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).