How do I need thee? Browning's fans seek money to repair grave

But the tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Florence, north-east Italy, is now crumbling and the graveyard where she and a clutch of other 19th-century British artists and writers have their last resting place is under threat of closure.

The Evangelical Reformed Swiss Church which owns the site - which is regarded as so quintessentially British that it is known as the "English" cemetery - says it can no longer afford repairs and maintenance.

So now fans of the woman who penned one of the most famous opening lines in poetry - "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways" - are joining forces to try to save an English corner of a foreign land from the ravages of time and Florentine pollution.

The rescue mission is being mounted by an English nun, Julia Bolton Holloway, who edited Elizabeth Barrett Browning's work for Penguin and now lives in the cemetery's gatehouse, a British pianist who lives in Florence, Clive Britton, and a team of supporters in Britain.

A petition has been launched and the supporters hope to have the cemetery declared a World Heritage site.

Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian film director who shot part of his film Tea with Mussolini there, has lobbied the mayor of Florence, Leonardo Domenicini. Dame Judi Dench, who starred in the movie in which she declaims some of Browning's poetry, has sent a letter of support.

In Britain, supporters include Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, and the historians Sir Roy Strong and Lucinda Lambton. The cemetery is an architectural delight, as well as the last resting place of arguably Britain's finest woman poet. Sister Julia estimates that €250,000 (about £175,000) is needed for immediate preservation work, although Timothy Collins, Lord of Tracton Abbey, who is setting up a foundation in Britain to help, believes a figure of up to £2m is more realistic. Lord Collins said he fell in love with the cemetery the moment he first saw it. "It's the most magnificent piece of Victorian England in the middle of Florence. It's not just a graveyard. Virtually every grave is a monument of immense importance and complexity," he said.

Among the 1,400 graves is one designed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt for his wife, Fanny, and another to Frances Trollope, the mother of the novelist Anthony, who was an author in her own right with a travel masterpiece entitled Domestic Manners of the Americans.

Walter Savage Landor and Arthur Hugh Clough, both British poets, and Beatrice Shakespeare and Claude Shakespeare Clench, regarded as the last descendants of William Shakespeare, are buried there; as are illustrious Americans including Hiram Powers, the sculptor, and Theodore Parker, a leading anti-slavery campaigner.

In all, 760 Britons lie in the cemetery, with more than 430 Swiss, 87 Americans, 84 Italians and 54 Russians.

The land, just outside the old city walls, was sold to the Swiss church in 1827 to build what was the city's first Protestant cemetery. It was closed to new graves about 50 years later and, during the course of the past century, descended into disrepair.

Sister Julia has been its on-site guard since she was granted permission to open a library in its gatehouse five years ago. But, after recent work to the walls cost €300,000, the Swiss church committee told Sister Julia that the cemetery would have to close.

In a series of meetings with the church and local government officials last week, her proposals to fund the restoration were tentatively accepted.

If restored, Sister Julia believes the church will be able to sell new lots, which would ease its funding crisis.

Gerardo Kraft, the most sympathetic church committee member, said: "We can't go on like this, otherwise we will go broke."

Andrew Motion said it would be "absolutely awful" if the cemetery were lost. "It would be just wrong, not only for the sake of the unknown dead but, more conspicuously, for the sake of people who are owed honour like Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I can't think she is without admirers who can put their shoulders to the wheel," he said.

Lord Collins said: "When people go there, they come away completely gobsmacked. It's one of the most beautiful cemeteries I've ever seen in my life.

"Once it's gone, it's gone forever. The pollution in Florence is such that within a few years it would be cost-prohibitive to try to restore it. This is not a task that can wait 10 years. In 10 years it would be a pile of dust."

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