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Visiting Florentine Villas

The Anglo-Florentines, like the great white hunters and the burra sahibs and the tea planters of Ceylon, have vanished into the mists that swallowed Britain's imperial civilization. The English and American grandees—and the not-so-very-grand—began swarming into Florence early in the 19th century and remained through World War II, after which most of them abruptly decamped. And so much of what we know of the Anglo-Florentines, and of their villas in the hills above Florence, comes from Edith Wharton or from Henry James, who in Italian Hours wrote an elegy to their charmed existence: "What a tranquil, contented life it seemed, with romantic beauty as a part of its daily texture!"

Though this life can no longer be witnessed, it can be vicariously experienced. This summer, La Pietra, one of the greatest of Florence's Renaissance villas, will open to the public for the first time. In 1994, New York University inherited La Pietra from Sir Harold Acton, the last remnant of pre-war Anglo-Florentine culture. The university, which uses the villa for conferences among heads of state and Supreme Court justices as well as for undergraduate education, has spent upward of $15 million restoring the buildings and their gardens to a Jamesian splendor. La Pietra has been made a richly embroidered stage set, designed to evoke that old life, majestic and self-enclosed.

La Pietra—"the stone"—is situated one mile from the Porta San Gallo, an entry to the Old City of Florence. You drive there along the Via Bolognese, twisting past modern apartment blocks, until you come to a gate, which swings open—and there you are, at the upper end of a long lane of cypresses facing a great ocher palazzo, with olive groves spreading out on both sides over an expanse of 57 acres. There's something almost comically wonderful about the effect: here, the city, with its winding avenue; there, on the other side of a wall, the country, fertile and gray-green.

Sir Harold Acton was, among his various vocations, a historian of the Italian Renaissance. Memoirs of an Aesthete, the first volume of his autobiography, includes an extensive account of La Pietra's origins. The land, in the hills of Montughi, was purchased in 1460 by the Sassetti, an ancient family of Florence whose head, Francesco di Sassetti, had made a fortune as Lorenzo de' Medici's banker in France. The square mansion, with friezes carved into its gray stucco, was built on the highest hill, looking back over Florence and the Duomo. If the grounds were covered then, as they are now, with umbrella pines and those peculiarly Tuscan evergreens whose branches curl upward into a mushroom cap, La Pietra must have looked like a landscape by Botticelli, Sassetti's near contemporary.

In 1564, La Pietra was sold to another great Florentine family, the Capponi. Sir Harold writes (some modern scholars disagree) that Cardinal Luigi Capponi, a powerful figure in the middle decades of the 17th century, oversaw the expansion and modernization of the estate. The Capponi remain one of the loftiest clans in the Florentine pecking order. Neri di Capponi, a 76-year-old magistrate and canon lawyer, told me that his family had been serving in the Signoria—the ancient municipal government of Florence—since a generation or so before Dante. I mentioned that I had just visited his former family home. He turned to me with an amused look and said, "You know, we are a very large family. We have so many homes. Which one were you in?"

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