Photo Credit: Stefano Pasolini for NYU Florence: View of the Exhibition Room (ex Day Nursery) April - June 2024.

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.

Harold (1904-1994), introspective by nature, found solace in the company of these mentors, whose refined conversational style and manners he sought to emulate. Preferring creative pursuits to athletic endeavors, he immersed himself in the role of impresario within his miniature theater and found solace in the pages of fairy tales, illustrated by Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac. His strong passion for the Far East, transmitted also by his mother, Hortense, and uncle, Guy, brought him eventually to live in China for seven years. His early literary endeavors, such as the creation of an illustrated collection of prose and poems entitled Sunlight and Shadow (1918) reflected the highs and lows of his adolescent years, amidst the backdrop of World War I. Ultimately, Harold’s inclination for history and literature, nurtured also by Hortense,  propelled him into a distinguished career as a writer and historian (The Last Medici, 1930; The Bourbons of Naples, 1956; Great Houses Of Italy: The Tuscan Villas, 1973).

In contrast, William (1906-1945), exuded a spirit of curiosity and playfulness. Captured in numerous photographs alongside his beloved pets – the dogs Caesar and Ajax- William’s zest for life knew no bounds. An admirer of diverse cultures, he delighted in assuming various guises for festive occasions showcasing his artistic talents from a tender age. At the Pergola theater philanthropic performance, held in 1915 to collect funds for the Red Cross, he wore an amazing costume of a ‘Moor,’ created by the family friend and famous Art Deco illustrator Umberto Brunelleschi (1879-1949), who also designed the Acton Boys’ bookplates. William’s early forays into drawing, inspired by the works of Audrey Beardsley, and his penchant for painting, nurtured by his father, Arthur, blossomed into a long lasting passion, culminating in prestigious exhibitions of his portraiture in Florence (1932) and London (1937).

The inaugural exhibition presents a trove of unpublished treasures from the Acton Collection, meticulously curated from the depths of the family archives. Spanning a range of mediums—from family photographs to literary curiosities—these artifacts offer a poignant testament to the Acton legacy. Within the historical “Day Nursery,” visitors can immerse themselves in a bygone era, surrounded by cherished mementos and evocative artworks that bear witness to the Acton siblings’ formative years.

At its core, this project seeks to illuminate the intimate tapestry of domestic life, intertwining the Acton Boys’ youthful escapades with the vibrant cultural milieu of Anglo-Florentine society. Against the backdrop of World War I, the Acton family found themselves ensconced in a world on the brink of change. Yet, amidst the uncertainty, Villa La Pietra remained a bastion of familial warmth and camaraderie. In times of adversity, the Acton family, like many of their contemporaries, extended a compassionate hand to those in need. Through poignant photographs, the profound impact of their altruism is laid bare, as Allied soldiers found solace amidst the tranquil gardens of La Pietra.

– Francesca Baldry