Thursday, December 21, 2006


Our friend, who is a magnificent Irish scholar, and who regularly sends us Carageen moss for use in our paper marbling, has this Christmas sent a card saying an olive tree is given in our name to a farming family in Palestine. It shows two women harvesting olives, a dove perched in one of the olive trees. And she writes about remembering the beauty of our Tuscan olive groves. And our own four olive trees in this courtyard from which we give so many blessed leaves for the healing of trauma.

OxFam writes of the possibility of giving a camel, a cow, a sheep. Unicef, of giving sachets of water and salts for correcting dehydration in sick children and thus saving their lives. All these, the best Christmas gifts.

As I think on all the trauma today, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, in Palestine and Israel, in Iraq and Iran, Africa with its AIDS orphans, its child soldiers, so much terror in so many places in the world, I remember John Kenneth Galbraith saying the sources of conflict and violence are caused by economic desperation. Julian's sense of 'And all shall be well' translates rightly the Hebrew 'Shalom', of a wellness, of a wholeness, of prosperity, the true peace the angels sing to men of good will. Anorexic women despair of freedom, their only freedom being death. Suicide bombers despair of freedom, their only freedom, death, of themselves and others. The Greek sense of peace, 'irene', was merely a cessation, a truce, in ever on-going hostilities. Shalom is different and for all.

One passes through our four olive trees, after braving the roaring traffic about this piazzale, to come to the peace of our library and our tombs. Our library stocked with books on trauma and indigenous and migrant peoples, our cemetery with its many scripts and languages commemorating its many persons who worked tirelessly against slavery in the nineteenth century and for better health for women and children and for freedom from tyranny, statues of 'Hope', and even the black fourteen year-old slave from Nubia, baptised in a Russian Orthodox family with the name of 'Nadezhda', 'Hope'.

And now we have a dream in which many are sharing, of turning this abandoned cemetery in the midst of city traffic into the garden it once had been, with orange and lemon trees and azalea bushes, through digging a cellar into our hill for keeping them in winter, called here a 'limonaia', and of planting daffodils, irises, roses, lavender. Look about us and see how divorced we now are from nature, our clothes all like machines, our cars separating us from greenery. It could be a most peaceable revolution to plant a garden in the midst of a city. To travel on bicycles. And to give olive trees to Palestinians, sheep to Afghans, camels to Ethiopians, cows to Somalians, sachets of life-saving salts to sick babies. We have very little time to turn this earth, this Gaia, back into a garden, a Paradise, for our grandchildren.

Thank you, Maire, for this most lovely of gifts, and a Blessed Christmas to all Godfriends,

Bless you,


Sunday, December 10, 2006


Signorelli, Dante


Augustus Hare

For this year’s Christmas Letter let me share the gist of what I said at the Mass for the Poor in the Florentine Badia’s church two Sundays ago. I began by saying Giovanni Boccaccio lectured on medieval Dante’s Commedia in this very church during the Renaissance. And this was right because Dante grew up beside this church. When he was a child he would have heard the monks singing the liturgy of the Mass and of the Hours, Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, as they had for centuries before him and as they still do here today. We hear these psalms and hymns in the Purgatorio and the Paradiso of the Commedia. But not in the Inferno, which is only filled with groans, sighs, screams, the discords of despair of those who have chosen to distance themselves from God.

In Dante’s day, this church, which was part of an ancient monastery, was more beautiful. After Dante’s boyhood, but before Boccaccio’s time, it was rebuilt by Arnolfo di Cambio and filled with fine paintings by Giotto, the gold leaf dancing with the light of candles. The church later was completely changed and made shadowy in the baroque style. The beautiful tender Madonna with her Child, which recalls the numerous similes in Dante’s poetry about mothers nursing babies with their milk, was removed from the altar. It is now in the Uffizi; one may still see it but in a cold museum. Of these pictures below the first is by Giotto, the second by our Norwegian artist guest and it shimmers by candlelight in our library, and the third is by a participant in the Mass for the Poor, who would be so grateful if you would buy prints of it. It was Petter who taught Bruno how to print his engravings.


