A few summers ago I met perhaps the most unforgettable human being I have ever known– Julia Bolton Holloway. This 70-something year old Anglo-American resided a short walk from my temporary residence on Borgo Pinto (street) in the city of Florence, Italy. I was there for the month of July 2014 to enjoy being a tourist, grieve the passing of my beloved father, and study as a guest of my cousin, Dr. Nancy Shaffer, while she attended a course on Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”, which drew faculty from various colleges and universities in the U.S.
Some of my listeners may recall that I had sought out a Florentine psychotherapist, Paolo Molino, Ph.D. while I was abroad. My hope for this trip to be a real working vacation became a reality the moment our high-speed Internet and link to Skype were established but I had never thought that I would meet two incredible individuals who represent a wide diversity in the mental health field. Furthermore, who would have imagined that I would be able to record interviews with them for Mental Health News Radio? While meeting Dr. Molino was something I worked hard to schedule, encountering Julia was purely a serendipitous event.
It was my cousin who first heard about this “eccentric nun” from her Dante colleagues. They had gone out in search of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s gravesite in the old “English” Cemetery. These colleagues were Victorian literature scholars and they thought Julia was a quite a character. While Julia showed them exactly where EBB’s sarcophagus was, the opinion from a few told Nancy they couldn’t understand this “talkative recluse who lived in a cemetery”. I was delighted and honored to meet her and I can assure you, Julia is far from being a recluse. She is one of the most educated, dedicated, and delightful human beings I have had the honor to meet in my lifetime thus far.
Julia was born in Britain but got her degrees from California public universities, including a doctorate at Berkeley. She is a specialist on the manuscripts of Julian of Norwich, regarded as one of the most important female Christian mystics, published more than a dozen books, including “Equally in God’s image: women in the Middle Ages”, and is a Dante enthusiast, publishing on Brunetto Latino, Dante’s teacher. Once a married woman with sons (and grandchildren now living in the US) she completed her own father’s work on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and published “Aurora Leigh and Other Poems” (see www.worldcat.org for her full bibliography). She taught at Quincy and Princeton Universities, and later at the University of Colorado at Boulder where she was Director of Medieval Studies. Then Julia took an early retirement to enter an Anglican convent.
Julia now lives above a small library as the custodian of the Swiss-owned “English” Cemetery where Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Walter Savage Landor, Frances Trollope and many famous others, including several slavery Abolitionists, are buried. The cemetery was originally established to inter the Protestant dead in this Catholic city. My cousin, Nancy, wanted to meet Julia in her own habitat, an ecumenical polyglot library where we found her reading a book at an old wooden table just inside the entry gates.
Nancy began by asking a few general questions about Dante’s influence in Florence. That conversation led to the writings of Nicholas of Cusa (Nancy’s dissertation was on this German philosopher and theologian—one of the first German proponents of Renaissance humanism). The discussion then ricocheted between painless childbirth, the repression of women throughout the ages, the state of Catholicism today, and the teachings of today’s Pope Francis. By then I knew I would want to interview Julia for my own interests.
Julia remains a very active woman today, riding her bicycle through the streets of her adopted home. She and several Roma craftsmen have been restoring the cemetery statuary, now that the gardens have been replanted, and they are currently documenting the Florentine plaques throughout the city which identify Dante sites in preparation for the 750th anniversary of the publication of the “Divine Comedy”. She works tirelessly for better treatment of the Roma as they are one of the most oppressed nationalities today.
Like other solitaires before her, Julia lived a whole “other life” before a spiritual call beckoned her. I especially like how her blogspot at http://contemplative-oasis.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/interesting-hermits-in-21st-century.html describes what a solitaire like Julia can be in the 21st century—“keeping alive her desire for quiet, prayers, hospitality, keeping herself by the works of her hands, genuine care for the poor and a deep wisdom that attracts a listening heart. Her website http://www.umilta.net/ is a thing of beauty to behold and equals about twelve of the usual websites one would link to full of ancient writing, literature of English poets, stories of famous writers long passed that rest in the Swedish (English) Cemetery which she helped make a World Historical UNESCO site in Florence.”
Julia still keeps her prayer times and liturgical seasons but stays busy with organizing this new part of her world—using hyperlinks to connect seemingly disparate information to all who wish to pursue the connections. How, indeed, could a communicator like me not love Julia? Being able to listen intently about her encyclopedic knowledge of everything, it does take a while to just talk to Julia about Julia. Luckily we were able to do this and I had the chance to know her personally. I am extremely honored to call her friend.
I met several times with Julia before we left Florence because I wanted to follow up on some of her references to mental illness issues she had researched while writing about women of the Medieval period as well as those she understands now through her work among the Roma (aka gypsies) people in Florence. On our last weekend I was invited to Sunday lunch at her residence where we recorded her interview.
Julia also invited a local woman named Aurelia to this lunch, but she reserved an empty chair at the small table for Daniel, the Roma craftsman who has been carefully restoring the artifacts in the graveyard. He was “probably too shy” to join us as Julia has wanted, but she still set out a plate for him. She served up a large pot of what she called “hermit stew” (green lentils and spinach). It is a meal she told us that had sustained her during her years of seclusion. As is the Tuscan custom, we broke off a few pieces of bread and sprinkled it with a bit of olive oil before ladling the warm soup over all. She also shared lightly salted ciabatta, fresh fruit and a few sweetbreads that I had brought.
After our lunch together I recorded more than sixty minutes of conversation with the remarkable Julia Bolton Holloway touching upon many mental health topics that will be perfect for our eclectic listeners.
Just listening to her lovely accent is enough to enchant anyone, but keep a pen and notebook handy. Her mind works faster than most anyone I know and we jumped through so many topics in this hour it is astounding. And all while experiencing torrential rain and thunder and the Italian polizia zipping past the cemetery with sirens blazing. We were in the middle of Florence after all!
If you have questions for Julia, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julia Bolton Holloway
Hermit of the Holy Family
Biblioteca Fioretta Mazzei
Piazzale Donatello 38
Kristin Walker, CEO & Host