Visiting Florentine Villas

Visiting Florentine Villas

In the early 20th century, the British gentry bought up villa after villa in Florence, ushering in a renaissance of their own. One of the most famous houses of the period is soon to be open to the public.

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?"


By the middle of the 19th century, impoverished Florentine nobles were renting and selling their country seats to the English and the Americans for risible prices. In Italian Hours, James observed that "an expanse of thirty windows" could be had for $500 a year. The English mania for Tuscany was in full spate. In 1907, Sir Harold's parents, Arthur and Hortense Acton, bought La Pietra from a branch of the Capponi family. Arthur Acton was an art dealer who had made one of those fortunate turn-of-the-century Anglo-American marriages: Hor- tense's father was the founder of the Illinois Trust & Savings Bank. Very little is known of either of them, beyond Sir Harold's quick sketches of them in his memoirs, but it is plain that Arthur was the relentless socializer in the family; Hortense was quieter, more bookish. And it was Hortense, rather than Arthur, who made many of the couple's art purchases.

The Actons were wealthy, refined magpies, and they went on a 35-year buying spree. They bought important early Renaissance paintings and unimportant "scuola di" Renaissance paintings; they bought wooden peasant figurines; fake chinoiserie; Javanese puppets; tiny devotional paintings by local nuns; baroque Roman mirrors and Baroque beds that look as if Bernini had designed them; Neapolitan crèche dolls; magnificent Flemish and Italian tapestries; Persian carpets; plateware and silver. And they did not so much exhibit this wild array of objects as live with them, moving them around constantly to make an arresting or even amusing ensemble. They posed a pair of beautiful early-13th-century polychrome wood statues, of the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist, so that the Virgin gestures with her left hand and Saint John with his right toward a grandiose fireplace in the main dining room. Ta-da!

The word villa designates not so much a building as a building set in a garden and a wider landscape—an idea that dates from Augustan Rome. The ever-adaptable Florentines, as well as the English themselves, had surrendered to the fad for "English" gardens, with lawns and flowers and plantations of exotic trees. In Italian Gardens and Villas, published in 1904, Edith Wharton lamented that "there is perhaps no region in Italy so rich in villas and so lacking in old gardens as the neighborhood of Florence." In fact, the Neoclassical garden, which had been considered indispensable through the 18th century, was quite "independent of floriculture," as Wharton writes, its three constituent elements being "marble, water, and perennial verdure." The garden was meant to harmonize both with the fully man-made world of the house behind it and with the natural world of the podere, or farm, beyond.

Wharton does not even mention La Pietra, which furnished yet another sad example of an English garden supplanting a Neoclassical original. But Arthur Acton, who had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, understood very well the subtle harmonies of Italian landscape architecture, and spent years shaping a very personal version of the Renaissance garden. In turn, New York University has poured a small fortune into restoring Arthur's masterpiece. The garden, which stretches behind and to either side of the house and looks, on one side, over the hills of Vallombrosa beyond Florence, consists of terraces or lawns divided by hedges and topiary and pergolas and low walls and classical statuary. Each space is like a separate room, with its own views and its own furnishings of marble and greenery (and occasionally water), even its own smell. Perhaps the loveliest part of the garden is the high-walled limonaia, with its row of lemon trees running up the center and, at the back, its decorated 17th-century shed, where the trees are stored in winter. The garden is as artfully designed as the house itself.


In the late teens and twenties, Sir Harold writes, "My parents welcomed half Florence to the villa, as well as itinerant museum directors and art critics" who came to scrutinize the masterpieces and the bric-a-brac. You have the feeling, reading his memoirs and other accounts, of a ceaseless round of entertainment and amusement between country villa and city palazzo. There were tango-teas and fancy-dress balls with "Oriental" themes. One photograph shows Arthur and Hortense wearing turbans and fabulous beaded costumes designed by Poiret from Persian miniatures. A rage for dress-up and performance swept through the Anglo-Italian elite of the day. The Actons staged impromptu theatricals in the terraced garden. Serge Diaghilev paid a visit, as did Max Beerbohm, Rebecca West, Hugh Walpole. The eccentric Sitwells camped out at nearby Montegufoni, and Bernard Berenson, the peerless connoisseur and a great friend to young Harold, held forth at I Tatti. Sir Harold, who considered his father cold and disapproving, writes that Arthur preferred "a shifting kaleidoscope of strangers" to real friends and was always ready to welcome anyone with a letter of introduction.

Harold Acton was raised in a rarefied and theatricalized atmosphere, and at Oxford he developed into a famous and famously precious aesthete, a poet, and a novelist; he imagined himself the equal of his friend Evelyn Waugh, though reviews quickly made him realize that he was not. Both a modernist and an antiquarian by temperament, he became a historian and a sort of exotic wayfarer, traveling to China in 1932 and staying there throughout the decade. Only after the war did Sir Harold, somewhat reluctantly, return to La Pietra; his parents had sat out the war in Switzerland and then returned, and Harold now came home to care for them and became, in effect, their villa's curator.

Sir Harold was, by all accounts, a witty, erudite, and charmingly bitchy conversationalist, a figure of unfailing and exquisite politesse. Yet when I asked Neri di Capponi what he recalled of Sir Harold, after some thought he came up with the phrase snakily silent. Others had noted this same air of indirection and cunning. With the death of Berenson, his aged mentor, in 1959, Sir Harold became the last of the monstres sacrés—an obligatory visit for cultivated or at least well-connected travelers wishing to catch the dying light of a pre-war world. He added little to his parents' collection, but, at least until his final years, lovingly preserved both the house and the grounds.

Sir Harold had hoped to leave La Pietra to his alma mater, Christ Church, Oxford, but the college could not afford to keep it up. Only the increasingly globalized American universities had the necessary resources; and so, just as Berenson had left I Tatti to Harvard and others had left their palazzi to Johns Hopkins and Georgetown, Sir Harold bequeathed La Pietra to NYU. It turned out to have been a wise decision. The university quartered 400 undergraduates in other buildings on the grounds and in downtown Florence; the additional revenue has covered the immense costs of preservation. From early 1998, when work began in earnest, to early 2002, NYU kept about 140 people working continuously on the buildings and the garden. The Actons' home was virtually dismantled in order to install air-conditioning and new plumbing and wiring, shore up old timbers, clear out mold, and so on. Every object was removed to be cleaned and repaired, then put back exactly where Sir Harold had left it when he died.

La Pietra is not a museum so much as an evocation of the life of an extraordinary family in an extraordinary setting. And it is still—or rather, once again—a living place. Should you run into, say, Justice Ginsburg in the sala di caminetto, you might want to ask about the latest gossip from the Court.

La Pietra, 120 Via Bolognese; 39-055/50071; tours of villa and garden start in July 2003.

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