New: Dante vivo || White Silence

Lecture, Little Rock, 28 February 2007




I wish to express my gratitude to all of you for being allowed to write and say these words, to Little Rock for the courage in which you led the United States to what Elizabeth Barrett Browning called 'man's ideal sense', and to Michael Kleine for his book on my book.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning came from a family of Jamaican slave-owners. She hated slavery. She married Robert Browning 12 September 1845. His similar slave-owning family came from St Kitts. The couple immediately fled England for Italy, settling in Florence where she died 15 years later. Elizabeth knew she was herself part Black from her slave-trading Moulton grandfather. She guessed that Robert was part Jewish, praising his Bells and Pomegranates as from Aaron's High Priestly robe. When pregnant in Pisa, before coming to live in Florence, she wrote The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point, speaking in the voice of a raped Black slave who then kills her white child.

The first Duke of Florence, Alessandro de' Medici, whose bones lie in one of the two tombs sculpted by Michelangelo, the one to Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, his supposed father, the one that has the statues of Dusk and Dawn, was himself the son of Simonetta, a black slave. But his father was more probably Lorenzo's brother, Giulio de' Medici who became Pope Clement VII. Elizabeth constantly referred to that statue by Michelangelo of Dawn, who wakes in anguish, discussing it and Michelangelo's poetry about it in Casa Guidi Windows, and giving it as title to her epic novel, Aurora Leigh.

For this reason, among others, I believe, Florence became a place of openness, of tolerance, and of immense creativity. So many who knew each other eventually came to live and to die in Florence and be buried here, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Theodosia Trollope, Hiram Powers, Maurice Baruch, and Isa Blagden. They turned, by the alchemy of poetry and sculpture, the iron chain of slavery, the barrier of discimination, into the golden ring of freedom.


This is the 'English' Cemetery, where Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her friends are buried, in a recent photograph, its oval having been designed at the Risorgimento by Giuseppe Poggi. Behind, to the center, you can see the studio of Michele Gordigiani who painted the famous portraits of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.

But when Elizabeth was buried here 1 July 1861, this is how the Cemetery then looked, nestled up against the great medieval wall built by Arnoldo di Cambio and Michelangelo Buonarotti that Poggi would later tear down. Robert and their son Pen Browning, Isa Blagden and Robert Lytton, who would become Viceroy of India, the Trollopes, the Powers, the Storys, Kate Field and many others were present on that day at her graveside, but not Walter Savage Landor, as they had forgot to send a carriage for the old King-Lear-like poet. Robert Browning never again visited her grave side, indeed interfered with the very beautiful tomb Frederic Lord Leighton designed for her, Robert seeing to it that her name was not present on it, only her initials, and that the intended portrait became as unlike hers as was possible.


 Leighton, however, paid tribute to Elizabeth's passion for the freeing of the slaves by showing in the marble on the hidden back of the tomb a broken slave shackle.

Leighton Sketch Book, Royal Academy Library

Greek Lyre                   Christian Harp                Hebrew Harp
Tragedy and Comedy    Cross                            Jubilee with Broken Slave Shackle


Indeed, several of the ex-patriot women of the Anglo-Florentine circle came of mixed blood, different colours and other faiths, being therefore scarcely marriageable in English society. Elizabeth herself referred to her part slave ancestry. Maurice (Moisé) Baruch, the conscientious librarian of the English Church in Florence, a Jew converted to Christianity, found his resting place in the English Cemetery, buried by the Anglican Reverend Tottenham, his tomb inscribed in English and in German, the latter in fraktura script in 1867. Thomas Adolphus Trollope noted that the Hungarian patriot Ferencz Pulszky's talented beautiful Viennese wife, Therese Walther, was Jewish. While Thomas Adolphus' friend, Isa Blagden, and his own wife, Theodosia Garrow Trollope, were part Jewish, part East Indian. Nathaniel Hawthorne creates a composite of these in the exotic and beautiful character of Miriam in The Marble Faun.

There were . . . stories about Miriam’s origin and previous life . . . It was said, for example, that Miriam was the daughter and heiress of a great Jewish banker, (an idea perhaps suggested by a certain rich Oriental character in her face,) and had fled her paternal home to escape a union with a cousin, the heir of another of that golden brotherhood; the object being to retain their vast accumulation of wealth within the family . . . According to a[nother] . . ., she was the offspring of a Southern American planter, who had given her an elaborate education and endowed her with his wealth; but the one burning drop of African blood in her veins so affected her with a sense of ignominy, that she relinquished all and fled her country . . .

