The Isle of the Dead
Last week I was in Florence, Italy, and on Friday, just as the weather began to turn, and the Tuscan sun turned to dark cloud, I visited a place I’d only read about. On the north side of the city, in the middle of a ring of traffic, there is an ‘isle of the dead’, a hill that rises out of the busy landscape, a richly green terrain furnished with marble memorials. As one passes through the gatehouse and across that threshold, you enter a curiously solitary place. On account, perhaps, of the elevation, or the canopy of trees, or some inexplicable veil that one passes through, the noise of urban life fades into the background, the present becomes all the more perceptible, and you discern yourself to now be in a thin place out of time. A forgotten place. For unlike Florence’s many tourism hot spots, in which you queue for hours to see Michelangelo’s David, or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, here, there is not a single other soul.
This place has a few different names. It's sometimes referred to as the ‘The English Cemetery’, and sometimes as ‘The Protestant Cemetery’. Both names are a bit misleading, as this oval graveyard does not contain exclusively either, but it is, nonetheless, predominantly protestants from the anglosphere. As one begins making one’s way up the gravelly path, beset by green hedgerow, dotted with the odd white rose, the first grave of note rises up upon your left. It’s held up by six columns; it’s a large tomb, but relatively plain, just a few embellishments, and the profile view, in marble, of a woman - her hair, a plaited bun, topped with a laurel wreath; the inscription, as minimal as possible, simply reads, E. B. B., followed by the year she died - 1861. This is the resting place of the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She died in Florence, having lived there with her husband, the poet Robert Browning, for nearly 15 years. It was during this period, living under the spell of the Renaissance capital that they were both at their most prolific.
As I stand there, I can imagine the less than a dozen people gathered at her grave side to mark her premature death. Robert, their twelve-year-old son, Pen, and an assortment of other bohemians. Robert and Elizabeth’s relationship was steeped in poetry from its genesis. In 1840 the young Robert published a collection of poems called Bells and Pomegranates, which Elizabeth then read and referenced in one of her own poems (this is when she was in her late 30s), saying “Or from Browning some 'Pomegranate', which if cut deep down the middle Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity!” Robert was so touched by this homage that he wrote to her with profuse thanks, declaring his love for her, and proposing, all in letters before they ever met. Elizabeth was always a sickly person - hence her premature death - shuttered away in her bedroom in London for a great deal of her life by her destructively protective father. And she almost certainly would have stayed there, had she not met Robert, whom she wed in secret, and fled with, forsaking her inheritance, to the city of Florence. In her own words, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach.”
In Florence itself Elizabeth is the far more significant of the two poets, not merely because she is the one buried there, but because of a specific poem she wrote. On their first wedding anniversary, the couple watched from their home’s window as thousands of people marched by. It was a political protest, banners calling for liberty, and the unification of Italy. In the 1840s when the couple were there, Italy was not the unified country we know today, but an assortment of states. Elizabeth wrote her poem in passionate support for Italy’s struggle for liberty and unification: “For the heart of man beat higher that day in Florence, flooding all her streets, And piazzas with a tumult and desire…” Turning from the tomb, upon which someone had affectionately laid a bouquet of flowers, I continued up into the heart of the graveyard, moving up the path. Walking a little way I come to the crossroads at the very centre of the graveyard, and in the very centre of the crossroads stands a large column under the cypress trees. Looking up, the column is surmounted by a cross. The column and the trees, that afternoon, were backlit by a sun struggling to pierce the dark clouds. The column is the tallest structure in the graveyard, apart from the trees themselves. It was erected in 1858, to commemorate the visit of the Lutheran King of Prussia, Frederick William IV. Neighbouring this, on one of the crossroad’s intersections, there stands an obelisk, a gravesite surrounded by purple irises. This is the resting place of Thomas Southwood Smith.
Southwood Smith was an English doctor from Somerset, and a dedicated Unitarian. He came from a conservative Baptist family, and in his mid-20s he became disillusioned with Calvinism. In his subsequent spiritual seeking he contacted the Swedenborgian William Blake, who in turn put Smith into contact with an ex-Baptist Unitarian minister, who prompted his Unitarian conversion. Smith, who lived in the 19th Century, wrote in particular on public health issues in London, and the inadequacy of living conditions amongst the working class. He was writing before germ theory was properly understood, and so, he believed that disease and health epidemics were the result of people being exposed to foul smelling air. Though this is of course a misunderstanding, it was a misunderstanding that did a lot of good, as it led to him pushing for more sanitary living spaces, and led to the establishment of the first social housing program in England, particularly for the families of factory workers in London. He was also notably a good friend of the father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham.
