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Unravelling Florence's English thread

The English Florence is famously celebrated in books and in films and we find some familiar scenes amidst monuments to the Medici.

I am trying to get into the English cemetery. They've not made it easy. The expats' burial ground was established nearly 200 years ago on a site just outside the old city walls. The long walk - down streets sapped of all life but the mosquito whine of fly-by scooters - is turgid. Worse than that, I eventually find my destination marooned on an island. Between me and it, traffic screams and bellows without let-up. At the least wrong moment, I spring into the unbreaking wave of self-important saloons and pfutting three-wheelers. There is a prompt chord of dissonant klaxons. One driver raises a declamatory arm. Another hurls angry vowels through his window. I step with relief onto the oval-shaped island sanctuary. There is a gate. I find a bell and ring it. Nothing. I ring again, this time a longer peal. Somewhere up in the building beyond, someone can hear the music of my mounting despair. The English Cemetery - as it's colloquially known in Florence - may be a little patch of "home" in this corner of a foreign field. But local rules apply. Things open as and when, according to a Florentine - for which read byzantine - set of rules and regs. You just have to keep coming back until you get in. I'll try again later.

But in the mean time, why am I here? A small cemetery containing not a single Florentine is near the bottom of the pecking order for visitors to Florence. Why am I not storming the Uffizi or clambering up Giotto's bell tower, like everyone else? Well, the truth is that I've seen everything in the guidebook, several times. For a year, a couple of decades ago, I spent a blissful 12 months in Florence. It was hardly an original choice of bolthole. The English and the Florentines go way back. That much I knew, but not much more. How that relationship has left its imprint on the city of Florence is something I never stopped to consider. I was too busy storming the Uffizi.

The English Florence is famously celebrated in books and in films. Or both, in the case of EM Forster's A Room with a View. It's there in the name of one of our great British heroines, Nurse Nightingale, the first of many daughters to have the city memorialised in her name by sentimental parents (my younger daughter joined the club in 1993). But it's also in the streets. The city has been discreetly shaped by the English presence. Of all the cultures with which Florence has formed a lasting relationship, the one with the English has been most profound. And that's what I have decided to look for. I start among the tangled web of alleys in the very heart of the city. Somewhere in here is the tiny Via dell'Arte della Lana, modest in length, long in history. The Arte della lana was the wool guild, and the industry from which the medieval city derived much of its wealth. Before the Black Death nearly a third of all Florentines were supported by it. The evidence of that wealth resides here in Palazzo dell'Arte della Lana, a foursquare thug of a medieval building which bristles on a corner.

Completed in 1308, it is one of the oldest surviving structures in Florence. It largely owes its existence to millions of sheep grazing a thousand milesto the north, because the lion's share of the wool which built this palazzo came from English sheep. A gallery - an enclosed walkway - connects it with the mighty granary, Orsanmichele. As I look up, I like to think of the passage as a secret testament to Anglo-Florentine relations. Once the wool had been beaten and washed, it was taken down to the river Arno for rinsing. So in a way these sheep were the first English pilgrims to enjoy a Florentine baptism.

It occurs to me that not a lot has changed as I wander down to the banks. I have to push onto the Ponte Vecchio against herds of tourists being shepherded in the other direction. If English wool plumped the city's coffers, the English fleeced Florence in another sense. Florentine bankers loaned huge sums back to Edward III as he prosecuted the Hundred Years War. The relationship turned a trifle sour in 1339 when he defaulted on the loan. The city's three biggest banks collapsed in an almighty medieval credit crunch. The names of the families who owned the banks are still all over the city in the names of palazzi and pizzerie, chapels and streets: Bardi, Peruzzi and Acciauoli.

I head south of the river in the direction of Via dei Bardi, chasing a memory. It's a tall sunless winding street where you imagine internecine stabbings were once the done thing. I once took a job with an exceptionally grand English art historian who lived on the piano nobile of a palazzo along here. He and his much younger amanuensis, the kind of slightly seedy know-all you find creeping around the novels of Henry James, would wear matching pinstripe suits even as the heat closed in. Whenever I visited the apartment, whose loggia afforded a jaw-dropping view across the city, I wondered whether they were pleasantly locked in the Anglo-Florentine 1920s, before the expatriate lives of crashing English snobs were rudely disruptedby the rise of Fascism.

When I lived there I often heard it said that Florence is the most English of Italian cities. I never quite knew what it meant. The best evidence that Englishness has somehow rubbed off on them is found not in the British Institute or the British Library, both long since part of the civic furniture, but in a shop. I'd never previously been in to The Old England Store. It's not far from Via Tornabuoni where all the expensive fashion outlets line up. When I cross its threshold I am thrust into a kind of Narnia of fantasy Englishness characterised by Bovril and blazers, tea and tweed, flatcaps and Fisherman's Friends. This outlet of traditional English goods was set up nearly a century ago to cater for the homesick. Nowadays it'swhere Florentines can go when they want to pickle themselves in English aspic.

In fact the long line of English residents spools back much further than the Old England Store's first customers. The proof is in the cathedral. Brunelleschi's miraculous freestanding dome is the magnet that lures most visitors to the city - "Cupula, worthie to bee seen of all travellars," marvelled Sir Thomas Hoby in his pioneering Elizabethan tour of Italy. I ignore his advice and traverse the echoing acreage of paving to the left nave. The Duomo is notable for its lack of ornamental frippery, but high on the wall is a rare piece of decoration. Mounted on a formidable warhorse is a rather gentle-looking old soldier. This fresco is the first permanent tribute ever paid by Florence to a private individual.