Petter Sammerud

Bruno Vivoli

Dante tells us he wrote his Commedia not in Latin but in Italian, so that even women and children could understand it, in Florence and in all of his Italy. Like the Gospel revealed to the lowly. Like St Francis’ Canticles. In his similes we find workmen and farmers, women and children, an old tailor threading his needle, a mother rocking the cradle and singing, pilgrims journeying from afar, workers in foundries and furnaces, and many many others. Dante remembers the good bread of Tuscany, made without salt and which does not mildew. The poem becomes our mirror, reflecting also this city. Dante writes a Comedy, not at all a Tragedy about kings and their hollow power. It is a poem of hope, a Magnificat. It is the most famous poem in the world.

Dante writes the Commedia in exile from Florence, but with the memory of this Badia, of the little and very ancient church of St Martin beside it founded by Irish pilgrims centuries earlier, of the Bargello, of the Palazzio del Popolo (now called ‘Vecchio’, for it is seven hundred years old), of the Duomo, many of these built or planned by Arnolfo di Cambio or his father. All these fine buildings were within the walls and the gates built by Arnolfo di Cambio using the stone first built into the Ghibelline ‘towers of pride’ and within this painting. This wall for the common defense was repaired in the Renaissance, then in the Victorian period torn down to make way for boulevards for traffic. The painting below in the Cathedral, the Duomo, shows Dante outside the walls as an exile, preaching the Commedia to his city, its gate being the same as that for Hell and for Purgatory. The three gates are Arnolfian.

Domenico da Michelino, Dante and Florence, Cathedral

On Hell Gate Dante has God write:

Per me si va nella città dolente,
Per me si va nell’etterno dolore,
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.

Giustizia mosse il mio alto Fattore:
Fecemi la Divina Potestate,
La Somma Sapienza e’l Primo Amore.

Through me you enter the city of sorrow,
Through me you go into eternal pain,
Through me you go amongst the lost people.

Justice moved my High Architect,
I was made by Divine Power,
By Highest Wisdom and by Primal Love.

But when we go the other way through the Arnolfian gate of Purgatorio we leave behind all sorrow to enter into love – as I explained when lecturing on this poem in Attica State Prison.

The Commedia tells us of Dante’s exile become pilgrimage, first through Hell where Dante as sinner meets many mirroring sinners, then Purgatorio where Dante shares in purgation from them with others, finally, in Paradise, where he soars into the hevens with Beatrice Portinari, daughter of Folco Portinari the founder of Santa Maria Nuova Hospital. The Commedia as poem heals the city of Florence and ourselves. In the last canto of the Paradiso, its Canticle of Canticles, we meet Bernard singing his hymn to the Madonna, which Filippino will show in a painting brought to the Badia in 1530, and which Professor Giorgio La Pira, Mayor of Florence, Founder of the Mass for the Poor, so much loved


Filippino, Vision of Saint Bernard, Badia

The words of Bernard’s hymn in Dante’s Paradiso are placed on the facade of the Misericordia, words which I read to my visitors. Then we turn to gaze upon the great Cathedral of Florence, its Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore:

Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo figlio,
umile e alta più che creatura,
termine fisso d’etterno consiglio,

tu se’ colei che l’umana natura
nobilitasti sì, che ’l suo fattore
non disdegnò di farsi sua fattura.

Nel ventre tuo si raccese l’amore,
per lo cui caldo ne l’etterna pace
così è germinato questo fiore.

Virgin Mother, daughter of your son,
humble and higher than any creature,
fixed goal of eternal counsel,

You are she who ennobled human nature
so that the Creator
did not disdain to become your Creation.

In your womb is bound up the love
through whose warmth in eternal peace
is thus germinated this flower.

I left out of my talk in the Badia that often when I shared with gypsy mothers in the street blessed bread and postcards of Dante, like the one above, they would ask ‘Was he a saint?’ and when I said ‘No’, explaining however that he had preached to his city about mercy, they would kiss the postcard as if it were an icon and share it with their children.