Elizabeth Barrett Browning described Isa Blagden's hospitable home in Bellosguardo with its view down upon Florence as that for her heroines, Aurora Leigh and Marian Erle. Henry James likewise delighted in visiting this vibrant exotic hostess. John Brett's fine painting from Isa's balcony includes the medieval walls as they were then, and huddled outside of them, to our left, the Hebrew Cemetery.

Robert Lytton, who had attended Elizabeth's funeral along with Isa, was the son of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, had published poetry under the name of 'Owen Meredith' and became Viceroy of India.

Elizabeth had hoped Lytton would marry Isa Blagden, for she had saved his life one summer in Bagni di Lucca, when the Brownings were also there, but Isa's mixed blood, part Jewish, part East Indian, prevented the match. They both wrote works about their romance: Lytton's Lucile, a kind of Aurora Leigh, in verse; Isa's Agnes Tremorne in prose. I am hoping someone will write a book about Isa and Lytton.   

In Florence, because of its openness, both English and Americans could be friends of each other more readily than could have been the case in either England or in America. Among Florence's residents was Hiram Powers, whose sculpture the 'Greek Slave' was the very centre of the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition,

In the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Gift of William Wilson Corcoran.

whose 'America' was not accepted by Congress because he showed her trampling on slave chains,

and whose 'Last of the Tribes' is exquisite.


He was himself part Native American and Elizabeth speaks of his great flashing eyes, while the brilliant artist Sophia Peabody, married to Nathaniel Hawthorne, studied sculpture under him.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning saw his sculpture of the 'Greek Slave' in his studio in Florence and was so moved by it that she wrote this sonnet.

In the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Gift of William Wilson Corcoran.

          They say Ideal Beauty cannot enter
          The house of anguish. On the threshold stands
          An alien Image with the shackled hands,
          Called the Greek Slave: as if the sculptor meant her,
          (That passionless perfection which he lent her,
          Shadowed, not darkened, where the sill expands)
          To, so, confront men’s crimes in different lands,
          With man’s ideal sense. Pierce to the centre,
          Art’s fiery finger! – and break up erelong
          The serfdom of this world! Appeal, fair stone,
          From God’s pure heights of beauty, against man’s wrong!
          Catch up in thy divine face, not alone
          East griefs but west, - and strike and shame the strong,
          By thunders of white silence, overthrown!

Elizabeth is speaking here against slavery in America, in Russia.

Buried also in our Swiss-owned so-called 'English' Cemetery, amongst servants from England, serfs from Russia, is Nadezhda, who came at 14 to Florence, a Black slave from Nubia, who was baptized in a Russian Orthodox family and who lies beneath a most beautiful Orthodox cross in white marble, her story told in Cyrillic on its base. We recall that Pushkin, who wrote of a friend as buried under the sweet myrtle of Italy at Leghorn, was himself the grandson of 'Tsar Peter's Negro'.

'Zdes' pokoitsja telo/ negritjanki Kalimy/ vo Sv. Kresenii/ Nadezdy/ privezennoj vo Florenciju iz Nubii/ v 1827 godu . . . 1851// Primi mja Gospodi/ vo Carstvie Tvoe'/Qui giacciono le spoglie mortali della nera Kalima, nel Santo/ Battesimo chiamata Nadezda (Speranza) che è stata portata a Firenze dalla Nubia nel 1827 . . 1851, Accoglila Signore nel Tuo Regno/

Mary Somerville buried her husband William here in July of 1860, being interred herself later in a magnificent tomb in Naples. Her husband's father, a Scottish clergyman and historian, wrote powerful essays against slavery. We recall that Scotland was an integral part of the slaves, sugar, rum triangle, still giving us our Dundee marmalade. Now Mary Fairfax Somerville, with no university education, merely a few months of school where she was placed in an iron contraption for her spine, discovered two planets and taught mathematics to Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter, who then, with Charles Babbage, invented the computer. At least that is what IBM told us back in the 1950s in Silicon Valley, where I was in college. Mary's books are exquisitely written - and were used as science textbooks by the University of Cambridge in the Victorian period. At 92, Mary regretted she would not live to see the end of the disgrace to humanity that is slavery. When I was at the UNESCO conference on computers and culture in St Petersburg two years ago we found many of us were women and/or Blacks, seizing this new information technology for our freedom.


