The British Institute of Florence, established in 1917 and granted a Royal Charter in 1923, was the first of the British cultural institutes to operate overseas and served as a model for the establishment of the British Council in 1934.
In the drawing rooms and libraries of pre-war Florence local residents, among them poets, journalists, university professors, publishers and journalists such as Herbert Trench, Lina Waterfield, Guido Ferrando, Guido Biagi and Aldo Sorani, discussed the idea of a reading room, library and space for cultural exchange between Britain and Italy. Once war began, British propaganda to promote Italian entry into the war and continued encouragement of the population to support the war after 1915 gave a sense of urgency to what had been a peacetime project. When the Institute was founded it was done so with the support of John Buchan at the new Ministry of Information in London and Rennel Rodd, the British Ambassador in Rome.
Over the next few years, leading up to the granting of the Royal Charter in 1923, this fledgling instituion laid the ground work for its future, supported both locally and in London by, among others, Arthur Acton (father of Harold Acton), Walter Ashburner, Edward Hutton, G.M. Trevelyan and Janet Trevelyan, Gaetano Salvemini, Edmund Gardner and Sir Israel Gollancz. By the time the Institute applied for a Royal Charter it knew exactly what it stood for and what it wanted to achieve. It had begun courses of lectures, published a journal, La Vita Britannica, and was in the process of building its library. The Institute’s objectives, defined in the 1923 Charter, were to promote understanding between the citizens of Italy and the countries of the British Commonwealth through the maintenance in Florence of a library illustrating Italian and British culture and the promotion of the study of both the English and Italian language and the cultures of both countries.
In the 1920s and 1930s the Institute developed its language teaching and in an agreement with the University of Florence became responsible for all its English language teaching, thus producing a generation of English language teachers for Italian schools. The library’s growth in the same period was largely thanks to donations from individuals and publishers. Summer Schools were organised, taking Italian students to London and bringing British students to Florence. In May 1940, following Italy’s entry into the war, the Institute was forced to close. In a letter to The Times published in July 1940, Janet Trevelyan spoke of the ‘some far distant date’ when ‘in a different Italy’ the British Institute, with its ‘magnificent libary’, ‘might still find work to do.’ And this it did. The Institute reopened formally in 1946, still complete with its library which had been protected during the war, and in the years that followed the Institute further developed its courses, in particular establishing its art history courses, and has continued to remain true to its original aims.
First housed in rooms in the then enclosed Loggia Rucellai in the Via della Vigna Nuova, then in Via de’ Conti, in 1923 the Institute moved to Palazzo Antinori in Via Tornabuoni where it stayed for over forty years. The move to the Palazzo Lanfredini, in apartments generously made available by Sir Harold Acton, came in 1965. Teaching activities took place in Palazzo Feroni until 1998 when the Institute moved its language teaching to the Palazzo Strozzino where it remains today. The British Institute of Florence is recognised under the Anglo Italian Cultural Convention of 1953 and is registered as a charity in the UK No. 290647.