All is well here. We have saved the English Cemetery. Now we must restore it. Gypsy Maria and Daniel, from Romania and who come to the Mass for the Poor, today have weeded out all the stinging nettles (I supplied them with gloves and trowels). A month ago they, with their other brother Benoni, planted two enormous boxes filled with daffodil bulbs, which will come up in the Spring. Next, I hope to teach them tomb cleaning and restoration. Unlike Hedera or Luca, they are already literate, in both Roman and Cyrillic alphabets and love reading our polyglot tombstones of English, American, Russian and Swiss burials.

A thousand blessing for Christmas, Epiphany, and 2007.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Dearworthy Godfriends,
There are aspects of Florence I particularly love. One of them is that the city comes together to celebrate its great citizens, not the powerful and wealthy but who are those who are humble, who sacrifice, who live for others. Fioretta Mazzei's funeral was like that, Avvocato Torricelli's was like that, and yesterday Don Cuba's [pronounced 'cooba'] as well. Danilo Cubattoli, who died at 80, was ordained priest in 1948, refusing the restrictions of a parish, being simply a prison chaplain. Paolo Coccheri and I visited him in hospital and there he was joking, everyone loving him, when we all knew he was dying, and he was still as handsome as in this photo.

Yesterday we first gathered in the Carmine where he lay, his red motorcycle helmet at his feet in the coffin, a pink rose on his breast, in his priestly vestments, the Polizia Penitenziaria standing on guard. For he rode a motorbicycle and not only that, he knew how to repair it expertly. And everyone was smiling, remembering his joy. Our Russian Orthodox priest came and kissed him and sang prayers. Then we processed behind the coffin as it was carried down the aisle out the door to a most glorious rainbow and walked together through the streets of San Frediano, the poor area of Florence, to its major church, which when we arrived was already filled to standing room only, marquises and counts mingled with convicts and the poor, for everyone loved Don Cuba. The Cardinal and the auxiliary bishop both celebrated. The great gonfalone of the city, the banner with the red lily on white, held by men similarly dressed in red and white, the city's tribute. Then people spoke, a city official in the red, white and green sash, the Orthodox priest saying 'Cuba' believed in the Man of God as including all, if not the Church of God, and that he was his spiritual father, who took him in, a stranger, prison officials and convicts spoke, about how he mediated between them all with laughter. The prisoners had wanted the funeral Mass in the prison. Which was not possible. So, instead, they came to the great church to share in it with us. Finally the Cardinal spoke, saying a convict receiving Communion had put a piece of paper in his hand with a poem on it, which the eminent Cardinal then read, saying Don Cuba had loved everybody, especially those with black hearts, with tattooed arms, that he was both clown and confessor ('giullare e confessore'). Don Cuba, when asked by the worst criminals if it was possible to have God's mercy, resoundingly said 'Yes'. And had told their stories to undo the hardness of our hearts.

Sunday, December 03, 2006


No sooner had I posted my Christmastidings weblog, than did a friend, who had fled the flood in New Orleans, then almost immediately returned, sent me this with photographs of the flags in Florence of two years ago, asking for peace rather than war, in the world.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


It is time for the Annual Christmastide Newsletter, I realize, as English Christmas cards, complete with English robin redbreasts, arrive!

I was able to see my remaining beloved sons and grandchildren this past March and will do so again this year. Last year, with 100 dollars in my pocket for two weeks, travelling through Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas by bus, I found people were so kind. This coming year am not so impoverished but choosing to travel by bus because people on planes are scared and therefore scary. Will be speaking at Georgetown, Little Rock and Wellesley on Julian of Norwich, on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, on the English Cemetery, on Brunetto Latino, on 'Women in our Own Write/Right' to pay my way there.

