The city of Florence, at the beginning of the 20th century, provided young Harold and William with an engaging and unique international community. Learning begins at birth and continues throughout one’s lifetime. Schools and tutors provide structured learning environments and then life experiences: games played, books read, art and music appreciated, and places visited, complete the learning process.

As small children, the Acton boys were first educated at home. In Memoirs of an Aesthete, Harold writes, “Until my brother and I were of age to attend a day school our acquaintance was limited […]. We spent a lot of time in the garden, the resources of which were interminable.” (p. 11) The La Pietra gardens played a formative role in cultivating the imagination of Harold and William. It served as their classroom, as unknown territory yet to explore and as a playmate in their games.

The idea of child centered, self-directed learning in early education was a fundamental tenet of a newly articulated Italian pedagogical method taking hold in the late 1890s and spreading throughout the globe. Created by the teacher, Maria Montessori, her method encouraged children to learn from free play, to explore nature, to solve problems and to use one’s imagination. Harold and William’s parents, along with many other families living in the Anglo-Florentine community, innately adhered to this philosophy as a way to begin their children’s early education. In addition to free play, the boys had private tutors and a library filled with beautifully illustrated books.

A selection of the children’s books in the family library clearly evokes these Montessori tenets. There are books about natural history and a child’s version of the story of Charles Darwin’s famous voyage on the Beagle. There are also children’s books on proper etiquette in both English and French. These books surely served the boys in the social situations they encountered as their parents entertained guests at home or when they were invited to attend the fancy dress balls, cotillions and holiday parties of their friends. We have a book about airplanes that was a Christmas gift to William as well as a French puppet book that recounts the misadventures of Polichinelle. The content of these books not only reflect the interests of the children, but also show how their parents encourage them to learn additional languages.

In the Acton household, the family spoke English. Their mother, Hortense, was born in the United States. For most summers the Acton boys celebrated their birthdays with their American cousins from the Mitchell family; their father, Arthur, spoke both English and Italian. As young children, Harold and his brother William were both tutored in French, just as their mother had been when she was a young girl in Chicago, Illinois. The boys also became familiar with spoken Italian from the Italian gardeners and household staff working at Villa La Pietra.

As the boys grew a bit older, they attended the local English school in Florence, Miss Penrose’s Academy. This permitted Harold and William to interact with the other children of Anglo-Florentine families living in villas on the surrounding Florentine hills. They were part of a generation of children that in turn grew up to write their own memoirs. Gloria Braggiotti and her 7 siblings were childhood friends of the Acton boys. Their family villa was located on the Via Santa Marta nearby Villa La Pietra. Harold writes in his Memoirs that “[B]y any standards the Braggiottis were exceptional. […] Whenever they paid us a visit my brother and I were overjoyed, for it was like the arrival of a brilliant circus: the eight Braggiotti children were gifted with so many talents, and they wakened the Pagan in us.” (p. 10) Gloria also fondly remembers the Acton boys. She recounts in her autobiography, Born in a Crowd (1957), that her family’s villa was always filled with singing and music. Gloria’s parents were both opera singers and voice instructors. During their Saturday weekly “at homes,” their young friends and their parents would come to enjoy an afternoon of music and play in the Braggiotti garden. Gloria states, “Our group of friends whom we labeled ‘i piccoli,’ the Michahelles, the Casardis, the Lowes, the del Grandes, the Biondis, Arthur [referring to Harold] and William Acton, and the Orvietos – helped usher people to their places.” (p. 63) Gloria also notes when contemplating her first kiss, “William Acton was adorable looking but much too young.” (p. 138). Another peer, Iris Cutting, the daughter of Lady Sybil Cutting living at Villa Medici in Fiesole, also fondly writes in her memoir, Images and Shadows (1970) about an Acton Christmas party where the boys showed her their seashell collection.

In the photo gallery below, the selected images will provide further details about the lives of the Acton boys as they grew up in Florence during the first two decades of the 20th Century.

– Lisa Cesarani and Irit Laderman

A Quest to Learn and Play