In the United States, they were known as the Roaring Twenties. But what was this time like for the rest of the world? Through the lens of the Acton family, we see that in Florence, Italy, the period had the same air of glamour and frenzy, with a unique dash of Tuscan influence.

Transatlantic Modernities: Villa La Pietra in the Twenties displays original objects, photographs, clothing and literature from the Acton home in a real-life narrative that rivals the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Instead of grand mansions on Long Island, the Tuscan revelry took place in villas hidden amongst the hills between Florence and Fiesole. Originally built for Francesco Sassetti in 1460, then passed between the Capponi and Incontri families before ending up in the hands of Hortense Lenore Mitchell and her husband Arthur Mario Acton in 1903, Villa La Pietra in particular served as a social hub for Italians and foreigners living in the city.

Harold Acton Looks Back

In 1976 a BBC film crew came to Villa La Pietra to interview Sir Harold Acton. The result was an episode of the television program Aquarius in which Harold reminisces about his life at Villa La Pietra.

Their arrival in a motorcar (a rarity for time) left no doubt that they would prove to be entertaining and influential contributors to the Florentine community. Four years later, after the birth their two sons, Harold and William, Hortense settled on La Pietra as the family’s permanent home, purchasing the estate in 1907.

The Actons were part of a large movement of international expatriates that had recently decided to call Florence home. The quiet, picturesque Tuscan countryside was the antithesis of the buzzing, industrial New York City (although it should be noted that champagne seemed to flow just as freely in both). Life in the villa struck a balance between the two that held enough allure for the Actons to choose it as the place to display their equally eclectic taste. Upon their arrival, the Actons began their work with the restoration of the garden in the traditional Renaissance style and began purchasing furniture, furnishings, and works of art through Arthur’s collector contacts in Florence and London, as well as Hortense’s in America. If you ever get a chance to visit Villa La Pietra, it will be obvious that the choice and arrangement of the works followed a purely aesthetic logic rather than one by chronology or school. Harold Acton’s Memoirs of an Aesthete penned 20 years after the events of the Twenties, provides an intimate glance into what went on behind the stone walls and up the Cyprus-lined drive. Even as a child, he was unusually mature and keenly observant. “I had more friends among the grown-ups and preferred them to my contemporaries,” he wrote, and “I cannot remember thinking of myself as a child, for I was as embarrassed by children then as I am now and winced when I was referred to as one of the species.” Being uninterested in child’s play, Harold found himself constantly on the edges of the social events taking place on the estate.

“From these musings by my bookcase I was occasionally summoned to see guests in the drawing-room. Their interest in me could not have been more than perfunctory, but my interest in them was immense. I observed every detail of their dress and behaviour and would largely regale my nurse and mother’s maid with descriptions that sent them into fits of laughter. Either nurse or the maid completed the picture with backstairs information, avid as both of them were for Florentine gossip, and I discovered far more about the private lives of Madame Telle and Monsieur Chose than these people suspected when they asked me, so condescendingly, about my lessons. That the one was having an intrigue with the other’s chauffeur, for instance. … They need not have bothered to notice me, for I was content to watch and listen to them.” As Harold grew up, there was never a shortage of guests to entertain his observations. “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.”

These many guests have left their mark in the VLP Guestbook, testifying to the diverse range of visitors from within the Florentine community–artists, intellectuals, writers, locals, foreigners, socialites, etc. His mother, a “petite and well-groomed hostess, often dressed in a kimono, and a purveyor of famous martini cocktails following afternoon tea,” was the main force behind these events. We can trace the appreciation of their hospitality through gifts such as rare volumes of literature with heartfelt dedications from the 1920s gifted by guests.

World War I cut in on the festivities, forcing Harold and William to live in England at the time. Though most believed the whole affair would blow over within a month, the boys were worried about being separated from Italy. Eventually, peace returned to the Villa even if Harold was not yet ready to come back, instead enrolling in college at Oxford. He took with him, however, many characteristics cultivated from growing up in such a rich environment. ‘’He had crossed the Atlantic several times to visit his American relations, had attended French-speaking school in Switzerland and traveled extensively in Europe, with and without his parents; his multilingual conversational skills were highly developed by prolonged contact with his parents’ extensive circle of cultured cosmopolitan acquaintances.’’ Then an exception among his peers, he served as pioneer for the kind of students that would travel to live and study at La Pietra through NYU’s study away program: cosmopolitan, well-traveled, inquisitive and cultured.

Not falling prey to the typical Italian Renaissance mindset, the Actons continually modernized the villa throughout the years, installing new technologies such as electricity, hot water, phones and elevators. The Villa has maintained aspects of this Twenties atmosphere by continuing to be a home for social and academic events. Looking back, Harold recalled that ‘’I feel safe in prophesying that the arts and crafts of this period, muddled as they were with misty literature and mistier music, will be revived by a future generation as the Early Victorian have been in my day.’