The English are back
(The very beginning of one of the stories collected in "Florentine Apocalypses" by Carlo Menzinger of Preussenthal - www.menzinger.it)
In Florence, surrounded by the traffic of those allegedly alive, there is an island of the dead. They are those departed souls who often survived their decayed bodies through the works they left to posterity. They may not be immortal poets, but they are still people who left their mark on paper and in history.
The island of the dead, the only shelter for the dead from the mad wear and tear of modern life and the pestilential fumes of city traffic, is in Piazza Donatello, on a fenced hill shaded by some cypresses, and it is known as the English Cemetery. It is one of those squares that break the constant flow of cars on the Avenues of the ring road commissioned and built by the architect Giuseppe Poggi in 1865, when he demolished the city walls and, in particular, the nearby Porta a Pinti, to carry on his project of turning Florence into the capital of Italy, which it was for a short period, from 1865 to 1871.
The English Cemetery, this small hill-shaped oasis, was built outside the walls by the Reformed Evangelical Community of Switzerland in order to house the bodies of the numerous non-Catholic foreigners who lived in Florence. In fact, in those gothic years Dante’s city saw a fair amount of intellectual fervor, mainly of Anglo-Saxon origin.
Elsewhere, near Geneva, in 1816 Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft, her future husband Percy Shelley and her half-sister (and Byron's lover) Claire Clairmont, as well as Byron's physician, Polidori, gave birth to gothic literature with its universe of vampires, ghosts, werewolves and living dead, thus bringing cemeteries at the center of literary attention for much of the century to come and beyond. Perhaps the British carried some of that spirit to Florence with them and perhaps it ended up among those tombstones, mostly dating back to the Nineteenth century.
The architect Carlo Reishammer designed the polygonal cemetery, which was later changed by Poggi into the well-known oval surrounded by the avenues. Construction started in 1828.
On a Tuesday morning Elizabeth woke up in the cemetery. She was lying surrounded by six white columns and a large catafalque of white stone loomed above her.
Instead of being driven through the ground the columns rested on a stone base, also raised. Actually, the enclosed space was very cramped, so much so that Elizabeth was lying sideways, on her side, with her head, feet and hands dangling over the side.
She disentangled herself from that uncomfortable position and let herself slide to the ground, where she sat down.
Unfortunately, her legs weren’t holding her up, which didn't surprise her, given that she had been disabled for almost thirty years now.
She did not know the place, but it was clear to her that it was a cemetery. The rumbling noise surrounding her, however, sounded alien to her. She looked at the grave she was leaning against and gave a start as she read her name on it.
"Elizabeth Barrett Browning". The woman who was buried there had been born, just like her, in Durham on March 6, 1806. Too strange to be just a coincidence. It was a grave, so there was no wonder it also had the place and date of death: Florence, June 29, 1861. Reading one's death date on a tombstone is something that makes the ground shift under your feet, and if her legs hadn't betrayed her so many years ago and she hadn't been firmly seated, she surely would have collapsed.
A moment later she had already recovered and persuaded herself this was just nonsense. She was sitting there, alive and well, as usual. All this felt like the perverse joke of a lover from some gothic tale. Who could have been so malicious toward a lonely sick old poetess like her? But she could not think of anybody who would do that. She had no enemies and certainly none of her friends would be so foolish as to play such a hoax.
She tried to call out, but the only answer she got was that irregular, alien rumble coming from beyond the graveyard. The air felt strange. She coughed. She had never breathed anything so foul-smelling.
For a moment, hell came to her mind. Hellish air! That was what she was breathing. But no. It wasn’t possible. She was alive and she certainly was not in Hell. She could not understand the situation, however, nor the nature of those sounds or the foulness of the air. She tried calling again, but it seemed no one was in the cemetery and even if there was someone outside, that irregular but constant rumble was definitely drowning her voice out. At least, it wasn't night. Waking up in the dark in such a place would have upset her even more.
She could not walk, but had no intention of staying there. She was weak and ill but could still crawl and push herself forward with her arms. She reached one of the paths of the cemetery and dragged herself on it like a wounded animal, heading for what looked like the exit. Fortunately for her, the cemetery was quite small, so it didn't take long for her to get to the high gate.
The lower part was covered by a single metal plate. To look out she had to hoist herself up to the bars on the top.
