Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Little Bit of England in Florence

Due to inevitable budget cuts, the closure of Florence's British Consulate at the end of this year was announced this past spring, a decision which provoked headlines and controversy.  

Controversy because the Consulate has a 555-year history, having been founded in 1456.  It was common knowledge that all local consular functions would be moved to the Milan consulate and the Rome embassy, but everyone was waiting to hear who would be appointed Honorary British Consul, an unpaid position.  As an answer to the question, the above gold-engraved invitation arrived in the office from the British Embassy in Rome, and I confirmed my presence.

When I called the British Institute Library asking if Carly could take photos during the reception, I was told that there was a press conference scheduled prior at 5 pm, so dressed to the nines, we hurried over, crossing Ponte Santa Trinita to Palazzo Lanfredini.

As evidenced by the longevity of the British Consulate's presence, there has always been a large number of visitors and notable British residents--including Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning-- in Florence through the centuries.  There is an historic "English" cemetery (owned by the Swiss Evangelic church) outside the city walls in Piazzale Donatello, an English Church, St. Mark's, on via Maggio, as well as the British Institute.  Granted a Royal Charter in 1923, the Institute offers English and Italian language and cultural courses;  in addition, the British Institute Acton Library has the largest collection of books in English in continental Europe.

Carly and I arrived 15 minutes late for the press conference, which would normally be on time for Italy, but Ambassador Christopher Prentice had already given his speech.

He is seated third from the left, while city councilman president Eugenio Giani is making a few remarks.  To the left of Ambassador Prentice is the new Honorary British Consul (awaiting final approval), Sara Milne, who became the head of the British Institute this past spring.

Daughter of concert pianist Hamish Milne, she arrived in Florence after heading up Science and Media, a company that promoted the London science museum's collection and intellectual property.  During a Vista interview, she said "my aim for the British Institute of Florence is to reflect its history, but also to reflect the here and now--the latter is what excites me."

No small thing in a town where tradition always comes first.

Speaking of tradition, a few stray Italian journalists showed up at press conference's end, convinced they were not late, while refreshment tables were being set up with a night view over the
Arno river.

I have always been invited to the all important British Consulate functions, feeling like a member of the family as the token, adopted American (this event was no exception, with only one other American present, the artist Charles Cecil).  Over the years I was personally acquainted with every single British Consul starting with Rawlinson in the 1980s, and witnessed the closure of the passport/visa and commercial sectors.  New staff members were rarely hired to replace those who retired.

As David Broomfield (pictured above), Florence's last official British Consul now at the Rome Embassy, told me,  "The change enabled consular staff to focus more on helping British citizens, including providing support or advice in case of document theft, legal or medical problems, hospitalization and jail."

"Consular staff was also responsible for taking care of requests to provide a nulla osta for marriages between international citizens and British nationals to the tune of over 1,000 requests arriving each year," Broomfield said.

Now the only person left at the British Consulate office on Lungarno Corsini until next March is
Vice Consul Jane Ireland.

Jane is overseeing the not-so-easy transition.  It is unimaginable how British subjects with stolen wallets and passports are being redirected to the Milan consulate; so go the times.  Jane is still working in the British Consulate's majestic offices in Lungarno Corsini 2, above which flies the Union Jack.  Local Brits like to recall that Lungarno Corsini 2 was once the home of poet and Count Vittorio Alfieri, who became an intimate friend of Bonnie Prince Charles' wife Louise, Countess of Albany.

The lovers are buried in the basilica of Santa Croce, under a beautiful neoclassical Canova monument between the tombs of Michelangelo and Macchiavelli.  So much for fostering good Italo-Anglo relations!

At the reception, my attention was drawn to someone saying "you look like a duchess," to Mary Shipton Foreman, a pillar of the English resident community in Tuscany.

She is the anonymous British Consulate receptionist mentioned in the British Embassy press release who  helped turned Consulate premises into a clinic during the 1966 Florence flood.

"I was hired for six months--the flood happened during that time and I ended up staying 18 years," she remembers, "commuting always from her home in Panzano in Chianti (where incidentally, she had the honor of hosting Prince Charles who did en plein air watercolors followed by lunch at the nearby Montagliari estate).

"Having been trained as a nurse I gave all comers--British and otherwise--typhoid shots in the aftermath of the flood.  I only had trouble with Italian men, who were worried that the shot, which could save their lives, might possibly affect their virility,"
she told me with a discreet laugh.

Hail Britannica!


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