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Visiting Florentine Villas

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.

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