What she saw stunned her.
There were very strange entirely closed carriages that moved without being drawn by horses, inside which she could vaguely discern people wearing quite unusual clothes. She did not understand mechanics, but she knew about the gas Hippomobile recently built by Étienne Lenoir, and that some claimed it was possible to build wagons capable of moving without being towed, but those... those things were unbelievable! They seemed to be made of unknown materials and there were so many of them, so noisy and smelly! They seemed to be the source of that foul stench. What human being could ever want to lock himself inside one of those moving boxes or fill a city with them? Humanity could not be so crazy, she thought. Again, hell came to her mind. Was she really there? Was it like this? She had thought of calling for help as she reached the gate, but that sight robbed her of her courage: what sort of creatures could be those out there? Demonic beings? She slid back to the ground, leaning against the metal plate.
She let his gaze wander over the cemetery. In their familiarity the tombs almost felt like a refuge from that hostile world.
She drew comfort from the sight of a tired and bewildered figure – certainly an old man – that was advancing along the path. The man, who looked about ninety years old, joined her slowly and introduced himself in English.
“I'm Walter Savage Landor, from Warwick. I woke up by a tombstone over there…” He indicated with his arm, “and it...” He hesitated. “Well, oddly enough it bore my name and... “
As he looked more closely at her he started and exclaimed:
“Elizabeth! Elizabeth Browning? How can it be? You're dead... I mean, forgive me, I must have taken you for somebody else, the poetess Barrett Browning, but of course I must be mistaken, you know how it is at my age... and today I am somewhat confused... I don't understand what is happening to me and...”
“Walter!” Elizabeth recognized him as well, even though he looked older than she remembered. “It's me, Elizabeth, and I also woke up at the foot of a tomb carrying my name.”
“Elizabeth!” He stared at her with wide eyes. “But it's been five years since you... As I went by, I saw your grave. I remember when Luigi Giovannozzi made it on Frederic Leighton's design and how I often came to lay flowers on it. Oh, Elizabeth! I wish it were true that you are still alive, but alas, it certainly cannot be. How many times have I talked about you with your poor Robert! And your poor Pen… he cried so much for you.”
“Pen! How is my son?” the woman asked, and she suddenly realized that her question almost confirmed the old playwright’s words.
“Well. In the end, he got over your death...” The old man stopped. It felt awkward to speak to a person about her own passing, but the situation was so strange. After a short hesitation, he went on.
“I remember he was just a boy, barely twelve, when you... passed away, but Robert has always been very close to him.”
It was all so bizarre he could hardly believe his own words. Then his gaze wandered beyond the gate at the poetess’ back and he gave a start at the sight of the cars.
“What are those?” he asked, pointing at them with his arthritic finger.
“That’s what upset me right before you showed up. And what about the air? What do you make of it?”
“It’s hellish. I can barely breathe. And yet, this is the Protestant Cemetery near Porta a Pinti, I recognize it… but what happened to the walls of Florence, which should stand right there? It is as if the cemetery had been transported elsewhere. It’s sheer madness!”
“Hey, you!” Someone called in Italian, coming toward them from the path. “I’m sorry, I fear I got lost.”
He was a gentleman in his forties with a markedly receding hairline.
Elizabeth and Walter stared at him in amazement. The mid-Nineteenth Century Florentine English community was important but rather small, so its members knew each other well, most of all if they were, like the three of them, literary people.
“Arthur!” Elizabeth exclaimed.
“Arthur Hugh Clough!” echoed Walter.
“Mr. Landor! Elizabeth!” The man cried out in turn, switching to English. “Elizabeth? You... You! You?”
“Me?” Elizabeth asked, by now imagining the answer quite well.
“I mean, unless my eyes are deceiving me, you... are you Elizabeth Barrett, Robert Browning's wife?”
“That's possibly the only thing I'm still sure of, my dear Arthur.”
“But I remember that a few months ago you...”
“Died?” Elizabeth completed.
“I didn't dare say it, but that's what I remember.”
“Me too,” Walter cut in, “but why are you talking about a few months? I remember it happened a few years ago and that...” The old man winced. “And that a few months later you too... so young, as young as I see you now… died! It was the talk of the town! Oh, God of Heaven, what’s happening to us?”
(TO BE CONTINUED)