Over the Ponte Vecchio on the south bank of the river Arno is the area of Oltrarno home to the Pitti Palace and its vast Medici collections. A short walk along via de’ Guicciardini, where the via Maggio and via Mazzetta meet is located the Casa Guidi, part of the Palazzo Guidi. The Palazzo was originally two separate houses dating from the 15th century built by the Ridolfi family. Count Camillo Guidi, a secretary of state for the Medici acquired one of the houses in 1618, and it was the Guidi family who amalgamated the two properties in the 18th Century and then divided the piano nobile into two apartments in the early 1840s. It was here that Elizabeth and Robert Browning lived for fourteen years producing some of their best works and their only son Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, who was known simply as Pen. So to combine the story of a literary couple eloping from a domineering father with the romance of Italy, surely it is a match made in Heaven.
The exterior of Casa Guidi is quite unassuming. Unless you knew its location or happened to look up above the large front door and see the stone tablet in Italian, you would be unawhere that this was the Browning home.
Here wrote and died
Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
in whose womanly heart were
united profound learning and poetic genius;
and who by her verse wove a golden wreath
between Italy and England.
Florence, in gratitude,
placed this memorial here in 1861
In 1893 Pen bought the Palazzo in the hope of establishing a permanent memorial to his parents. Unfortunately he died in 1912, and his mother’s family, the Moulton-Barretts, and his widow sold all the furniture, books, letters and personal items by auction at Sotheby’s between the 1st and 8th May 1913. The Palazzo was sold to Ellen Centaro an American who wished to set up a Browning Foundation in the Casa Guidi. The Foundation was a failure, so it was rented out, becoming a linguistic club and very rundown. By 1969 Centaro’s family wanted to sell the apartments including Casa Guidi for office space. The Browning Society of New York launched an appeal to save Casa Guidi. It was successful and the newly formed Browning Institute took over its management in 1971, starting the initial work of restoration, to house a small collection of memorabilia, and open it to the public. It was Philip Kelley, editor of Elizabeth’s letters who approached Eton College who took over ownership and leased it to The Landmark Trust; together they carried on the work of restoring the property. It would become a cultural study centre eight weeks of the year for the students of Eton College, a holiday apartment at other times on the proviso that the property would be refurnished as it looked in the 1850s and remain open to the public. The four rooms are open to the public between April to November on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 3-6pm; there is no entrance fee but an opportunity to give a donation.
Casa Guidi is a memorial to an important literary couple where you can be transported back in time, helped by the unaltered location.
Renting the apartment gives people the unique experience of actually staying in the rooms where the Browning’s lived, to sleep in the bedroom where she gave birth to Pen and ultimately died. They are free to wander through the rooms, admire themselves in the Browning’s rococo cherub mirror, read the books in the large bookcase, sit at Robert’s desk soaking up the atmosphere and maybe become inspired to write. This is a very different museum.
The painstaking research undertaken to reproduce the Browning home, using the 1861 drawing room painting by George Mignaty, Elizabeth’s letters and the 1913 auction catalogue, provides a tangible heritage, and an atmosphere to maintain the intangible memory of a family and their times.
The three interior photos are from commons.wikimedia.org., and the other photos are from the author’s own collection.