In Florence, Finding the Legacy of One of Literature’s Great Couples

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New York Times: They were an unlikely couple: he a young writer, dashing and ambitious, she a highly lauded poet six years his senior, a middle-aged invalid whose father kept her housebound. But when Robert Browning sent Elizabeth Barrett a fan letter in January 1845 — “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” he gushed — he ignited a romance that defied not only her weak constitution, but also her controlling father’s prohibition of marriage, as well as the conventions of Victorian England. After a 20-month courtship — conducted mainly within the sickroom that she hardly ever left — the pair married secretly and ran away, escaping the forbidding chill of London for a city that could feed their poetic souls with warmth and beauty. They moved to Florence.

For nearly 15 years, the Brownings lived under the spell of this elegant Renaissance capital. Inspired by its magnificent architecture and piazzas, embraced by its artistic expatriate community, they produced some of their most famous works — including Browning’s “Men and Women,” and Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh” — and this period is widely considered the most productive of their lives. But more than 150 years after Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death ended the couple’s Florentine idyll, the pair seems largely forgotten by their muse, overshadowed by Dante, Michelangelo’s David and the city’s other treasures. There is no doubt that Florence left a mark on the Brownings. But during a visit last May, I set out to discover whether the Brownings had left their mark on Florence.  Read more.

(Image: Sculling on the River Arno, beneath the Ponte Vecchio in Florence; Source: Susan Wright for The New York Times)

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