The Admiral Sir Fleetwood Broughton Reyolds Pellew buried his Creole wife and heiress, the daughter of Lady Holland, Harriet Webster Pellew, here in August, 1849, having her tomb sculpted by Félicie de Fauveau, the Royalist sculptress living in exile following her imprisonment in France, in Florence. She also sculpted his tomb when he died in Marseilles, July, 1861, placing on it his father's Coat of Arms won through the victory of the Battle of Algiers against Moroccan slave traders. I tried to tell my childhood friend, Godfrey Webster, of these tombs but my letter reached him in Brazil too late. I had already told Godfrey, an Old Etonian, of his Creole ancestry. We had grown up together at Battle Abbey to which he should have been heir, had not the Trust sold it. We found Félicie de Fauveau's sculpure in photographs owned by Lord Crawford in Scotland, for she had willed them to his ancestor, the great art historian who had lived in Florence, Lord Lindsay. The tombs themselves have been vandalized.

On 28 December 1827, the ship 'Edward' had set sail from the Port of London for the Port of New Orleans. On board were Frances Trollope, 40, Cecilia Trollope, 12, Emily Trollope, 10, Henry Trollope, 14, all English, Frances Wright, 28, American, and August Hervieu, 23, French. Frances Wright, associated with Lafayette, had invited the Trollopes to Nashoba where she had a settlement for the education of Negro slaves. Auguste Hervieu, a brilliant young artist, was the children's tutor and companion. With them also were Hester Rust and William Abbott, their servants. Often Hervieu had to sell his art to feed and house them all.

Fanny and her family next voyaged up the Mississippi to Natchez and then through the forests to Nashoba in Tennessee. All this became grist to her mill in her anti-slavery novel, Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw, or Lynch Law, 1835, 1857. It is not in print. It is now very rare. You can see it, instead of read it, through Auguste Hervieu's engravings, which I have placed in a separate file so they not crash this one.

She published Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw or Life on the Mississippi in 1835. Already she had become famous for her Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832. This first book she wrote to pay the family's debts. In it she describes Fanny Wright's Nashoba as a place of utter desolation, no schooling happening at all. Eventually Fanny Wright would ship these slaves to the free Republic of Haiti.

Fanny Trollope and her household travelled on to Cincinnati where she set up a Museum and a Bazaar. Hervieu set to work on a huge canvas on General Lafayette Landing in Cincinnati. While there she commissioned a young part Native American genius, to sculpt Dante's Commedia in waxworks. That began Hiram Powers' career as a sculptor of world fame, whose Greek Slave of the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition is immortalized in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry.

Fanny, however, did not like America. People then spat tobacco into spittoons everywhere. She loathed slavery. She also disliked American sexual segregation.

On her way home she also visited Niagara and Philadelphia. In Philadelphia she describes being allowed, during the Ladies Only Hour, to see plaster casts of nude statues. Here we see the Trollope's maid, Hester Rust, Fanny and her daughter Cecilia gazing at us! Or at least at Hervieu! Or at Hiram Powers' chaste neo-Classical nudes, pulsing with freedom.

The family then returned home to England.

In the late 1830s early 1840s Lord Ashley, who later became Lord Shaftesbury, was preparing the groundwork for Parliamentary legislation against the abusive labour of children in factories and mines in England. He asked Fanny Trollope to investigate and what she saw filled her with horror. Slave-owners did not kill or cripple their slaves, wanting to keep them alive for their labour. Factory and mine owners treated their child employees as expendable. Families were so poor that there would always be replacements. Fanny saw conditions in England for English children as demonstrably worse than what she had already witnessed, with horror, for slaves on American plantations. Requested by Lord Ashley to write in support of his work for children in factories and mines, she published The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, Factory Boy, in 1840.

She and Hervieu actually travelled to the milltowns and she and he together witnessed the most terrible scene in the book, where the starving children working in the mill steal from the pigs their swill.

Richard Hengist Horne worked with Southwood Smith on this same campaign. He had engaged Elizabeth Barrett Browning to work with him on A New Spirit of the Age. The first essay in the collection is a full length study of Southwood Smith who advocated the use of fresh air and sunlight and slum clearance and who came to be buried in Florence's 'English' Cemetery under a fine obelisk, its bust by the sculptor from Kentucky, Joel Tanner Hart.

Other essays in that two volume collection, The New Spirit of the Age, included those on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, William Wordsworth, and Fanny Trollope. Most of these were accompanied by signed portrait engravings. Elizabeth had those of Browning and Tennyson framed and placed on her Wimpole Street mantelpiece.