This year Assunta and I made our promises at Mass in the Santissima Annunziata in Florence, joining the Ordine Secolare of the Servi di Maria, the Servites being founded in the thirteenth century by seven rich young men, sons of Florentine merchants, who gave up all to be hermits, sharing a vision of the Virgin. Then my Spiritual Director had me become a Lady of Justice of the Knights Hospitallers, founded during the Crusades to care for pilgrims, and he keeps writing to me as 'Dame Julia'. Then I renewed my monastic Vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience in the church of the Santissima, at the altar beneath its miraculous painting, said to be finished by an angel, of the Annunciation. It is a busy life, running a cemetery, a library, a publishing house, several websites, caring for Orthodox and Muslim gypsies, five families and a camp, finding time also for prayer, for the Offices, for the Eucharist, which I do by getting up at 4:30 a.m. each day. Perhaps the opposite of being a hermit, an anchoress. And sensing that all I do is Quaker, is Anglican, is Catholic, is of all the Peoples of the Book and beyond.

The Cemetery, which was threatened with closure and abandonment, has a new lease on life. I've painted the gates and had curving handrails made for its stairs, we've planted, with the help of two gypsy brothers and their sister, Benoni, Daniel, and Maria, two enormous boxes of daffodil bulbs, I've spoken about it at the Armstrong Browning Library's celebration of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Bicentennial, had the Comune of Florence, our city government, lay a huge laurel wreath on her restored tomb, designed by Lord Leighton. Then the Museo Archeologico Nazionale discovered us, for this Cemetery was founded in 1827, the Swiss Evangelical Church buying the land for it from the Grand Duke, the following year the Grand Duke funding Champollion and Rosellini's Expedition to Egypt and Nubia, and they now have an Exhibition of the Egyptian Motives in the 'English' Cemetery, and held an event here at which I read Elizabeth Barrett Browning's translations from the African Latin poet, Apuleius, and they also restored Arthur Hugh Clough's tomb. Next we shall have the tombs of Walter Savage Landor, Ann Horner and William Somerville restored, this last in honour of Mary Somerville, who taught herself mathematics, became a member of the Royal Society, discovered two planets, and taught mathematics to Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter, who then, with Charles Babbage, invented the computer. Best of all the Comune of Florence has given us traffic lights and a cross walk so our lives are no longer at daily risk.

Assunta and I discovered the Giardino Torrigiani, a magical place that Elizabeth Barrett Browning loved, and from which came many of the now-destroyed plants in this Cemetery. So, with the help of Vieri Torrigiani Malaspina we are going to be re-planting all these to make this place the English garden, the Paradise, it once was. And so many people are helping us, three thousand having signed our petition to UNESCO, people coming with plants and bulbs, people buying our books we print, sew and bind, and people most generously giving books to the library. For I have turned the 'English' Cemetery into a sort of international 'People's Park', inviting all to participate and they do.

A professor at Little Rock has published a book on Brunetto Latino and yours truly. I was invited to give a paper at the conference on Brunetto Latino in Basel, Switzerland, and found I could get there and back on a Swiss Railpass for 20 euro, so went. Had given up research on him for many years. Only to find I am now Dean of Brunetto Latino Studies, and so am revising the bibliography I published 20 years ago, and finding, too, so much of the new scholarship cites and footnotes my work. I offered joint authorship with my husband when he was seeking tenure. Am spending the mornings now either amongst medieval manuscripts in the Laurentian, the Riccardian and National Libraries or amongst books and articles in the Società Dantesca Italiana, catching up on twenty years of work! But sadly even the Società Dantesca Italiana is being modernized, all its beautiful hand-crafted doors being ripped out, thrown away and replaced with plastic ones, its frescoed walls destroyed. It was the Wool Guild, the Arte della Lana and is just opposite Orsanmichele, the great medieval granary built to feed even the enemy in time of famine, which has the most beautiful Madonna and Bambino, before whom I used to light candles year after year for our three sons.

Praying for Peace in this war-torn world. Praying for Courage that we recognize the Prince of Peace as born in a stable, in a concentration camp, of which there are now far too many. Praying for Love for all, which leads me to the ending of Mary Somerville's book, 'On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences', published in 1838.

'These formulae, emblematic of Omniscience, condense into a few symbols the immutable laws of the universe. This mighty instrument of human power itself originates in the primitive constitution of the human mind, and rests upon a few fundamental axioms, which have eternally existed in Him who implanted them in the breast of man when He created him after His own image'.