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'.

No comments: