The Florence Connection

I wrote the piece below in June 2020 for a collected volume organised by Sujit Sivasundaram and Sadiah Qureshi in honour of the retirement of my PhD supervisor, the incomparable historian of science James A. Secord. The volume is titled Secord in Transit, a riff on his influential article "Knowledge in Transit" which appeared in Isis vol. 95, no. 4 (2004):654-672. It was inspired by the year I spent as a postdoctoral fellow in Florence, Italy, after finishing my PhD.


"Florence is of itself so attaching — so soothing in its loveliness, and yet not the dead feeling of a country town in England — Life everywhere, in the sun, in the river, in the hills with their thousand villas — in the living present — in the living past."

Susan Horner, 1861 [1]

I began writing this piece in late May 2020 from Florence, Italy, as the city emerged from unprecedented lockdown. The streets were remarkably quiet, void of tourists and study abroad students. The city was both eerie and beautiful. The sudden quiet that befell the city this spring allowed me to contemplate some who have passed through this place before me, leaving something of themselves behind.

Several tombstones in the “English Cemetery” in Florence are a testament to the community of Victorian intellectuals who once resided here. Most active in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the cemetery became the resting places for many notable Anglo-Florentines at the height of Italian Unification. [2] Among them were famous literary figures Walter Savage Landor, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Fanny and Theodosia Trollope, Arthur Hugh Clough, and numerous artists. The physician William Somerville is also buried here, not far from his wife, the eminent science writer Mary Somerville, who is herself buried in the Protestant Cemetery of Naples. Another grave belongs to Anne Susanna Horner, wife of the reputable geologist and social reformer Leonard Horner. Her tombstone contains a medallion honouring the Horners’ fifty-six-year marriage, and references to their six erudite daughters, whom Charles Darwin fondly nicknamed “the Horneritas.”[3] I took particular interest in the Horners’ connection with my temporary abode because, at Jim’s suggestion, I previously researched Leonard’s geo-archaeological investigations in Egypt in the 1850s.[4]

Grave of Susanna Horner (1786-1862) in the "English Cemetery" in Florence.

The Horners were a Scottish Quaker family whose residence in Bloomsbury, by mid-century, became an elite social space for scientific discussion and debate.[5] Leonard was a social reformer, educationalist, and geologist; Anne maintained a wide correspondence network. Their eldest daughter Mary married geologist Charles Lyell; Katherine married his brother Henry Lyell; Frances married botanist Charles Bunbury; and Leonora married German historian George Heinrich Pertz. The two youngest daughters Susan and Joanna remained unwed. The six daughters were well-educated, fluent in multiple languages, and accomplished writers. All but Mary published in their own lifetime as authors, editors, or translators.[6] The Horners moreover had strong affinities with Italy. Leonard’s brother Francis, a Whig politician and co-founder of the Edinburgh Review, was buried in Pisa. Susan had previously resided in Florence with the Bunburys in 1848, and subsequently translated numerous works of Italian poetry and history. The entire family was passionate and informed about Italian politics.

The autumn of 1861 commenced a landmark year for the Horner family. Doctors ordered Anne to a warmer climate for her health and she, alongside Leonard, Susan, and Joanna, ventured to Florence for an eight-month sojourn.[7] They travelled with the ailing poet Arthur Hugh Clough, also going to Italy for his health, and his wife Blanche. The Horners stopped at La Spezzia, the temporary residence of Mary Somerville and her daughters Martha and Mary. There they found the 81-year-old vigorously finishing the newest edition of her Physical Geography (originally published 1848). He was charmed at her writing habits: “We saw the nice little old lady in her working dress, with her bed covered with books and manuscripts.”[8] Somerville and Leonard Horner exchanged views on the antiquity of man, about which he had recently given a controversial presidential address to the Geological Society in London. In Pisa, Leonard received a tour of the Natural History Museum and a lecture about Tuscan geology from Gaetano Savi, head of the Pisan Geological School and co-founder of the Italian Geological Survey. He was first to see a new geological map of the region commissioned for the National Exposition in Florence that Autumn.[9]

From Clockwise: Photographs of Leonard, Susan, Joanna, and Anne Horner taken while they lived in Florence, 1861-1862. Photos courtesy of the National Hungarian Museum.

During their months in Florence, the family mingled within scientific, political, and literary circles. Their social calendar was filled with picnics in the Tuscan hillsides, walks to private villas, and collection tours from Italian antiquarians, naturalists, and scholars. They visited with British expats and travellers. The family lodged at Casa Fabbiani across from the Pitti Palace and next door to what was once the Brownings’ residence, where Elisabeth had scripted her monumental poem Casa Guidi Windows. The Cloughs stayed one floor above. Leonard largely confined himself to learning Italian and the local geology. He passed much of his time at the Museo d’Istoria Naturale where he met with the museum’s director Filippo Parlatore (described by Joseph Hooker as the “Nestor of Tuscan Botanists”) and Parlatore’s assistant, the botanist Teodoro Caruel.[10] Leonard also conversed with the Marchese Torrigiani about educational reform in Italy, and the historian Pasquale Villari, whose lectures at the Scuola Superiore he and Joanna often attended.

