The true Florence: Exploring the Italian birthplace of Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale has always been my idol. Last month, I realized a dream—a visit to her birthplace during my trip to Italy.
Dec 1, 2007
As fellow nurses, you are no doubt well aware of Florence Nightingale's work, from before and during the Crimean War, to the Post-War Era, the Reform Years, and beyond. But do you know her earliest family history?
Florence's parents were extraordinarily wealthy, and like other well-off British citizens, they chose to travel throughout Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. Setting out on a two-year tour shortly after their marriage—with an entourage of servants in tow—they rented luxurious villas for extended periods of time. During their stay, two daughters were born, each named after the cities in which they resided at the time.
Her older sister, Parthenope, was born in Naples on April 19, 1819. Florence arrived on May 12, 1820, in the Villa Columbaia near the Porta Romana in Florence. On July 4, 1820, Florence was christened in the Villa's salon.1 When she was a year old, the family returned to England.
The Villa Columbaia
I had the opportunity to literally walk in Florence's footsteps when I joined a tour company visiting several cities in Italy. Realizing there would be a free afternoon in the City of Flowers, I skipped the Uffizi and decided to explore the Villa Columbaia on my own. Thanks to the Internet, I discovered it had since been converted into a private Catholic school run by the Adorers of the Blood of Christ Sisters. Visitors were encouraged to bring an Italian interpreter, as the nuns did not speak English, and to schedule visits before 6:00 p.m., which was their prayer time.
Our Italian tour guide volunteered to serve as an interpreter, since she happened to have a personal interest in Miss Nightingale. Soon, we were off.
The Villa, located just on the outskirts of the heart of Florence, sits on a very steep hill. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a lovely, incredibly enthusiastic Italian nun who gave us the royal tour. She was extremely proud of the historical significance of the Villa and its connection to Florence Nightingale. However, she was even more filled with pride that she was one of the six original remaining Sisters who, in 1957, had converted the then dilapidated building into a residence for the nuns and, in 1964, a school.
The building was in pristine condition, and the meticulous grounds were as impressive as the interior. We walked down a long tree-lined path and were treated to an unexpected magnificent panoramic view of the heart of the city.
The nun gave us a pamphlet that fleshed out the Villa's history. I learned that the original structure was constructed in the 1400s and owned by the Serragli family. Additions to the Villa continued until the 1700s. After a series of owners, it was restored at the end of the 1800s, decades after Florence Nightingale's birth. The Villa regained its splendor and became a place for lavish parties and receptions.
Then, during World War I, it was converted into a hospital. In 1915, the Villa was confiscated by the state and, 12 years later, sold to Ernest Foster, whose daughter would eventually sell it to the Sisters.
Next, my guide eagerly ushered me into the room where Florence Nightingale was allegedly born. For me, standing in that room alone was more of an emotional experience than standing in the Sistine Chapel a few days earlier with the mobs of tourists!
As we were leaving, with a huge smile on her face, the nun pointed to the large plaque on the exterior. Although written in Italian, it clearly designated the building as the birthplace of Florence Nightingale.
A special place
I earnestly believe the nun relished our visit. This special place represented her home for half a century and the fruits of her labor. Although she didn't speak English, she was obviously thrilled about our sincere interest in what was so significant to her.
Florence, Italy, is the city of the Renaissance. But for me, my fondest memory was the time spent at Villa Columbaia, birthplace of Florence Nightingale—the one person in the history of the world whom I most admire.
1. Gill, G. (2005). The extraordinary upbringing and curious life of Miss Florence Nightingale. New York: Random House.
Photos courtesy of Joy Shiller
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