On the morning of June 22, 1908, the Actons left Villa La Pietra in their Fiat automobile, in the company of two dear friends, experts in works of art and Old Italian Gardens: art historians Charles Loeser and Count Carlo Gamba who was Ispettore of the Gallerie Fiorentine. After a brief stop in Arezzo, the four friends headed towards Orvieto and Lake Bolsena to reach Viterbo. In the environs of the city, they visited Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola and Villa Lante in Bagnaia, at the time considered “the most complete example of the Italian Villa – that is the one best preserving its original forms” (Platt 1894, 13). From there they continued their journey to Rome, where they spent the night of June 23.
The following morning, although equipped with detailed Touring Club of Italy road maps, the group had to ask passers-by for information. On the back of a postcard, one of the two Carlos—probably Gamba—quickly noted in Italian the route to take to reach Albano, Ariccia, Castel Gandolfo and above all Viterbo, Frascati and Tivoli, the main destinations of the trip. These, in fact, were the must-sees for the Anglo-American tourists who a few years later Mrs. Aubrey Le Blond would define as “garden pilgrims” (Le Blond 1912, 138). This geographical area, in fact, is where some of the most famous gardens of central Italy were located: those of Villa Mondragone, Villa Aldobrandini, Villa Falconieri, Villa Lancellotti, Villa Torlonia, Villa Muti, and Villa d’Este.
It is interesting to observe that the path of the Acton Mitchells did not follow so much the itineraries suggested by the Baedeker and Murray guides, but rather those traced by the “garden books” published in those years and kept in large numbers in the library of Villa La Pietra: we can imagine the four friends walking in the shade of the cypresses of Villa Mondragone in Frascati with the volumes of Charles Platt (1892) and Edith Wharton (1904) in hand.
The journey was not without obstacles, since many gardens were private and to visit them, it was often necessary to request a special permit: for example, having arrived in Caprarola, the four visited the rooms of the Farnese residence (“rooms are very fine “), but they were unable to convince the custodian to allow them access to the famous gardens because they lacked a document signed by Vincenzo Scala, administrator of the Farnese assets, who was based in Rome (Le Blond 1912, 138).
Although the torrid climate of June did not allow them to fully enjoy the beauty of the gardens, in three days Hortense, Arthur, Gamba, and Loeser visited eleven villas, bringing home postcards and photographs, some taken by themselves, and others purchased on site from the owners or in nearby gift shops. The road back to Florence took them through Grosseto and Cecina, but the climax of the journey was by now behind them: after having seen the wonderful gardens of Villa Lante, Villa d’Este and of the Tusculan villas, the road that was leading them back to Florence skirting the Tyrrhenian Sea seemed “dusty & rather uninteresting” to Hortense.
The trip to Frascati, Tivoli and Viterbo is one of the many trips the Acton Mitchells took to discover Old Masters and Old Italian Gardens. Their cultural “pilgrimages” took them to Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Veneto, Lombardy, Sicily, but also as far as Germany, France, and England. Traveling was the couple’s first step to truly assimilate the art and the landscape, to accumulate a cultural and visual baggage and, above all, to develop the knowledge that was necessary to give shape to Villa La Pietra’s garden.