In the same years, in this atmosphere of significant ferment, the design of Villa La Pietra’s garden took place: pursuing the will to create a frame for the Renaissance villa and the Old Masters collected within it, the intention was to restore the spirit and the enchantment of the Old Italian Gardens, which was so greatly admired by Anglo-American tourists. Both the collection and the garden therefore express the passion for art and history and the strong will to put down roots among the vineyards and olive groves, investing money and energy in an achievement that would legitimize the Acton Mitchells and leave an indelible mark in the Tuscan landscape. A commemorative marble plaque, still to be found near the Vecchia Limonaia, recalls the “origin” of the garden, with the names of Hortense Acton and her father William H. Mitchell (1817-1910) who understood his daughter’s wish and concretely supported the ambitious enterprise, especially after the birth of his two grandchildren, Harold (1904-1994) and William (1906-1945), who could thus grow up surrounded by the beauty of the new garden.
After two world wars, the farsightedness of the eldest son, Sir Harold Acton, was key to communicating the Villa’s history, its characteristics and its past, as was also, and above all, his personality, which was intrinsically connected to the identity of the place (the genius loci, using an expression by Vernon Lee), until he finally handed it over to New York University, which has had its Italian headquarters here for thirty years.
The book collection and the photograph collection of approximately 25,000 images (including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and photographic plates on glass) dated between 1870 and 1994 are fundamental tools for experiencing directly and understanding the choices and tastes of the Acton Mitchell family. Since 2019 NYU has been promoting the conservation and enhancement of the photograph collection, thanks to the digitization and cataloging project, carried out by Francesca Baldry and Scott Palmer with the collaboration of “Centrica – Imagine More”.
Within the collection there is a large number of images depicting gardens. Sometimes commissioned from professionals, such as Alinari, Brogi, August Sander, Locchi, sometimes taken by the family itself, some images portray places explored firsthand by the Actons, others show unvisited sites, observed only through postcards and photographs, while yet others document the garden of Villa La Pietra and its construction.
While the first two categories acted for Hortense and Arthur as development and personal growth tools, the third is the expression of a marked and mature desire for documentation, which is closely linked to the awareness of creating, in Villa La Pietra’s garden, a highly original project. Only by carefully recording the transformation of the garden was it possible to operate the most suitable choices when needed: the most effective viewpoints were evaluated and the relationship between green elements and sculptures were weighed, thus creating a meaningful dialogue between the villa and its particular context: this ensured the garden be admired by visitors – friends and illustrious personalities – and over time that it also become a model to be studied and emulated.
The digital exhibition uses exclusively historical material, often unpublished, linked to the personalities of Hortense and Arthur: photographs, films, postcards, drawings, road maps, books and some works of art. The aim of the exhibition is to tell the garden’s story from its conception to its design, use and success, from a privileged perspective made possible by the richness, variety and integrity of the heritage preserved inside the Villa.
The five main sections unfold around two fundamental moments. The first is that of the discovery of Italy and its historic gardens: sections I, II and III, in fact, explore the ways in which Hortense and Arthur were able to assimilate the “methods” and “principles” codified by scholars such as Wharton and Sitwell. In particular, the exhibition aims at highlighting the fundamental role of travel in the creation of the couple’s mental vision: if section II investigates the tools of travel, section III describes one of the itineraries traveled by Hortense and Arthur aboard their new automobile to discover the Old Gardens of central Italy; in these sections, the picture postcards take on particular relevance as an invaluable tool for studying the travels undertaken by the Acton Mitchells as well as their stops. The second moment, instead, is dedicated to the creation of the garden: the images in sections IV and V show the processing of experiences, images and words collected over the years, but also the actual realization of the project and the intertwining of the family’s life with the growth of the garden itself. A final section (VI) provides information on NYU’s care and enhancement of the garden and the estate: from the restoration to visits, shows, lessons, and agricultural production, with a careful and sustainable approach in line with the most modern principles of English gardening.