Beyond the centre of Florence, west past the train station and the Medici-era fortress built to control the borders of the city, runs a long strip of green – the Cascine Park. A favorite of Florentines, the park is filled with sporting fields and shady walks, but is largely ignored by tourists, who flock instead to the better-known and far more elaborate, Boboli Gardens.

But Cascine honours one famous tourist – an Indian prince who visited Florence nearly 150 years ago. In the corner of the park furthest from the city, where the Arno River meets the Mugnone, a small tributary, stands a monument dedicated to him. At this spot, on November 31, 1870, Rajaram II, prince of Kolhapur, was cremated.

Ambitious voyage

Rajaram II ascended the throne in 1866 at the age of 16, and soon began a much-vaunted voyage abroad in order to complete his education and present himself to the world as a self-consciously modern monarch. After a tour of the British Isles, he was to undertake a version of the Grand Tour – the long journey through continental Europe during which young British noblemen were supposed to acquire an air of sophistication.

The usual route through France was interrupted by the eruption of the Franco-Prussian War, so Rajaram passed through Belgium (where he purchased souvenirs from the Battle of Waterloo), Germany, and then went on to northern Italy. His diary, written in English and published after his death, becomes increasingly terse as the prince neared the Alps, and abruptly ends in Bolzano, on the Italian side of the mountains.

The prince complained only of a “slight attack of rheumatism”, but he was in fact stricken with a fatal illness. Carried to Florence to receive medical treatment, he died on November 30. The prince’s death created a problem for the Italians. Florence was then the capital of the newly-united Kingdom of Italy – a status it would enjoy until the following year, when, after the Pope had been forced to cede control of the city, Rome became the seat of the country’s government.

Matter of diplomacy

Hosting a foreign ruler, even a dying one, had been an event of diplomatic importance and public interest. It was imperative that he be given an impressive funeral. But the prince’s entourage insisted that Rajaram be cremated according to Hindu rites and his body burnt alongside the banks of the Arno. This posed a delicate problem. The Catholic Church frowned on cremation, and the city government of Florence had strictly banned the practice. But Rajaram’s retainers, supported by the local British consul, prevailed, and an exception was made in their favour.

In order to reassure the royal family of Kolhapur that proper protocol was followed, the city government not only organised a Hindu funeral, but prepared a meticulous report on the proceedings to be sent back to India. The document notes that a carriage drew Rajaram’s body from his hotel at the Piazza Ognissanti, taking the corpse to a pyre at the “extreme point of the Cascine...a deserted and open esplanade”. Mourners lined the route, and “a numerous crowd followed the cortège”. The prince’s body was prepared and then burned, with some of the ashes saved for the voyage home.

Photo credit: Blake Smith.
Photo credit: Blake Smith.

Indian in Florence

Observers with a taste for romantic poetry might have thought, as the November breezes whirled smoke from Rajaram’s pyre, of Percy Shelley. The English poet, fascinated by Tuscany, had visited the Cascine on such a day in late 1819. The gloomy weather inspired his Ode to the West Wind, which imagines the “breath of autumn’s being” scattering leaves “like ghosts...pest-stricken multitudes”. Even in this most beautiful of cities, in its largest and calmest park, a cold wind could carry whispers of mortality, to poets and to princes alike.

The event marked Florentines’ memories. Within two years of the prince’s death, the city had built a funeral monument (known today simply as The Monument to the Indian) to honour him. Rajaram’s bust, carved by the British artist Charles Francis Fuller, stands above a plaque written in English, Italian, Hindi and Punjabi. A pavillion in the Indo-Saracenic style designed by the famous architect Charles Mant – best known for his contribution to the lavish Laxmi Vilas Palace in Baroda – shelters the statue.

Alongside this solemn memorialisation were more commercial concerns as well. When the funeral monument went up in 1872, so too did an adjacent “Indian Palace” café, where patrons could sip their espressos while gazing out on to the bust of Rajaram. The café has recently closed, but the building itself still stands, and is still known as the “Indian Palace”. In 1972, on the centenary of the Palace’s construction, work was begun on the modern Indiano Bridge, which was opened in 1978. It remains proof that the memory of Rajaram lives on.