Bible Alive Cover
Bible Alive is a Catholic scripture magazine which draws its strength, inspiration, and direction from the liturgical cycle. Latest edition out now.

Alive Publishing’s own publishing cycle (monthly and seasonal magazines) and book publishing schedule precludes them accepting any unsolicited manuscripts and from entering into any new projects at this time.

The Urban Hermit

Fifteen minutes’ walk from the world-famous Duomo, in the middle of Florence’s busy ring road, is a large, raised garden that in springtime bursts with a carpet of purple irises. This is the English cemetery, last resting-place of the 19th century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wife of Robert Browning. But it’s the cemetery’s living inhabitant I’ve come to meet – a nun called Sister Julia Bolton-Holloway.

Julia, who wears a dark grey habit and a white veil, lives in a mini-palazzo just inside the cemetery gates. She’s been here since 2000, having first visited while she was researching the life of Barrett Browning in the late 1990s.

“I came to see her tomb, and I was shocked to find the cemetery padlocked, overgrown and filthy,” she remembers. In its heyday it had been a gathering-place for the many well-to-do English tourists and intellectuals who flocked to the Renaissance city; it features in the Franco Zefferilli movie Tea With Mussolini, the story of a group of British ex-patriate women.
But that movie was set in the 1930s, and since the 1950s the cemetery had been closed and neglected. Despite being the burial place of mostly English folk – amongst other graves are those of Fanny Trollope, writer and mother of Anthony, and the poet Walter Savage Landor – the land on which it sits belongs in fact to Switzerland; so Julia met the Swiss consul, and was delighted to be offered the role of its custodian. Since then she has put the cemetery back on the tourist map of this Renaissance city: on the day I come to see her, there are several other visitors gathered around her table, some sharing stories of ancestors who are amongst the 1400 people buried here. “It’s wonderful having so many people come to see me here and tell me about their families,” she says. “We’ve got very extensive archives and we know a great deal about the people who were buried here. The oldest grave dates back to 1828, and the last was a boy of just 15.” The cemetery was only in use for 50 years, but space has been reserved for Julia, for when the time comes.

Julia holds court surrounded by her library of around 4500 books: she’s a writer, an expert on Dante, and she can flit from subject to subject with ease, occasionally getting up to retrieve a book from a high-up shelf. Then comes tea, served by the couple who share her cemetery home with her: they’re members of the Roma community, because as well as caring for the graves of the dead, Julia has spent the last two decades here working for a better life for some of the city’s poorest, who are often overlooked and treated unjustly by the authorities.
Hers has been, she says candidly, a “crazy life”. It began just before the war in Sussex; during the blitz she and her brother were evacuated and lived with a family of carpenters, from whom Julia learnt woodwork – she made the bookshelves for her library here in Florence and has also, she tells me, already made her own coffin for when the time comes for her to move to a different part of the cemetery. Always clever at school, she hoped to go to Oxford to read English, but instead was sent to live with relatives in California, and ended up studying history at Berkeley.

There she met her husband, an academic; they married when she was 20, and she went on to have three sons, whom she raised alongside studying for her doctorate.

“I came to see her tomb, and I was shocked to find the cemetery padlocked, overgrown and filthy,” she remembers. In its heyday it had been a gathering-place for the many well-to-do English tourists and intellectuals who flocked to the Renaissance city; it features in the Franco Zefferilli movie Tea With Mussolini, the story of a group of British ex-patriate women.
But that movie was set in the 1930s, and since the 1950s the cemetery had been closed and neglected. Despite being the burial place of mostly English folk – amongst other graves are those of Fanny Trollope, writer and mother of Anthony, and the poet Walter Savage Landor – the land on which it sits belongs in fact to Switzerland; so Julia met the Swiss consul, and was delighted to be offered the role of its custodian. Since then she has put the cemetery back on the tourist map of this Renaissance city: on the day I come to see her, there are several other visitors gathered around her table, some sharing stories of ancestors who are amongst the 1400 people buried here. “It’s wonderful having so many people come to see me here and tell me about their families,” she says. “We’ve got very extensive archives and we know a great deal about the people who were buried here. The oldest grave dates back to 1828, and the last was a boy of just 15.” The cemetery was only in use for 50 years, but space has been reserved for Julia, for when the time comes.

Julia holds court surrounded by her library of around 4500 books: she’s a writer, an expert on Dante, and she can flit from subject to subject with ease, occasionally getting up to retrieve a book from a high-up shelf. Then comes tea, served by the couple who share her cemetery home with her: they’re members of the Roma community, because as well as caring for the graves of the dead, Julia has spent the last two decades here working for a better life for some of the city’s poorest, who are often overlooked and treated unjustly by the authorities.
Hers has been, she says candidly, a “crazy life”. It began just before the war in Sussex; during the blitz she and her brother were evacuated and lived with a family of carpenters, from whom Julia learnt woodwork – she made the bookshelves for her library here in Florence and has also, she tells me, already made her own coffin for when the time comes for her to move to a different part of the cemetery. Always clever at school, she hoped to go to Oxford to read English, but instead was sent to live with relatives in California, and ended up studying history at Berkeley.

There she met her husband, an academic; they married when she was 20, and she went on to have three sons, whom she raised alongside studying for her doctorate.

Bible Alive Cover

Sign up for a free copy of Bible Alive

Bible Alive is a Catholic scripture magazine which draws its strength, inspiration and direction from the liturgical cycle.

Free Trial Subscribe Now

SUBSCRIBE TO RECEIVE OFFERS AND NEWS

Sign up to our email newsletter to receive the latest news and offers from Alive Publishing

© 2023 Alive Publishing. All rights reserved
Registered Charity Number is 298807

Pin It on Pinterest