In England, most events in life happen over a good cup of tea, so it came as no surprise that my discovery of the English in Florence started with one. This cup of tea, however, was not being served under the grey skies of Britain, but in a beautiful palazzo tucked in the northeast corner of Florence.
This palazzo has been in my family for the last 120 years,' said my hostess. ‘It was originally built in 1870 by an English artist from Hull.' ‘From Hull?' I thought. Hull is an industrial port town in England, an unlikely place for an artist to come from. ‘At that time,' my hostess continued, ‘this part of Florence was more English than England.'
This was when it all began. As I took a closer look at the palazzo, I thought that William Morris would have been proud. Arts and Crafts design was everywhere: patterns of nature in the frescoes, sensuous curves of ironwork in the railings and lamp fittings, and coloured and stained glass in the decoration. I later discovered that this very British design is still referred to in Florence as the ‘Liberty' style, taking its name from Liberty's department store in London that championed the look in the late-nineteenth century. Even the ceiling paintings reveal the origins of the original owner. Looking up from the very Italian marble bath, one views a scene straight from the English seaside, complete with striped bathing tents and donkey rides.
For centuries, Florence has welcomed foreigners, but it was the English and their American counterparts who left, perhaps, the most lasting legacy. The English gentlemen on their Grand Tours did much to spread the beauty of Italian art and life, and English Grand Tourists' passionate pursuits came home with them: most historic homes in England are rich with the artistic treasures collected during their owners' time in Italy; and the boom in both the building of additional ice houses on English country estates (for making the delicious Florentine gelato) and the rise in the courtesan culture of the aristocracy can be traced to the times of the Grand Tour.
The opening of a steam-train service from London in the 1850s ushered in the first tourists. These Victorian travellers could make the journey from London to Florence in 36 hours, and with their new-found wealth in industry, the habit of vacationing abroad began. With those on holiday came the popularity of Victorian progress and English design, which can be seen in everything from the iron glasshouse of the Giardino dell'Orticultura on via Bolognese to the iron lamposts and kiosks dotting the Arno and in Piazzale Michelangiolo. English poets, artists and writers flocked to Florence for inspiration, many calling it home. Even Queen Victoria fell for the charms of Florence. During a holiday in 1888, the queen acquired a Florentine spitz dog; later known in England as pomeranians, setting a new craze for the breed in Victorian England.
Following the footsteps of the Victorians were the turn-of-the-century English collectors. In collaboration with like-minded Americans, they did much to secure the heritage of Florence. Establishing collections and restoring villas, they raised awareness of the fragile nature of heritage and the important role of caretaker. A visit to the Horne Museum, British Institute Library and the donated scholarly villas of La Pietra and I Tatti serves as a great reminder that culture has no boundaries or nationalities. We all have a role to play.
So back to the Florentine Palazzo and the conversation over a cup of tea. The palazzo was indeed built by the son of a wealthy shipping entrepreneur from Hull. He found in Florence what he lacked in industrial England, and Florence found in him a devoted resident. It may just have been a passing comment over tea, but it suggested volumes about the role of the Anglo-Americans of Florence throughout the centuries, a mutual history and an endearing bond between countries.