Elizabeth and Robert Browning arrived in Italy in 1846 following a secret marriage in London. For Elizabeth, coming to Florence was a merciful release. As an invalid, she revelled in the air, “so much lighter and more elastic” than the smog of London. And more, she was escaping the claustrophobic brutality of her father’s house – her father felt betrayed by the secret love affair, and afterwards cut off all ties with her. The Brownings’ courtship was immortalised in Elizabeth’s secretly written Sonnets From the Portuguese: “How Do I love thee? Let me count the ways! / I love thee to the depth & breadth & height / My Soul can reach” Robert later insisted that they be published – as translations to disguise how personal they were. He wrote later “I dared not reserve to myself the finest sonnets written in any language since Shakespeare’s”.The Italy they came to was in rapid flux. It was a divided land – the Austrians ruling in the north, the Spaniards oppressing the south, an Aus-trian Grand Duke, Leopold, ruling Tuscany from the Palazzo Pitti, and the Pope holding Rome and the surrounding lands. Elizabeth followed the struggles of the Risorgimento – the movement to unify and bring freedom to Italy. In her poem Casa Guidi Windows, she celebrates the civic liberties granted by the Grand Duke: “I heard last night a little child go singing / ‘Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church / ‘O Bella Liberta, O Bella!’” On their first wedding anniversary, Elizabeth and Robert had watched the people’s procession of celebration pass beneath their house near Piazza San Felice. The poem reveals Elizabeth’s excitement as a lifelong invalid who suddenly has the opportunity to witness history firsthand. She admits that she might be optimistic, but she prefers “to sing with these who are awake /with birds, with babes, with men who will not fear” In the second part of Casa Guidi Windows, written 1849-50, she laments the dashing of her hopes for freedom, following the entrance of the hated Austrian forces from the north into Florence.While some of Elizabeth’s political ideals were naïve, she was emotionally and intellectually engaged with Italian events – Casa Guidi Windows, indeed, was published simultaneously in English and Italian translation in 1851. She is still remembered in Italy for her part in championing the ideals of the Risorgimento.
‘I HEARD last night a little child so singing ’Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church,O bella libertà, O bella!—stringing he same words still on notes he went in searchSo high for, you concluded the upspringing f such a nimble bird to sky from perchMust leave the whole bush in a tremble green, nd that the heart of Italy must beat,While such a voice had leave to rise serene ’Twixt church and palace of a Florence street:A little child, too, who not long had been y mother’s finger steadied on his feet,And still O bella libertà he sang.’JULIET OF NATIONS, Casa Guidi Windows