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Visiting Florentine Villas

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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