Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site

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The Poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning - Italophiles in Florence



Photo Tours


Edith Wharton


Room View


Palazzo Guidi, opposite the Pitti Palace in Florence.  It houses a museum and you can even rent out the rooms.


This is one of a suite of rooms let by Britain's Landmark Trust which manages Casa Guidi.  Click on the image to go to the Landmark Trust's homepage.


Painting of the drawing room in Casa Guidi.  Click on the image to visit the Literary Traveler site's informative page on Casa Guidi and the Brownings.


This is how the drawing room looks today.  Click on the image to read about the efforts it took to create the museum.


Click on the above image to go to The Victorian Web's wonderfully informative site about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her work. Click here to visit the University of Toronto's site with copies of many of her poems.


The Victorian Web has an equally wonderful site about Robert Browning and his work.  Click on the above image to visit it.  Click here to visit the University of Toronto's site with copies of many of his poems.


The Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens beyond.  These are open to the public now, but were the private property of the Duke of Florence at the time the Brownings were his neighbors. They lived at the far right of end of the square.


Image of the Cascine from that period.


Michelangelo's Night on the Medici Tomb


Michelangelo's Day on the Medici Tomb


Michelangelo's Twilight on the Medici Tomb


Michelangelo's Dawn on the Medici Tomb


Michelangelo's Medici Tomb


Michelangelo's Giuliano Duke of Nemour


This is an image of Elizabeth's tomb in the Protestant Cemetery in Florence.  Click here to go to Eton College's page describing in detail Casa Guidi's contents.


To see what's available as printed books of the Browning's poetry or biographies of the two, you can use this search tool for

Just enter 'Books' in the 'Search' field, and 'Browning' (or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example) in the 'Keyword' field.  Then click on the 'Go' button to see what's available, what people's comments about the books are, and what they cost.

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The Brownings in Italy

Differences between N. and S. Europe

Living opposite the Pitti Palace

The Cascine and 'The Dance'

Their son, another Italophile

Italian unification and 'Casa Guidi Windows'

Their deaths in Italy


The Brownings and Italy

The poet Robert Browning married the invalid poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1846 and they lived for most of their married life together in Florence in an apartment opposite the Pitti Palace in a building called Palazzo Guidi.  Elizabeth christened their apartment Casa Guidi. 

Robert’s love affair with Italy was longer than his wife’s.  His first journey to Italy was in 1838.  and he was inspired by Italy’s history and artists in his poetry. 

It was actually Elizabeth’s doctor who first suggested she be taken to Pisa during the English winter to enjoy the milder climate.  But it took their elopement to make that happen, because Elizabeth’s over-protective father did not give his permission for her to travel for her health, and to avoid his forbidding it, Elizabeth never asked his permission for her marriage to Robert.

Pisa lead to Florence, where they both fell in love with the town, and found many friends in the expatriate community for which Florence was and still is famous, and among the Florentines.  Her first visit to Florence prompted Elizabeth to write home on August 20, 1847:  “This Florence is unspeakably beautiful…”. 

Their love a Florence persisted, and even if they did travel around much of central and northern Italy, and to England and France, they always returned to Florence.  

In June of 1854 Elizabeth writes:  “I love Florence -- the place looks exquisitely beautiful in its garden ground of vineyards and olive trees, sung round by the nightingales day and night…If you take one thing with another, there is no place in the world like Florence, I am persuaded, for a place to live in -- cheap, tranquil, cheerful, beautiful, within the limits of civilization yet out of the crush of it…”


Differences Between North and South Europe

All of Italy fascinated Elizabeth.  In her poem “The North and the South” she explains the differences she saw between Northern Europe and Southern Europe, namely Italy.

The North and the South

(from May, 1861, written in Rome)


‘Now give us lands where the olives grow, ‘

Cried the North to the South,

‘Where the sun with a golden mouth can blow

Blue bubbles of grapes down a vineyard-row!’

Cried the North to the South.


‘Now give us men from the sunless plain,’

Cried the South to the North,

‘By need of work in the snow and the rain,

Made strong, and brave by familiar pain!’

Cried the South to the North.


‘Give lucider hills and intenser seas,’

Said the North to the South,

‘Since ever by symbols and bright degrees

Art, childlike, climbs to the dear Lord’s knees,’

Said the North to the South.


‘Give strenuous souls for belief and prayer,’

Said the South to the North,

‘That stand in the dark on the lowest stair,

While affirming of God, “He is certainly there,”’

Said the South to the North.