Susan and Joanna kept very busy while their mother recuperated. Susan’s diary offers a particular window into Victorian women’s networks in Italy. She corresponded extensively with her sisters, Mary and Marianne Somerville, Marianne Galton, and Blanche Clough. They were visited by Cecilia Siddons (wife of phrenologist George Combe), and spent significant time with Selina Bracebridge, artist, travel writer, and assistant to Florence Nightingale. The sisters occupied most their time pursuing their own creative and intellectual projects. Joanna traced a winged ancient Egyptian motif for Clough’s tombstone.[11] Along with Parlatore’s wife and sister, Susan and Joanna attended the professor’s lectures at the Natural History Museum, where “many ladies attend…as much educated as English ladies.”[12] Joanna, who shared her father’s geological interests, visited palaeontologist Igino Cochi while he was studying marine fossils. As Susan noted, the two sisters often “trudged under umbrellas to the Nat. History Museum, and she looked at fossils and I at the specimens of precious stones.”[13] Susan frequently discussed Etruscan antiquities with Arcangelo Michele Migliarini, artist and museum curator at the Uffizi. Countless days were spent studying, documenting, drawing, and cataloguing the gems in the museum’s collection.[14]

In May 1862, Anne Horner’s health took a turn for the worst. Susan’s diary contains a photograph of the house where the family “spent eight happy months ending in our greatest sorrow – and leaving a sweet but sad memory.” Mary and Charles Lyell joined their family in Florence to say goodbye before they all returned together to Britain. Susan and Joanna’s residency informed their popular two-volume guidebook Walks in Florence and its Environs (1884). Scattered with quotes from Dante’s Paradiso and the history of the city’s monuments and architecture, it remains a key insight into Victorian life in the city.

Throughout my first months in Florence, I struggled to prepare my doctoral thesis for submission away from Cambridge, while simultaneously starting my first postdoctoral position at the European University Institute. I met virtually with Jim every week. He read drafts characteristically quickly and offered critical feedback, leaving me each time with pages of precious scribbled notes. He prodded whether I had left my thesis-writing bubble and explored the historic city centre. ‘Have you walked through the Boboli Gardens?’ he asked nostalgically. ‘Visit the Uffizi soon!’ he urged, and ‘let me know when you’ve seen the wax models at La Specola.’ Having spent an extended honeymoon here with Anne, Jim was acquainted with all extraordinary sights the City of Lillies has to offer (I am told they hope to return for a future anniversary!). As I prepare to leave for my next position in Toronto, I am faced with the bittersweet feeling that I am leaving the last place where Jim enthusiastically, skilfully, and patiently coached me through the successful completion of my PhD. Yet I am comforted by Leonard Horner’s words as they echo in my head: “Florence will be now connected with us by an indissoluble link.”[15]

[1] Diary of Susan Horner, 10 December 1861, ff. 44. British Institute of Florence.

[2] For more about the cemetery see Julia Bolton Holloway, ‘“Thunders of White Silence”: The Protestant Cemetery of Florence, Called “The English Cemetery”’, 2019; Jacqueline Banerjee, ‘The English Cemetery in Florence and the Anglo-Florentine Community’, The Victorian Web, 24 May 2011.

[3] James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 241. [4] Meira Gold, ‘Ancient Egypt and the Geological Antiquity of Man, 1847–1863’, History of Science 57, no. 2 (2019): 194–230.

[5] Secord, Victorian Sensation, 411. [6] While Mary Lyell did not publish in her name, it is well-known that she studied conchology and collaborated with her husband during geological fieldwork, cataloguing objects, discussing and editing his publications, and translating his correspondence letters. The other Horner sisters’ publications include: Count Cesare Balbo, The Life and Times of Dante Alighieri, trans. Frances J. Bunbury, 2 vols (London: Richard Bentley, 1852); Frances J. Bunbury and Katharine M. Lyell, eds., Life, Letter and Journals of Sir Charles J.F.Bunbury, 3 vols (London: Women’s Printing Society, 1894); Katharine M. Lyell, A Geographical Handbook of All the Known Ferns (London: John Murrary, 1870); Katharine M. Lyell, ed., Life, Letters, and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1881); Katharine M. Lyell, ed., Memoir of Leonard Horner, 2 vols (London: Women’s Printing Society, 1890); Karl Richard Lepsius, Letters from Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Peninsula of Sinai, trans. Joanna B Horner and Leonora Horner (London: H. G. Bohn, 1853); Susan Horner and Joanna B Horner, Walks in Florence and Its Environs, 2 vols (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1884); Pietro Colletta, History of the Kingdom of Naples, 1734-1825, trans. Susan M. Horner, 2 vols (Edinburgh: T. Constable and Co., 1858); Susan Horner, A Century of Despotism in Naples and Sicily (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1860); Susan Horner, The Tuscan Poet G. Giusti and His Times (London: MacMillan and Co., 1864).

[7] Much gratitude to Alyson Price, former archivist at the Institute, who provided diary transcripts, digital images, and information about the Horners in Florence. [8] Leonard Horner, Memoir of Leonard Horner, ed. Katharine M. Lyell, vol. 2 (London, 1890), 315–16; Jim has written extensively on Somerville's life and work, see for example James A. Secord, Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), chapter 4; James A. Secord, ‘Mary Somerville’s Vision of Science’, Physics Today 71, no. 1 (2018): 46–52. [9] Horner, Memoir of Leonard Horner, 2:318–19.

[10] Ibid., 2:321. [11] Diary of Susan Horner, 8 December 1861, f. 43, British Institute in Florence. [12] Diary of Susan Horner, 24 December 1861, f. 48, British Institute in Florence. [13] Diary of Susan Horner, 16 November 1861, f. 36v, British Institute in Florence. [14] Hannah Sikstrom, ‘Susan Horner’s Journeys, Journals and Gems: The Unpublished Travel Accounts of an Intellectual Woman in Italy’, Women’s Writing 24, no. 2 (2017): 227–47.

[15] Horner, Memoir of Leonard Horner, 2:352.

45 views0 comments