‘Casa Guidi’ is the name Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning gave the apartment they rented on the first floor of the old Palazzo Guidi near the Pitti Palace in Florence. After a romantic courtship and clandestine marriage, they arrived in the city as exiles in April 1847. Casa Guidi became their home throughout their marriage, and was the one centre of stability in their wandering lives. It was at Casa Guidi that Robert wrote Men and Women and Elizabeth Casa Guidi Windows and Aurora Leigh. Their only child, Penini (‘Pen’), was born there, and Elizabeth died there in 1861.
After Elizabeth’s death Browning left Florence for ever. Pen Browning, however, bought Palazzo Guidi as a shrine to his parents in 1893, and moved most of their effects there. On Pen’s death in 1912 his widow and the Moulton-Barretts disposed of Casa Guidi to an American, Signora Ellen Centaro. She tried to create a Browning Foundation in the house, an idea which was thwarted by World War I and her own death. Casa Guidi was rented out, and by 1960 was a Linguistic Club run by Ruth Borchardt, a Browning enthusiast. The rooms, shabby and mostly unfurnished, were opened to the public, who found table-tennis being played in the Brownings’ empty drawing-room. In an effort to raise funds, Miss Borchardt founded an international committee and asked Michael Meredith, then a young Eton Master interested in the Brownings, to join it.
Events overtook this initiative. In 1969 the Centaros decided to sell off to developers some of the apartments, including Casa Guidi. The Brownings’ home seemed doomed to become offices for a local bank, until the Browning Society of New York made an appeal to save Casa Guidi. Thanks to their efforts, Casa Guidi passed into the hands of the newly-founded Browning Institute in 1971.
For twenty years the Browning Institute improved Casa Guidi. They installed resident caretakers who showed the public round the rooms, and they started a systematic restoration. Careful research revealed the exact colours of the ceilings and walls of each room during the Brownings’ occupation. The frescoes were skilfully repainted at considerable cost, until the apartment looked very much as it had done in the 1850s, apart from a lack of furniture and pictures.
By 1991 it was clear that a further impetus was needed. The Browning Institute approached Eton College, through Michael Meredith, with the suggestion that Casa Guidi might be transferred to Eton as a study centre, on the understanding that the apartment would be refurnished and still remain open to the public. The then Head Master, Eric Anderson (now Sir Eric, latterly Provost of Eton), was enthusiastic and proposed that Eton might combine with the Landmark Trust to restore the building. This was agreed and Casa Guidi was prepared for its present use – as a study centre for Eton boys for seven weeks each year, and as a Landmark Trust holiday apartment for the rest of the time. Four rooms were restored to close approximations of how they were furnished during the Brownings’ time, and a modern kitchen and bedrooms were installed in the former servants’ quarters. In July 1995 the British Ambassador in Italy opened the newly-appointed building. Since then Casa Guidi has entertained hundreds of guests, as well as many members of the general public merely wishing to see round the four main rooms.
Casa Guidi is open to visitors from 3.00–6.00 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from April to November for a small admission fee. Eton College owns the building, but the administration of Casa Guidi is in the hands of the Landmark Trust, to whom all inquiries about bookings should be directed. It can be rented by the week, or for shorter periods at certain times of the year. Inquiries about the Brownings or the historical aspects of Casa Guidi should be made to Michael Meredith, College Library, Eton College, Windsor, Berkshire, SL4 6DB, England.