of florence, the city of dante aligheri, boccaccio, and the medicis.
in 1827 the swiss evangelical reformed church purchased land outside the medieval wall and gate of Porta a' Pinti from leopold II, grand duke of tuscany for an international and ecumenical cemetery, russian and greek Orthodox burials joining protestant ones. at that time this was a lonely spot, with widely scattered houses outside the walls, and inside, between the hamlets of Borgo Pinti and Borgo alla Croce, a few small villas almost hidden among the vegetable gardens and orchards that lined the little roads. burials took place from 1838 to 1877, after which only a few cinerary urns were accepted. the 1409 graves represent sixteen nations: the 760 british graves form the core, followed by the 433 swiss, 87 americans, 84 italians and 54 russians who are buried there. in 1877, the cemetery had to be closed, the medieval wall having been torn down at the time of the risorgimento when florence became capital of italy with code napoleon forbidding burials within city limits, ending a subversive chapter in the city's history - that of a clandestine and non-conformist florence.
for years the old landscaping had been rather ferociously over weeded and by the end of the nineties almost all its nineteenth-century plants had been rooted out, the cemetery a dry and forlorn place. then came curator, librarian and enthusiast, Julia Bolton Holloway, with a vision to heal the gardens, restore it to its 19th century heyday and preserve and promote a new library dedicated to the works of all those buried in the grounds, as well as develop an online catalogue for international researchers, with work currently being undertaken on burial records in england, russia and italy. her labour of love has reaped the benefits, the weed killer replaced by bulbs, volunteers and a thriving gardening centre attached to a fledgling Foundation, where apprenticeships in blacksmithing, masonry, gardening and book binding can be formally provided for the refugee families she has long been working with to restore the forgotten cemetery after 125 years of neglect.
in 1996 the cemetery was reopened for the interment of ashes. this has brought misfortune as well as reward with the swiss owners seeking to clear large sections of the terrain to enable the construction of concrete edifices or loculi for new internment. a petition and details of the campaign to protect this urban wildscape, neighbourhood cultural and social centre, and vernacular historic monument, can be found on the cemetery’s blogsite.
look beyond the headline and sign the petition, or better still take a walk round your nearest cemetery and find out whether it has a friends society or is in danger of becoming a supermarket!