Photo Credit: The Acton Photograph Archive, Photographs of William Acton aged 15 and Harold Acton aged 18

To toys that would amuse me now I was indifferent: most of them remained in the cupboard until we had a party. […] My pleasure in toys was largely vicarious. I enjoyed acting as their impresario, and my greatest successes were obtained with diminutive water flowers that came in ornate seed packets from Japan. Dropped into a bowl of water they would open into lillies and trailing weeds and transform the bowl into a living pond. Of all my memories, none can evoke my nursery days so completely. According to their appreciation of these flowers I judged my friends. Those who were indifferent to them must be indifferent to me, and vice versa.
Harold Acton, Memoirs of An Aesthete, 1948, p.13
This was one of the last summers [1916] we were to spend in Florence for several years, and as if I had a premonition of it I was unable to concentrate on anything in particular, but rushed about with a pocket camera taking photographs of secret corners that had a magical significance I could not have explained.  
– Harold Acton, Memoirs of An Aesthete, 1948, p. 57

Villa La Pietra stood as the cherished residence of the Acton Mitchell family for nearly a century, from 1903 to 1994. Since 2003, it has opened its doors to the public as a museum, faithfully preserving and showcasing the personal belongings and art collection of the Acton family. These treasures were generously donated by the estate’s last owner, Sir Harold Acton, to New York University, under the protection of the Italian Ministry of Culture.

Recent initiatives in digitization, cataloging, and scholarly research within the photograph archive and libraries have unearthed a wealth of new insights. By juxtaposing these findings with the pages of Harold Acton’s autobiography, Memoirs of An Aesthete (1948), researchers, in collaboration with students from New York University, have gained valuable insights into the family dynamics and formative years of Harold (1904-1994) and William Acton (1906-1945). Although the Villa may appear to bear few visible traces of their childhood, this comprehensive endeavor has unveiled a rich tapestry of experiences. We hope that viewers will come away from this digital exhibition with a deeper understanding of the enduring power of familial love and the indomitable human spirit in the face of daunting world changes.

– Francesca Baldry

 

ON SITE EXHIBITION (April 15 – June 28, 2024)

For information on how to visit the exhibition, write to villa.lapietra@nyu.edu.

The Acton Boys

For both Harold and William, the Villa transcended mere architecture; it was a dynamic hub—a salon alive with vibrant discourse, convivial gatherings, and cherished friendships with kindred spirits, such as the gifted Braggiotti children. Amidst the convergence of art, history, and nature, enduring memories were forged under the tutelage of erudite mentors who left an indelible mark on the Acton siblings.

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Quest to Learn and Play

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.

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Third Culture Children

The Acton boys were exposed to a multicultural world at a young age. Their grandfather, Roger Acton, was counselor to the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce; their uncle, Guy Mitchell, had been traveling to Asia with their mother since the early 1900’. As part of the "Anglo-American Colony,” in Florence, they mingled with people from various backgrounds and their tastes reflected the globalization of the world during that time period, at the height of European colonization.

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In Their Shadow: The Influence of Role Models

Even as a child, Harold Acton had his eyes on adulthood. Profoundly influenced by his encounters with adults, the residents and visitors of Villa La Pietra emerged as ‘role models’ in Harold’s youth. These early encounters at the Villa shaped his value of education, which prompted him to leave his family’s vast estate to Oxford University, and his artistic taste, which we see reflected by the Acton Collection today.

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Exploring Beauty Through Art

Villa La Pietra’s lush gardens provided a sanctuary for exploration and contemplation, while its walls bore witness to the timeless beauty of Medieval and Renaissance art. In this idyllic setting, Harold and William's artistic sensibilities flourished, nurtured by the rich tapestry of experiences woven into their daily lives. Both Harold and William recognized early on the profound lessons that this surrounding environment could impart, as eloquently expressed by Harold: "Thus I did not have to look far to discover beauty, nor was there any need for me to rove beyond the garden gates" (Acton 1948, 7).

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Florence, the Villa, and World War I

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).

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Abbreviations

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Resources, References, and Books on Display

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Credits

 

Curators: Francesca Baldry, Collection Manager and Lisa Cesarani, NYU Researcher

NYU Students curators: Lucy Harmon, Insiya Motiwala, Phoebe Price, Dominic Wiharso and Kayla Zur

NYU Students volunteers: Irit Laderaman and Flynn Murtaugh

Photograph Archive Research: Francesca Baldry and Pamela Ferrari

Costume Conservators: Claudia Beyer and Costanza Perrone Da Zara

Installation: Stefano Pasolini, Fortunato Ingino, Sonia Palchetti

Web designer: Cristina Fantacci

Digital Coordinator: Scott Palmer

Press: Marija Mihajlovic

 

A special thanks to Lorenzo Ricci, Associate Director; Larry Wolff and Perri Klass, former NYU Florence co-Directors.