“Yet oh, for the skies that are softer and higher!’

Sighed the North to the South;

‘For the flowers that blaze, and the trees that aspire,

And the insects made of a song or a fire!’

Sighed the North to the South.


‘And oh, for a seer to discern the same!’

Sighed the South to the North!

‘For a poet’s tongue of baptismal flame,

To call the tree or the flower by its name!’

Sighed the South to the North.


The North sent therefore a man of men,

As a grace to the South’

And thus to Rome came Andersen.

- ‘Alas, but must you take him again?’

Said the South to the North.

Notes:  It’s supposed that Elizabeth was referring to Hans Christian Andersen who visited Naples and Rome and was the toast of the town for his fanciful tales.  The reference to men who can name the plants is probably to Linnaeus, a Scandinavian, who assigned Latin names to plants, names that are used to this day.


Living Opposite the Pitti Palace

It is in December 1847 that the first letters arrive from furnished rooms near the Pitti Palace.  Elizabeth writes:  So here we are in the Pitti till April, in small rooms yellow with sunshine from morning till evening,  and most days I am able to get out into the piazza and walk up and down  for twenty minutes without feeling a breath of the actual winter…”

In May 1848 this comes in a letter from Palazzo Guidi:  “In fact we have really done it magnificently, and planted ourselves in the Guidi Palace in the favourite suite of the last Count (his arms are in scagliola on the floor of my bedroom).  Though we have six beautiful rooms and a kitchen, three of them quite palace rooms and opening on a terrace, and though such furniture as comes by slow degrees into them is antique and worthy of the place,  we yet shall have saved money by the end of this year…a stone's throw, too,  it is from the Pitti, and really in my present mind  I would hardly exchange with the Grand Duke himself.  By the bye, as to street, we have no spectators in windows in just the grey wall of a church called San Felice for good omen.”

In a letter from July 1848 she writes of how they enjoy walking from their apartment near the Pitti Palace, over the Ponte Vecchio to the main square, La Piazza delle Signorie, to sit in the Loggia dei Lanzi:  Robert and I go out often after tea in a wandering walk to sit in the Loggia and look at the Perseus, or, better still, at the divine sunsets on the Arno, turning it to pure gold under the bridges.”


The Cascine and 'The Dance'

Elizabeth describes in April of 1850 their wandering in the Florentine public gardens that follow the Arno river, the Cascine.  “We drive day by day through the lovely Cascine, just sweeping through the city.  Just such a window where Bianca Capello looked out to see the Duke go by -- and just such a door where Tasso stood and where Dante drew his chair out to sit.  Strange to have all that old world life about us, and the blue sky so bright…”

Elizabeth wrote a poem set in the Cascine called “The Dance”.  It is about the Florentines expressing their gratitude to French soldiers who offered a reprieve from the repressive control of the Austrians.


The Dance

You remember down at Florence our Cascine,

Where the people on the feast-days walk and drive,

And, through the trees, long-drawn in many a green way,

O’er-roofing hum and murmur like a hive,

The river and the mountains look alive?


You remember the piazzone there, the stand-place

Of carriages a-brim with Florence Beauties,

Who lean and melt to music as the band plays,

Or smile and chat with some one who afoot is,

Or on horseback, in observance of male duties?


‘Tis so pretty, in the afternoons of summer,

So many gracious faces brought together!

Call it rout, or call it concert, they have come here,

In the floating of the fan and of the feather,

To reciprocate with beauty the fine weather.


While the flower-girls offer nosegays (because they too

Go with other sweets) at every carriage-door;

Here, by shake of a white finger, signed away to

Some next buyer, who sits buying score on score,

Piling roses upon roses evermore.


And last season, when the French camp had its station

In the meadow-ground, things quickened and grew gayer

Through the mingling of the liberating nation

With this people; groups of Frenchmen everywhere,

Strolling, gazing, judging lightly…’who was fair.’


Then the noblest lady present took upon her

To speak nobly from her carriage for the rest;

‘Pray these officers from France to do us honour

By dancing with us straightway.” - The request

Was gravely apprehended as addressed.


And the men of France bareheaded, bowing lowly,

Led out each a proud signora to the space

Which the startled crowd had rounded for them - slowly,

Just a touch of still emotion in his face,

Not presuming, through the symbol, on the grace.


