In March 1903 Hortense Mitchell undertook a Grand Tour in Central Italy, as shown by the detailed pencil annotations in the Baedeker guide she used as a travel notebook and which is still preserved in the book collections of Villa La Pietra. In a postcard sent to her mother on that occurrence, she exclaimed: “So good to get back to civilization!”, sentence that reveals the fascination Italy exerted on the American traveler. The passion for Italy and for the discovery of places of art, even minor ones, was therefore already very much alive in Hortense before choosing Italy as her permanent home. Her vast culture was based on her knowledge of French, German, and to some extent also Italian, as demonstrated by her bookplate in late nineteenth century original language volumes, and on the possibility of traveling and getting to know the world, thanks to the wealth accumulated by her father William Hamilton Mitchell, a railroad builder and later a rich Chicago banker. Her mother, Jane Mary known as “Jennie” Jewett Mitchell, was a member of important American cultural societies (including the Antiquarian Society of the Art Institute of Chicago) and she too was passionate about travel, as emerges from the tour she took in Egypt in 1902 with her daughter Hortense and her son Guy. When Hortense married Arthur Acton in May 1903 and moved permanently to Florence at the age of 32, she therefore already had many Louis Vuitton trunks full of books in all languages and refined haute couture dresses from the cosmopolitan city of Paris where she had gone for the famous 1900 Universal Exhibition. Arthur too had formed relationships with Italy before his marriage: in 1900 he appeared in the enrolled students list at the Scuola del Nudo of the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, though he already had a prominent position in the scene of Florentine painters and antique dealers, as demonstrated by a photograph from the archive that portrays him in his artist’s studio on Via Della Robbia.
The years in which Florence was capital of Italy (1865-70) had exponentially increased the presence of “passionate pilgrims” (Henry James) in search of beauty and history, freedom of thought and habits, but they had also welcomed many foreign investors: life in Florence, in fact, was not only pleasant, but also inexpensive. Henry James recalled it in Italy Revisited (1877) and, with a certain irony, he observed how foreigners tried to find refuge in the winter months in ancient residences in the Tuscan countryside, either rented or purchased at ridiculously low prices by English and American standards: “The villas are innumerable, and if you’re an aching alien half the talk is about villas. This one has a story; that one has another; they all look as if they had stories—none in truth predominantly gay.” (James 2006, 153).
Also Hortense and Arthur aspired to a villa, and as soon as they got married, they looked for one in the Florentine hills, as we know from the correspondence between Mrs. Acton and her friend Frederick Stibbert, a collector who lived in Montughi, near Via Bolognese. After a brief stay at Villa Le Fontanelle in Careggi, the Actons rented Villa Incontri on Via Bolognese (formerly Mazzinghi, Sassetti, Capponi), soon renamed “La Pietra”, due to the presence of a milestone of Roman Florentia, at the entrance to the Villa.
Hortense began documenting her new life in Italy in an album, which she made and annotated in pen and ink, and where one can see the couple’s first homes, in particular Villa Incontri on an autumn morning in two very spontaneous shots, taken by Hortense and Arthur themselves.
After the birth of the two children, Harold in 1904 and William in 1906, Hortense received a substantial income from her father William Mitchell. In 1907 it allowed her to purchase the property, which consisted of the manor house and 15 hectares of land with farmhouses. The annuity was also bestowed on her brother Guy, an amateur painter and art lover, who in 1908 bought the smaller Villa Il Giullarino in Pian de’ Giullari on the hill of Arcetri, and immediately started to restore the new residence and to renovate the garden.
In the same years, other friends and acquaintances of Hortense and Arthur’s—Italians and foreigners residing in Florence—also began to renovate (or to build from scratch) the gardens of their villas, putting into practice the “principles” of formal Italian gardens, codified by Anglo-American scholars between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Among these were, for example, painter Giulio Guicciardini, who attempted to restore the garden of Villa Corsi-Salviati in Sesto Fiorentino to its former glory, Princess Ghyka (sister of the Queen of Serbia) who promoted the restoration of Villa Gamberaia in Settignano, and Charles Loeser, an American, who in May 1908 entrusted the young English architect Cecil Pinsent with the restoration of his Florentine home, Villa Torri di Gattaia. Pinsent became the leading architect on formal Italian gardens in Tuscany for Anglo-American clients, including Bernard Berenson and Charles Augustus Strong, and in 1911 he also drew up a project for the Actons, which he never completed, for the house of a “contadino (farmer) (…) with baroque exterior”, near Villa La Pietra.
The images preserved in the photograph archive illustrate the expeditions of Hortense and Arthur to the Italian gardens that were developing in the hills around Florence, which were aimed at the realization of an ambitious project: the transformation of the romantic park behind Villa La Pietra into an Italian garden, new and at the same time ancient, in harmony with the architecture of the building. Like Loeser, Ghyka and Berenson, the Actons were ready to leave an indelible mark on the Tuscan landscape