Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Those of you with a literary bent will recognise both titles from the one above and surmise, quite correctly, that I have been staying in Florence recently.
In December an email from the Landmark Trust slipped into my Inbox :
“Escape to Italy this winter with our special offer :
Stay at our Italian Landmarks this winter at a special discounted rate. From the centre of Rome to the vineyards of the Euganean Hills, winter is the ideal time to visit Italy. The crowds have gone and the flights are relatively cheap. To celebrate winter in Italy, we are offering a special discount on some of our Italian Landmarks.
Casa Guidi : Florence : 6 people for the price of 2″
The Drawing Room restored as close as possible to an 1861 painting by George Mignaty
Reproduction of the 1861 Drawing Room painting by George Mignaty
Clearer version in one of the Landmark Library books.
In fact, in the end, we were just two. I quickly chose and booked the 4 nights 22 to 26 February, asked a friend to join me and booked flights from Heathrow to Pisa and from there a Terravision coach to whisk us into the centre of this, even in February, when it is very likely to rain (and it did at some point each day), beautiful treasure-house of a city.
The rear courtyard behind Casa Guidi
And not just the city … but to stay in the restored grand apartments where once the Brownings – poets Robert and his wife Elizabeth – were accommodated between July 1847 and July 1861 (just a month after the death of his wife and Pen, his son’s, mother Robert and Pen left Florence and the Casa Guidi never to return). This was truly a unique opportunity not to be missed. To actually stay at a writer’s house (or two, for that matter) and be surrounded by books by and about them and furnishings similar to theirs and experience much of what they experienced was beyond my wildest dreams.
Casa Guidi Balcony View : Via Mazzetta and San Felice church
The streets outside and the view (such as it is) from the balcony have changed little during the intervening 150 or so years.
Casa Guidi sitting or drawing room
My reading matter for the journey and for the week (when I was not browsing the well chosen volumes in the drawing room itself) was Margaret Forster’s Lady’s Maid (doubly relevant since MF had recently died in early February). This excellent book combines fact and fiction and tells Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s story through the eyes of her devoted maid, Lily. Another more light hearted read is Virginia Woolf’s ‘Flush‘ EBB’s story as if told by her pet spaniel of that name. I recommend both books.
An Idle Brain is Satan’s Shoppe
From the Casa Guidi library I was interested to read the chapter concerning the author’s visit to Casa Guidi in”The dead one touched me from the past: a walk with writers through the centuries” by Art Seamans. Seamans, a Canadian, I believe, records his visits to authors’ homes in Europe and North America.
The Casa Guidi Library
He had trouble gaining access to Casa Guidi but I expect he was unaware of the fact that it’s let privately for holidays and has very limited opening hours during just the summer months.
Entrance/Atrium Casa Guidi Building
“We entered the door to the ground floor into an atrium, the floor of which was composed of uneven tiles. A bust of Robert Browning and a staircase leading to an upstairs apartment were all that we noticed.
Although we searched the area, we could see no signs announcing the Browning museum located in the old Browning rooms. Our experience was hardly unique, for many visitors to the Browning’s ended in frustration since the Brownings absented themselves almost half of the time they spent in Italy. Visits to Lucca, Rome, Paris and England took them away frequently from their home here. Not that we missed seeing anything dramatic. Reports describe a cluster of rooms and a balcony. Besides servants’ quarters and kitchen, there was a huge bedroom with a huge secondhand bed Browning had purchased. … [I don’t think the bed I slept in, and where Pen was born, was this original one!]
Visiting the Brownings was a disappointment for those who wished to be served something besides tea. …
There was not much here, yet this small apartment has become a symbol for what proved to be Elizabeth’s own Promethean stance. History would not repeat itself, but Elizabeth’s struggle proved even more difficult than Byron’s, for her struggle pitted one love against another love. At age 40 Elizabeth had to choose between the security and love of her family, particularly that of her father, and the untried love of the fledgling poet named Robert Browning. She chose the latter but it cost her the former.”
Anyway, he was good enough to donate a signed copy of his book to the house.
Casa Guidi Balcony fromVia Mazzetta
I should perhaps make reference here to the poem Casa Guidi Windows which was written at Casa Guidi :
“Advertisement to the first edition of Casa Guidi Windows
This poem contains the impressions of the writer upon events in Tuscany of which she was a witness. “From a window ” the critic may demur. She bows to the objection in the very title of her work. No continuous narrative nor exposition of political philosophy is attempted by her. It is a simple story of personal impressions, whose only value is in the intensity with which they were received, as proving her warm affection for a beautiful and unfortunate country, and the sincerity with which they are related, as indicating her own good faith and freedom from partisanship.
Taken from “Elizabeth Barrett Browning: selected poems”; edited by Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor. Broadview Editions 2009
“I heard last night a little child go singing
‘Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church,
O Bella liberta, O Bella!”
I think it was also Art Seamans, but it could have been another, who commented that the house has the most memorials to and quotations by its former inhabitants than any other he had visited. This is very true!
