The Acton Guestbook at Villa La Pietra

Many of the guests who visited the Actons at Villa La Pietra left their names in the family’s guestbook, allowing us to see that these visitors were from a diverse range within the Florentine and international community – artists, intellectuals, writers, industrialists, diplomats, socialites, etc. Well read and traveled, Hortense and her cosmopolitan character was the main force behind these events. We can trace the appreciation the family’s hospitality through gifts such as rare volumes of literature with heartfelt dedications from guests.

“My parents welcomed half of Florence to the villa, as well as itinerant museum directors and art critics who came to view the collection, and as I grew older I helped to show these visitors round the house, studying their mannerism and adding to my store of miscellaneous knowledge”

Harold Acton, Memoirs of an Aesthete

The Guestbook: A Social Labyrinth

The Villa La Pietra Guestbook represents a living memory of one specific facet of the home inhabited by the Acton family up to 1994. The ‘object’ itself is bound in leather with the bookplates of Arthur and Hortense Mitchell Acton proudly pasted onto the cover flap. Its pages, filled with the signatures of visitors to Villa La Pietra since 1923, are redolent with the memories and multiple meanings that characterize such archival documents. In fact what is in a signature? It is a unique thumbnail of individual presence, a multi-layered sign pointing in many directions, whose mark of personal authenticity achieves an iconic dimension with its stylized graphic idiosyncrasies.

Of course, guests’ signatures traced across the pages not only recall the signers’ identities and their historicized presence but also stand in for a more complex event. They are the evidence of a fleeting moment–both in the lives of the visitors and of their hosts–when a purely expressive play-form has been shaped into a sociable event along with its attendant ambiguities. As Georg Simmel maintained, it is this frail, artificial world of sociability that briefly makes a frictionless community of equals possible. Through such practices we can perceive the narrowly framed boundaries of space and time as well as their appropriate use between hosts and their guests.

Although the Enlightenment notion of politeness had by the early 20th century given way to a modern regime of do’s and don’ts, observance of etiquette norms was made ever more relevant in a context such as the Actons’ home, where cosmopolitanism was a virtue and where guests from different cultural backgrounds and in times of deep social and political change were sometimes meeting for the first time. We may assume, in fact, that the tracing of signatures was the concluding ceremony of the hospitality rituals organized by the Actons that presented Villa La Pietra as the seat of cosmopolitan entertainment and refined company and thereby justifying its grandiose setting and its amiable pretentiousness. These staged hospitality rituals were also performed in order to acquire an elite social standing within the local community as well as within an international context. In this respect, the signatures served as a kind of souvenir for the Acton family: both personal mementoes, and emblems of social achievement and self-complacency.

Assessing the Guestbook’s contents represents a work-in-progress that will undoubtedly benefit from a more systematic transcriptions of the guests’ signatures. This project seeks to trace a general outline of the milieu that gathered around the Actons at a given moment in time, and invites the public to explore its contents in more detail. The Guestbook’s “entries” date from October 1923 (possibly an earlier Guestbook is extant but is presently not available since The Actons–as is well known–were living at Villa La Pietra since the first decade of the 20th century). The entries discussed here, generally speaking, cover the Twenties and the Thirties. In most cases, the dates of the visits are present as well as the visitors’ places of residence. Honorary titles sometimes precede the signature (especially in the case of royal guests and German and Eastern European nobility; military and religious authorities).

The Guests of Villa La Pietra

The guests’ identities may be analyzed in terms of different criteria (social and professional position, nationality etc.). From the first glance, the very cosmopolitan milieu of Florence during the period is apparent. Guests of the Actons included prominent figures in the world of architecture (e.g. Darcy Braddell and Dorothy (Busse) Braddell from Scotland); art history (Thomas Whittemore, founder of the Byzantine Institute of America); art collecting (Charles Loeser; Martin and Caroline Ryerson from Chicago; James Kerr Branch and Beulah (Gould) Branch who also owned a Villa in Fiesole); costume and set designers Umberto Brunelleschi and Gino Carlo Sensani. It is worth noticing that guests connected with literary endeavors were mostly contemporaries of the Actons’ younger generation. In fact by having attended Eton and Oxford  both Harold and William had befriended a literary coterie that included Harold’s friends among the “Bright Young Things”–Brian Howard, Robert Byron and Evelyn Waugh–who would frequently visit Villa La Pietra, leaving behind their own inscribed books.  Other ‘literati’ include  Norman Douglas, Edith Sitwell, Somerset Maugham, Violet Trefusis, Reginald Turner, “rebel Boston Brahmin” John Brooks Wheelwright.

The élite of American and European capitalism frequently attended events at Villa La Pietra, where they compared notes about art collecting, home decoration and garden planning: Arthur and Hortense Acton were themselves involved in similar endeavors. A few names may help in recalling such visitors: Ada Small Moore, wife of W.H.Moore (US Steel);  banker Jules Semon Bache; the Du Puys;  Belgian industrialist and art collector Adolphe Stoclet – who had his celebrated Brussels home designed by Josef Hoffman and decorated by Gustav Klimt. Royalty are also among the Actons’ guests (mainly from countries that had recently witnessed régime changes: such as  Prussia, Serbia etc.). Socialites of different profiles were often among the guests at Villa La Pietra as well as  the emerging ‘stars’ of the show business (Lina Cavalieri, Mistinguett).

The social circle of the Actons also showcases broader cultural phenomena such as the changing position of women within post-WWI societies–both in America and in Europe. Feminine presences have always figured prominently in such social events; their fashionable attires and looks representing “brands” for specific historical periods. In this regard, the Actons’ guests during the Twenties and Thirties included Tamara de Lempicka, Francesca d’Orsay (pictured), Irene (Langhorne) Gibson, and Misia Sert. A closer examination of their careers may represent one strategy for hinting at the sea-change in mentality and practices that were at work in the making of Transatlantic Modernities.

Guestbook pages

A Selection of Guests

"Homes" Away from From Home

Over the centuries Florence has attracted large numbers of foreign residents. Therefore it is not surprising to find throughout the Guestbook the names of famous expatriates who had made their more or less permanent home in Florence and its environs – such as the Sitwells (Castello di Montegufoni); or Charles Loeser (Villa Torri di Gattaia); or Bernard and Mary Berenson (Villa I Tatti); Charles Henry Coster and Byba Giuliani (Villa Costa Scarpuccia); Louis and Helène (Ralli)  Einstein (Villa Schifanoia); the Fabbri family (Bagazzano); Mrs Keppel and Violet Trefusis (Villa dell’Ombrellino). Their number increases if, for example,  we consider–among the  visitors–also those such as George and Henrietta (Tower) Wurts, owners of the Villa Sciarra in Rome, famed for its gardens; or the case of W.T.Walton, composer and owner of Villa La Mortella in Ischia.