In the summer of 1914, Europe was thrust into turmoil with the outbreak of World War I. On August 2 in Venezia—on a postcard of the XI Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte in Venice—Hortense Mitchell Acton describes how “War [was] declared—all countries hastily preparing. Italy to remain neutral as long as possible—but nothing may be exported—Guy [her brother Guy Mitchell] telegraphed from Germany for 2000 marks—his motor may be sequestered there. Nurse with children in England Harold to stay there. I should not leave Italy but go […] war ships busy taking stores and sailors with their boxes going out to ships”(transcription from a postcard dated August 1914). Diplomatic tensions erupted into full-blown conflict, enveloping the continent in a pall of uncertainty. Florence, although not directly on the front lines, played a pivotal role in Italy’s wartime efforts. As a significant cultural and economic hub, the city served as a vital logistical center, facilitating the supply of troops with essential weapons, ammunition, and provisions. Its industries, particularly in textile manufacturing and metalworking, were mobilized to support the production of war materials.

In Memoirs of An Aesthete, Harold Acton recounts his anxieties, as a ten year old,  about the start of World War One, writing “When the first world war exploded I happened to be in England with my brother […]. The bewilderment was general: everybody had been so long at peace that no other state could be realized. My own selfish dread, for I did not understand the real issues, was the prospect of being cut off from Italy” (p.48).

His idyllic life, having grown up at Villa La Pietra, was thrust into uncertainty. He adds how he was surrounded by royal refugees, including “Prince Alexis Karageorgevitch and his Serbian entourage settled in our Villa Sassetti, and Prince Paul also stayed a while, charming everyone with his courtesy and appreciation of Florentine art. Later came various members of the Greek royal family. Our other villas we lent to British convalescent officers” (Acton 1948, 53).

Amidst the chaos of war, Florence also became a crucial center for medical care, hosting numerous Red Cross hospitals where wounded soldiers received treatment. The British Home for the Wounded located in via Bonifacio Lupi, where the Questura of Florence is today, exemplified the city’s commitment to advanced rehabilitation practices, with detailed photographs capturing innovative therapies conducted within its walls. Even after the war’s end in 1919, the demand for such facilities persisted as soldiers continued their journey to recovery. The Acton family, in collaboration with institutions like the British Home for the Wounded, played a significant role in fundraising efforts, embodying a spirit of philanthropy that extended beyond the battlefield.

Meanwhile, female volunteers trained as nurses, with the younger unmarried women serving in ambulances or emergency rooms and older married women assuming philanthropic roles as well as secondary nursing roles as Dame della Croce Rossa. Hortense Mitchell Acton, through her involvement with the Italian Red Cross, completed an accelerated course in nursing in 1914. The Acton Family’s commitment to the cause is exemplified by them opening the doors of Villa La Pietra for soldiers during the last stretch of their recovery. It served as a transition space reserved for senior British military officers to rest before returning to the front lines.

As the war persisted, financial constraints tightened, and creative solutions were needed to supplement funding for field hospitals, ambulances, and all the orphaned children left behind. Hortense performed at a tableau vivant in 1915 to raise funds. Harold Acton mentions one of these events in his Memoirs, writing, “Already in March [1915] they had organized a revue for the Red Cross at the Pergola Theatre in which sympathy for the Allies was pronounced. My mother and brother both took part in it, and it was far more than the title announced, “A Bit of Colour”, for Umberto Brunelleschi had designed the costumes and settings as he had been doing successfully for the Folies Bergeres in Paris” (Acton 1948, 51).

The war’s aftermath left a profound impact on Florence’s social and cultural landscape. Yet, amidst the adversity, Florence’s artistic and intellectual community found inspiration in the turmoil. The emergence of Futurism, an avant-garde movement celebrating modernity and innovation, found fertile ground in Florence’s vibrant atmosphere. Led by figures like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurism stirred controversy and attracted a following of like-minded individuals, including notable artists such as Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini.

Interestingly, the Acton family’s relationship with Futurism was one of detachment. Despite its prevalence during their formative years, they did not actively embrace the movement, likely due to its modern aesthetic that privileged, technological advancement, velocity, and the destruction of the old to make way for the new. However, evidence suggests a degree of exposure to the movement, such as the family’s acquisition of a futurist magazine, “Lacerba”, and references to the movement in Harold Acton’s Memoirs of an Aesthete.

The Futurist’s influence on Harold’s childhood is undeniable as he speaks of how “Marinetti was flinging the first manifestos of Futurism to a cynical public” through their violent “methods of publicity [as] they asserted the importance of being modern in the Eternal City, the beauty of the machine—a stone’s throw from S. Peter’s, the splendor of speed-by the banks of the sluggish Tiber” (Acton 1948, 38). This intellectual and aesthetic movement was an inescapable part of popular culture. Advocates and critics alike were roped into the Futurist’s dystopian dream for the future. As one of their critics, Harold adds how the Futurist’s “iconoclasm was half-hearted, for Carra returned to Giotto, Chirico to classical Greece, and Papini to Jesus Christ. Marinetti and his most fervent followers were eventually absorbed and neutralized by Fascism. All this fretful violence seemed prophetic in relation to the first world war as did Surrealism in relation to the second” (Acton 1948, 38). In the end, all the modernists built off the classics—those artists whose work populated the walls of his childhood home.

– Lucy Harmon and Dominic Wiharso

Florence, the Villa, and World War I