Although Seamans called on the wrong day or at the wrong time of year there is in fact a small room that serves as a ‘museum’ to the two poets and contains the sofa upon which Elizabeth languished at her father’s home, 50, Wimpole Street in London, a glass case containing some mementoes, busts and other memorabilia. The study, dining room and sitting room are open to the public between April and November on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons from 3pm to 6pm. The number of visitors is usually small and the housekeeper organises the opening.
The Wimpole Street Sofa
Enfilade from Museum to Bedroom via Dining Room and Drawing Room
Casa Guidi at 8, Piazza San Felice is situated in the Oltrarno district of Florence. The area just south of the river and approached by the bridge Ponte Vecchio and Ponte Santa Trinita. It’s a quiet area with lots of intriguing antique shops, the English church dedicated to St Mark, the famous Spirito Santo church (built but not finished by Brunelleschi c1440s) and some very good restaurants of which we visited three : Ristorante Ricchi; Casalinga and Osteria Spirito Santo. All of which we would recommend.
St Marks’ Anglican Church
Casa Guidi is also just a stone’s throw from the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens (about which more later).
Lucky, lucky Barbara. What an experience!
Lucky, lucky me, sherry. I do appreciate it.
Envy, envy, envy – I don’t think I have ever been quite so green! What an experience, what a memory to have! Thank you SO much for sharing, generously and satisfyingly, with this nice full (and fully illustrated) post. On my only visit to Florence we stayed at the Quisisana, the pensione where A Room With a View was filmed – this reminds me of my stay. It was destroyed by a bomb in the 1990s and I have heard it was restored, but it can’t be the same…
The memories are the best, Diana, and this blog helps me keep them. How very sad about the bomb. Several times on our walks we read that a bomb had destroyed this or that monument. Thanks again for adding to this post with your own memories.
[…] a postscript to the previous post about the Casa Guidi I’m recording here my visit to pay my respects to Elizabeth Barrett […]
Lucky old you! I do envy you at times, having the time (and the meas too!) to whiz off to Italy , almost on a whim. And you certainly make the most of these trips. “Travel broadens the mind” they say. That isn’t true for everyone but it certainly applies to you. At least me and your other regular readers can experience these places vicariously through your eyes!
Thank you (I think) Mick. Well, I wouldn’t spend on something I couldn’t justify. I often looked at the apartment on the website and baulked at the price. I really did appreciate my surroundings so glad that I went ahead and booked when I had the chance (and a few weeks free in February).
Sorry, no intention to offend if that’s how it came across 😞. Just jealous having to endure all the cold and rain over in England. Today I had to go to Birmingham and the trains were all delayed due to flooding on line between Rugby and Milton Keynes. When will it end?
No offence, taken, of course! Re-reading your first comment I’m pleased that you are nejoying the posts and visits. Travel can be deadly sometimes – but look on the bright side … claim your compensation and plan another (free) trip. Although it shouldn’t really be like that. I have outstanding claims for delayed trains already this year. Ridiculous.
[…] walk began at the centre of the Ponte Vecchio (a short walk from Casa Guidi) where originally butchers and grocery shops were built in the 13th century. These were replaced by […]
What a treat, and despite the rain possibly the best time to visit Florence and really soak up the Browning atmosphere. Lady’s Maid was the first MF I ever read years ago. Very recently found her bio of E B Browning; hard back, dust jacket, 1st edition, in a charity shop…..had to have!
Somehow the rain didn’t spoil a thing. I had hoped to visit gardens on the Thursday but it was just too wet for me (Caroline went, though). I enjoyed my afternoon picking up books in the CG library and drinking tea in the relaxed surroundings then on Friday morning got up with the lark and packed and was first person in the gardens at 8.15. We had to be out of the flat at 10am and I managed that as well. Enjoyed the biography. I’m giving EBB a break for a while.
So was it more thrilling than the manse of Rudyard Kipling? I quake at trying to find something of interest in humble West Michigan.
Naulakha was wonderful too, of course! Isn’t there a Hemingway connection in Petoskey? Not that I’m a big Hemingway fan, especially.
Well me either — there is a cool old bar in Petoskey he used to hang out in, and a grocery store in Horton Bay that’s a mini-museum. Maybe a road trip? Petoskey is a lovely town. Tho’ a good four hour drive.
Well, it’s that long drive that puts me off. I’ll email you soon regarding arrangements which I think the ‘boys’ have been sorting thus far.
I do hope you don’t mind – but I’ve lifted your photograph of the view from the Casa Guidi balcony to illustrate my latest post – on English women writing in Italy – see http://wp.me/p2AEiO-1iv. We stayed at Casa Guidi for a fortnight one summer umpteen years ago.I can see that we’ve been following each other around Landmarks at home and abroad. That photograph brought me to your blog – and I am now a follower! I’ve fully acknowledged the source of the photograph.
You are welcome, Elizabeth. Thank you for letting me know and sending the link. Barbara