There was silence in the people: some lips trembled,

But none jested.  Broke the music, at a glance:

And the daughters of our princes, thus assembled,

Stepped the measure with the gallant sons of France.

Hush! It might have been a Mass, and not a dance.


And they danced there till the blue that overskied us

Swooned with passion, though the footing seemed sedate;

And the mountains, heaving mighty hearts beside us,

Sighed a rapture in a shadow, to dilate,

And touch the holy stone where Date sate.


Then the sons of France bareheaded, lowly bowing,

Led the ladies back where kinsmen of the south

Stood, received then; - till, with burst of overflowing

Feeling…husbands, brothers, Florence’s male youth,

Turned, and kissed the martial strangers mouth to mouth.


And a cry went up, a cry from all that people!

- You have heard a people cheering, you suppose,

For the Member, Mayor...with chorus from the steeple?

This was different: scarce as loud perhaps (who knows?),

For we saw wet eyes around us ere the close.


And we felt as if a nation, too long borne in

By hard wrongers, comprehending in such attitude

That God had spoken somewhere since the morning,

That men were somehow brothers, by no platitude,

Cried exultant in great wonder and free gratitude.


Their Son, Another Italophile

Their son, Robert Weidemann Barrett Browning, was born on March 9, 1849 in their bedroom in Casa Guidi.  

He later bought Palazzo Guidi and stored all his parent’s possessions there and had hoped to create a shrine to them, but events overtook him, and the museum was not created until 1995. 

Their son shared his parent’s love of Italy and even lived with his wife in Venice’s famous palace on the Grand Canal, Ca’ Rezzonico, for a while, before making his permanent home in Asolo.  

His mother called him Pen, but in her poem “A Tale of Villafranca” she calls him “my Florentine”, and comments on his eyes:  “They say your eyes, my Florentine, are English: it may be: and yet I’ve marked as blue a pair following the doves across the square at Venice by the sea.”

Italian Unification and 'Casa Guidi Windows'

Her 1851 poem “Casa Guidi Windows” describes in two parts Italy’s growing Risorgimento, or unification movement, and it’s intensifying struggle for nationhood against the foreign powers who administered her fate and kept her looking like a jigsaw puzzle on the maps.  The poem made her an instant hero in Italy, but it was poorly received abroad, where commentators felt female poets should stick to love sonnets and eschew politics.  Only later, and mainly by female writers, was the poem’s beauty and passion appreciated. 

In the poem, Elizabeth makes many references to Florence, and to Italy’s illustrious cultural and historical icons.  But it is often the first paragraph that catches people’s eye, ear and heart.  The great political issue is introduced by a recounting of something she’s heard through the windows of Casa Guidi.  Later she recounts what she’s seen through the same windows, hence the title of the poem.  Here are a few excepts from the first half of the poem


Excerpts from Casa Guidi Windows (from 1851)

The first stanzas are the most famous of the poem. 

I heard last night a little child go singing

‘Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church,

O bella libertà, O bella! Stringing

The same words still on notes he went in search

So high for, you concluded the upspringing

Of such a nimble bird to sky from perch

Must leave the whole bush in a tremble green,

And 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

By mothers’s finger steadied on his feet,

And still O bella libertà he sang. 

Very soon after she praises Florence’s beauty. 

For me who stand in Italy to-day,

Where worthier poets stood and sang before,

I kiss their footsteps, yet their words gainsay.

I can but muse in hope upon this shore

Of golden Arno as it shoots away

Through Florence’ heart beneath her bridges four!

Bent bridges, seeming to strain off like bows,

And tremble while the arrowy undertide

Shoots on and cleaves the marble as it goes,

And strikes up palace-walls on either side,

And froths the cornice out in glittering rows,

With doors and windows quaintly multiplied,

And terrace-sweeps, and gazers upon all,

By whom if flower or kerchief were thrown out

From any lattice there, the same would fall

Into the river underneath no doubt,

It runs so close and fast ’twixt wall and wall.

How beautiful! 

Then right after, she writes of Michelangelo’s sculptures Dawn, Twilight, Night and Day in the Medici Tomb in the Church of St. Lawrence, and how they must suffer to see Italians un-free. 

Michel’s Night and Day

And Dawn and Twilight wait in marble scorn,

Like dogs upon a dunghill, couched on clay

From whence the Medicean stamp’s outworn,

The final putting off of all such sway

By all such hands, and freeing of the unborn

In Florence and the great world outside Florence.

Three hundred years his patient statues wait

In that small chapel for the dim St Lawrence.

