‘A paradise of exiles’ is how Percy Bysshe Shelley described Florence, hinting at the anomaly of a city that exiled its most famous writer - Dante, creator of ‘Paradise’ - yet has since nurtured countless foreign authors and poets. The English were among the first to be inspired by ‘the stones of Florence’: back in 1572, Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite courtier Sir Philip Sidney embarked on a Grand Tour, Florentia being a high-point of his two-and-a-half year sojourn. Aged just 17, Sidney sounds surprisingly like a contemporary teenager, with his aim to study ‘languages and international relations’. Yet the aspiration for most ‘grand tourists’ was to set foot on ‘Classic soil’ and thereby soak up the culture of Classical Antiquity.
Sidney started something of a fashion for the English writer-tourist in Florence and he was followed in later centuries by Tobias Smollett, James Boswell (friend and biographer of Dr Samuel Johnson), Lord Byron, the Brownings, Thackeray, Shelley, Dickens, George Eliot, John Ruskin and innumerable others. ‘There are too many English people in Florence; they will be my ruin if I have to invite them all to dinner!’ was the heartfelt concern of Sir Horace Mann, Embassy Secretary for England in Florence in the 1730s. Today, some would echo his view that there are simply ‘too many English’ in this village-cum-city (indeed, Florence became known as ‘une ville toute anglaise’), yet most visitors would agree that since the heady days of the Grand Tour a special Anglo-Florentine rapport has developed. Such empathy was memorably encapsulated by Robert Browning: in Florence, he said, ‘I felt at home with my own soul.’
Whatever its prosaic realities, Firenze has inspiredAnglo-American writers through the centuries to wax poetical. But there have been voices of dissent: for the more introspective Northerner, Italian joie-de-vivre has its downside. Mrs Hester Thrale, a ‘grand tourist’ in the 1740s, wrote this account: