The most indelible portrait of the British colony in Florence has probably been E. M. Forster’s in his 1908 novel A Room with a View: Vicars and spinsters exchanging guarded pleasantries over the tea-table; earnest culture-seekers who won’t venture into Santa Croce or the Uffizi without their Baedekers. Twenty years later, Aldous Huxley, who lived in the city for several years, described it as “a third-rate provincial town, colonized by English sodomites and middle-aged lesbians,” the colony itself “a sort of decayed provincial intelligentsia.”

Neither assessment is quite fair. The British community in Florence took root in the 1840s and reached its apogee in about 1910, at which time it was recorded that some 35,000 British subjects resided there: one-seventh of the city’s total population. Famous Anglo-Florentines of the early period included major poets,...

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