Day’s eyes are breaking bold and passionate

Over his shoulder, and will flash abhorrence

On darkness and with level looks meet fate,

When once loose from that marble film of theirs;

The Night has wild dreams in her sleep, the Dawn

Is haggard as the sleepless, Twilight wears

A sort of horror; as the veil withdrawn

‘Twixt the artist’s soul and works had left them heirs

Of speechless thoughts which would not quail nor fawn,

Of angers and contempts, of hope and love;

For not without a meaning did he place

The princely Urbino on the seat above

With everlasting shadow on his face,

While the slow dawns and twilights disapprove

The ashes of his long-extinguished race,

Which never more shall clog the feet of men.

She later suggests Italy deserves to be a nation because of it’s rich cultural heritage. 

‘Now tell us what is Italy?’ men ask:

And others answer, ‘Virgil, Cicero,

Catullus, Caesar.’ What beside? To task

The memory closer - ‘Why, Boccaccio,

Dante, Petrarca,’ - and if still the flask

Appears to yield its wine by drops too slow, -

‘Angelo, Raffael, Pergolese,’ - all

Whose strong hearts beat through stone, or charged again

The paints with fire of souls electrical,

Or broke up heaven for music.

She digresses for another ode to Florence’s beauty. 

Shall I say

What made my heart beat with exulting love,

A few weeks back? -

…The day was such a day

As Florence owes the sun. The sky above,

Its weight upon the mountains seemed to lay,

And palpitate in glory, like a dove

Who has flown too fast, full-hearted! - take away

The image! For the heart of man beat higher

That day in Florence, flooding all her streets

And piazzas with a tumult and desire.


She follows with passages to give encouragement to Italians in the struggle for nationhood, but ends with a plea to the true intended audience of her poem, Italophiles among the English and other world powers.


Therefore let us all

Refreshed in England or in other land,

By visions, with their fountain-rise and fall,

Of this earth’s darling, - we, who understand

A little how the Tuscan musical

Vowels do round themselves as if they planned

Eternities of separate sweetness, - we,

Who loved Sorrento vines in picture-book,

Or ere in wine-cup we pledged faith or glee, -

Who loved Rome’s wolf, with demi-gods at suck,

Or ere we loved truth’s own divinity, -

Who loved, in brief, the classic hill and brook,

And Ovid’s dreaming tales, and Petrarch’s song,

Or ere we loved Love’s self even! - let us give

The blessing of our souls, (and wish them strong

To bear it to the height where prayers arrive,

When faithful spirits pray against a wrong,)

To this great cause of southern men, who strive

In God’s name for man’s rights, and shall not fail!



Their Deaths in Italy

Elizabeth’s poor health, sometimes explained by spinal damage, sometimes lung damage, sometimes Tuberculosis, and sometimes by the prescribed medications she used, worsened when she learned of Cavour’s death.  Cavour was the diplomat to Garibaldi’s soldier, and together they paved the way for Italian unification.  Elizabeth passed away in Florence, and while Robert left, heartbroken, with their son for England, never to return to Florence again, he did not lose his love of Italy. 

Robert wrote after his wife’s death, when he was settled in England,…How I yearn, yearn for Italy at the close of my life!…”  He was in the process of purchasing land in Venice when he passed away.  He died in Venice’s famous Ca’ Rezzonico, a palace on the grand canal, the home of his son and daughter-in-law.  A plaque was placed on the building that reads:

“A Roberto Browning, morto in questo palazzo, il 12 dicembre 1889, Venezia, pose.” 

(To Robert Browning, who died in this building, December 12, 1889, Venice, may he rest in peace.”  

Two lines from one of his poems follows it:  

“Open my heart and you will see, Graved inside of it, `Italy'.” 


Rezzonico Palace, Ca' Rezzonico, Venice


Elizabeth lies interred in the old Protestant Cemetery in Florence with the inscription expressing Italy’s gratitude to her support for nationhood engraved on her tomb.  Two of her books of poetry dealt directly with the cause of national unity:  Casa Guidi Windows from 1851, and Poems Before Congress from 1861, and they served to build support around the world for Italian Unification.  It was later the same year as her death, 1861, that the Kingdom of Italy was declared.


My References:  Quotes from letters are taken from:  Life and Letters of Robert Browning by Mrs. Sutherland Orr, 1891.  Other sources are various including those hyper-linked on this page, and the poetry of both the Brownings.