Smith, alongside his friend Bentham, advocated a utilitarian ethic, that our governing principle in any action taken should be to maximise happiness. Taking this ethic to an extreme, in 1832, when Bentham died, it was Smith who controversially performed the autopsy on his body, arguing along utilitarian lines that any knowledge gleaned from dissecting his corpse would serve the happiness of all living people. And so, it was thus ethically justified. It was certainly Jeremy Bentham’s wish to be dissected; more than that, he wanted his body to be taxidermied (as indeed it was). He delighted in showing people the two glass eyes that he carried around with him in his pocket, the two glass eyes which would ultimately, upon death, replace his own. Apart from simply fulfilling his friend’s wishes, there was a deeper, politically motivated reason as to why Southwood Smith performed this autopsy. It was a political stunt to champion the Anatomy Act which was voted through parliament later that same year. The Anatomy Act of 1832 allowed the state to seize any unclaimed corpses from workhouses and sell them to surgical schools. This is a logical consequence of utilitarian thinking; any ill-treatment of working-class cadavers is immaterial, when balanced against the good that can come, the happiness that can come, from furthering our scientific and medical advancement. Upon retirement in 1861, Smith went to Florence for the clement winter weather. He died two months later.
As I stood there, I felt the first drop of rain hit my cheek. I had visited The English Cemetery, really, to find one grave in particular. I started searching in earnest, worried I may have to abandon my task. And so, I left Dr. Smith, and went down one of the paths, eyes darting from grave to grave. I didn’t really know what the grave would look like, but I assumed it would be one of the more prominent gravestones, as apart from Elizabeth Browning, he was surely the most notable person in here. Coming to the end of one of the paths, I was reading what sounded like Russian names, so knew I must be in the wrong section. I went back to the crossroads and turned down a different path, this time going down the north-east side of the graveyard. This side was far more densely populated with flowers than the rest; purples, blues, and yellows abounding. That was where I recognised another name, another person I had read about before my visit - Richard Hildreth. Hildreth was an American journalist, historian, and another Unitarian, serving even as a minister for a short period in his latter years. His most notable life’s work was as an abolitionist. He wrote the first American anti-slavery novel, which influenced those that followed, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. With his pen he battled a great deal for the causes he believed in, clashing even with fellow Unitarians, particularly those who were more conservative, and those who advocated for a more moderate response to the slavery issue in particular. He was ever the political activist. He admired a great deal the abolitionist, and Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, the man whose grave I was eagerly seeking out.
I had read that Parker’s grave was near Hildreth’s, and sure enough, just across the path, there it was. His grave plot was teaming with pansies. The prominent tombstone had upon it his profile image, the balding Parker with a white bushy beard. And at the bottom it read, “HIS NAME IS ENGRAVED IN MARBLE, HIS VIRTUES IN THE HEARTS OF THOSE HE HELPED TO FREE FROM SLAVERY AND SUPERSTITION.” Parker was someone I read about and admired well before I became a Unitarian. He featured prominently in my university dissertation I wrote about a decade ago, on the 19th Century American abolitionist movement. Looking around, I wanted to see if one of those roses I mentioned earlier were visible from his grave; I was pleased to see that they were. Of the rose, Parker had written that they were the autographs of God upon his creation. Parker’s spirit, even more than Emerson’s, exemplifies that of the rebel, the brazen heretic. I have always greatly admired him for that, his willingness to madden people in his pursuit of the truth. This says it all really, that on his desk were two figures: a bust of Jesus, and a statue of the Roman rebel Spartacus. He also refused throughout his ministry to wear a white tie, which was part of the traditional ministerial dress amongst Unitarian clergy in New England at the time, believing it to be a symbol of false authority.
Parker was also one of the first Unitarians to make that move which many would later emulate, including myself - that of denying the supernatural and miraculous, the “superstitions” of Christianity, while still retaining the Christian label and hope. He articulates this view most clearly in his addresses called ‘The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity’, which I actually did a whole service on last year. It caused many Christians, both within and outside of Unitarianism, to question whether Parker could be legitimately regarded as a Christian, and most concluded that he could not be. He was subsequently barred from preaching in many Unitarian churches, and many individuals throughout the rest of his life shunned him for the views he held. Although outside of Unitarian circles, his contributions and commentary on public life, and his ardent stance on the abolitionist issue, won him many admirers. After a lifetime of working at breakneck speeds, his health quickly deteriorated. He was reluctantly forced into retirement. But even then, in his sickness, the Unitarians of the Harvard Divinity School took a vote on whether they should send their sympathies; they voted no. Soon after, for his health, he moved from cold Boston to the Caribbean, and soon after that, to Europe, and ultimately to Florence where he, soon upon arrival, died. As young, more radical Unitarians slowly took over the American movement, by the late 19th Century their estimations of him grew. So much so that they replaced the original, very simple gravestone in the English Cemetery in Florence with the more elaborate one that I found myself standing before. That I found myself standing before, as the sky above roared a thunderous sound you only ever hear in such hot climates. The rain began to pour, and so I fled.