But he's not one ofthe city's own. He's not Dante or Boccaccio or one of the Medici who in the 1400s put Florence on the map. He's a mercenary from Essex. Or as the inscription on this trompe-l'oeil tombstone has him, "Ioannes Acutus Eques Britannicus". Don't be deceived by the kindly old face. Sir John Hawkwood - the Florentines preferred their own spelling - was a terrifying condottiere. Florence, among his employers, expressed their gratitude for defending them from Milan by giving him a farm and, 40 years after his death, this splendid memorial. It's not quite as splendid as originally conceived - he was due to get a statue. But this magnificent portrait by Uccello as a Herculean liberator incorporates the latest principles of bas-relief and perspective.

It does my heart good to know that an Englishman had such a prominent walk-on role in the Renaissance, even if his trade was violence. Florence was not involved in significant wars involving the English until the Second World War. Instead, for five hundred years, we came to look and to loot. Charles I's emissaries bought up paintings by Florentine artists to enlarge his collection. After the Civil War, Florence became a pitstop of choice for Royalists in exile. In the following century, the wealthy sons of the Enlightenment descended on Florence as part of the Grand Tour and bought canvases by the carriage-load. Of course there's no suggestion that the English were the only foreigners to leave their mark on Florence.

A plaque on a building opposite the Palazzo Pitti reveals that Dostoevsky wrote a bit of The Idiot here. For a while Henry James paid annual summer visits. But the visitor who most famously summed up the experience of immersion in the city was Henri-Marie Beyle, the French novelist better known by the pseudonym which gives its name to Stendhal Syndrome. Stendhal visited in 1817, and proceeded to write up his travels in the confusingly titled Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milanto Reggio. So overwhelming was his sense of wonderment as he toured the sights that he started to feel faint from a kind of exhilaration.

Subsequent descriptions from 19th-century visitors to Florence exist in which the same set of symptoms recur: they feel dizzy and confused, their heartbeat accelerates, and on occasion they even hallucinate in front of especially beautiful images, or a surfeit of them. The Uffizi was a hotspot. It was given a name only 30 years ago by a Italian psychiatrist. Americans and Japanese, both arriving from more distant cultural worlds, were found to be particularly prone to hospitalisation.

Clinical hypersensitivity to the Renaissance is also known as Florence syndrome. The first mass migration of potential sufferers were English. After the Napoleonic Wars the genteel middle classes started to migrate south, among them great writers. I decide to follow them around Florence. In Shelley's footsteps I seek afternoon shade in the Cascine Gardens where he wrote his Ode to the West Wind in 1819. To be honest the woods to the west of the centre are these days less than romantic, and you assuredly wouldn't want to come here at night. But Santa Croce, the Franciscan barn of a church where many great Florentines are buried, is much as Ruskin found it in 1874 when he marvelled at masterpieces and sneered at tourists.

His Mornings in Florence was a bossy improvement on the guidebook. He stood outside the ill-lit chapel frescoed by Giotto and noticed that "two nice-looking Englishmen, under guard of their valet de place, passed the chapel without so much as looking in". I do look in, and one thing has changed. The fresco of St Francis's death is better illuminated. It still rends the heart. For the fullest English experience of Florence, I trace my steps back across the river to Casa Guidi. It was here, opposite the monumental Palazzo Pitti, that Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning made their home from 1847 after eloping. Like many English settlers, the Brownings were not wealthy. The apartment is of modest proportions, but they both wrote much of their greatest poetry in these eight rooms. Furnished and decorated much as it would have been then, to me it exudes a faintly oppressive atmosphere. I can all but picture Elizabeth draped consumptively on her chaise, battling through damp winters, sweating through virulent summers, slowly dwindling towards death. You can actually stay here, courtesy of the Landmark Trust, though only if you have the stomach to sleep with her ghost.

At the other end of Via Maggio, I attend sung mass in the English church. Though no church-goer, I am curious to see if the Protestant aesthetic sticks out like a sore thumb round these parts. St Marks has been serving the Protestant community since the 1880s, but in a building which could scarcely have a more Florentine pedigree. The sepulchral premises of the church are on the ground floor of a palazzo that used to belong, it is said, to both the Medici and the Macchiavelli families. So the Florentine from whom we get the name Old Nick may once have been in this very room where, in a fog of incense, British, West African and American worshippers are listening to a sermon about how we've all come here as if "blown in by the winds of God".

To round off my pilgrimage, I am blown back to the Protestant Cemetery of Florence, to give it its proper name. Yes, the gates have opened and I walk up the gravel path in warming sunlight towards a marble sarcophagus standing on six short Corinthian columns. The letters "EBB OB 1861" are carved into the white marble. It is a fine design by the young Lord Leighton, who studied in Florence. And she is fine company. I wander around the hillock, the howl of traffic muffled by swaying cypresses, and come upon the gravesof what feels like half of Victorian England's cultural elite. The health of poet Arthur Hugh Clough failed in Florence while travelling round Europe. The writer Walter Savage Landor retired cantankerously to Fiesole up the hill. Fanny Holman Hunt, the flame-haired Pre-Raphaelite muse, died here in childbirth and her tomb was sculpted by her husband William. Fanny Trollope, the mother of Anthony, lies here alongside four of her household. Even the last two descendants of Shakespeare are buried in the English Cemetery. This is a moving shrine to the life of expatriates drawn to Florence by the finer things. As I head for the exit, I find a verse of Elizabeth Barrett Browning pinned to a wall. It might have been written for herself. "And here among the English tombs/ In Tuscan ground we lay her,/ While the blue Tuscan sky endomes/ Our English words of prayer." Not sure about the "endomes" part but, like many compatriots who have left a piece of their heart here, I get the picture.

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