She had jokingly proposed to both of them in her 1844 poem, Lady Geraldine's Courtship, before meeting either poet, when speaking of her heroine reading with her lover hero, of

                                                   Tennyson's enchanted reverie, -
Or from Browning some 'Pomegranate', which if cut deep down the middle
Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity! -

Thus she proposed marriage to both of them, not having met either of them, in her Lady Geraldine's Courtship. It was Robert who responded to those lines, dashing off his first love letter to her. Whenever he came a'courting she instructed her brothers to turn both portraits to the wall. She also, for Hengist Horne, for Southwood Smith and for Lord Ashley, composed 'The Cry of the Children' which was read in the House of Lords and translated into Russian by Dosteivsky's brother Mikhail.

The couple became friends with the Tennysons. These two engravings from Hengist Horne's New Spirit of the Age, which she had helped edit in her Wimpole Street sickroom, of Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate, and Robert Browning, author of Paracelsus, would be joined on the mantlepiece in Casa Guidi by Dante Gabriel Rossetti's sketch of Tennyson reading 'Maud', at which the Brownings were present, October 1855. Robert, meanwhile, furnished the vast room in Florence in which Elizabeth wrote (and which she said was 'like a room in a novel') with antiques, including its great gold-framed mirror, and paintings, many pieces resulting from the suppression of monasteries, bought in San Lorenzo Market where, one day, he found 'The Old Yellow Book' about a man's murder of his wife. I have argued elsewhere that Robert may have been responsible for Elizabeth's death.

Fanny Trollope had written the first anti-slave novel with Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw, the American Richard Hildreth wrote the second one, The Slave, publishing it within six months of hers. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who came to Cincinatti after Fanny Trollope had left from there, copied both their novels in her Uncle Tom's Cabin, 'the little book that started the great war'. Hildreth is buried near his fellow Unitarian Theodore Parker, who had preached so passionately against slavery that Frederick Douglass, who liked to visit the tombs of famed Abolitionists, came straight from Florence's railroad station to it. The busts of both Parker and Southwood Smith are sculpted by yet another American in Florence, Joel Tanner Hart, who came from Kentucky. My own legal name, 'Holloway', to my shame, comes from a Kentucky slave-owning Quaker family. To my pride, I share it with a Black Princetonian, formerly President of the Whig-Clio Society, America's oldest debating club, who came to me when I taught there to ask if we might be related. I almost said, 'Thee should be Dwight X, I Julia X. For neither of us is "Holloway" our true name'.


The English Cemetery, Florence's 'God's Acre' for foreigners, where Harriet Webster Pellew was buried in August, 1849, Kalima Nadezhda De Santis was buried in August, 1851, Theodore Parker in May, 1860, William Somerville in July, 1860, Elizabeth Barrett Browning in July, 1861, Admiral Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew in July, 1861, Southwood Smith in December, 1861, Fanny Trollope in October, 1863, Theodosia Trollope in April, 1865, Richard Hildreth in July, 1865, Hiram Powers in June, 1873, has monuments celebrating the writers of books, the sculptors of statues, of those who hated slavery and child abuse with a passion and who all interconnect, who were each others' friends. I had to resuscitate Elizabeth Barrett Browning's strong poetry from oblivion, insisting on editing her, rather than writing yet another sentimental love story as biography, sweeping unwanted facts under the carpet. It was because of my edition with Penguin of her poetry, that I was given the Gatehouse of the English Cemetery in exchange for being its Director. Fanny Trollope's anti-slavery novel has not been in print for decades. It thoroughly deserves its re-publication. Hiram Powers' sculpture fell from grace, was even rejected by the United States' Congress because of its political desire to continue slavery. Our Swiss-owned Cemetery is a window on to American history, on to English history, on to Italian history, on to world history. It is, perhaps, through our Cemetery, itself so much at risk to being closed and abandoned, that we can find truth, and write it again true, instead of false. That we can turn, through the alchemy of freedom, iron shackles into golden rings.

For further texts and readings against slavery:
John Woolman, Plea for the Poor Now also an mp3 reading at http://www.umilta.net/Woolman1.mp3  - http://www.umilta.net/Woolman4.mp3
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point Now also an mp3 reading at http://www.florin.ms/ebb5.mp3
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 'Hiram Powers' Greek Slave' http://www.florin.ms/ebb1.mp3
A prize essay on Frances Trollope: http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2007/06/essay_winner200706

: Dante vivo || White Silence

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