“Real beauty is neither in garden nor landscape, but in the relation of both to the individual, that what we are seeking is not only a scenic setting for pool and fountain and parterre, but a background for life” (Sitwell 1909, 39). While still under construction, the garden of Villa La Pietra became the setting for the Actons’ life: a place of rest and recreation, where their children could grow up, “a cloistered refuge from the battle of life”, but also a place to “to give pleasure to others and to share the pleasure of one’s friends” (Sitwell 1909, 46-47, 87-88).
In the garden of Villa La Pietra, Hortense and Arthur cultivated friendships and organized shows, parties and receptions, which were attended by illustrious Italian and foreign personalities such as Queen Sofia of Prussia, Tamara de Lempicka, Francesca d’Orsay, Irene Langhorne Gibson, Misia Sert, Lewis Einstein, Ernesto Fabbri, Umberto Brunelleschi, the Sitwells, the Antinoris, the Costantinis, the Guicciardinis, and many others.
La Pietra was also a fertile place of agricultural production: the farmland that to this day surrounds the Acton Mitchell residence employed many workers (permanent farmer-gardeners and other workers brought in as needed), and the cultivations in the vegetable garden – called Pomario – ensured the family and the sharecroppers always had vegetables and fruit. The numerous potted citrus plants were protected from the harsh winter temperatures in the eighteenth-century Limonaia and were praised for their color, scent and aesthetic value. La Pietra, then as now, was not an inert place, but a pulsating reality, which grew and transformed with the changing of the seasons, turning the Acton Mitchell residence into “a page from an old romance, a scene in fairyland, a gateway through which imagination lifted above the sombre realities of life may pass into a world of dreams” (Sitwell 1909, 47).
The 1920s represent the moment of the definitive affirmation and fame of Villa La Pietra and its garden. In 1922 La Pietra appeared in the pages of Villas of Florence and Tuscany by the American scholar Harold Donaldson Eberlein, alongside illustrious villas, such as Poggio a Caiano, Villa Palmieri and Corsi Salviati (Eberlein 1922, 323-41). In 1925 the splendid, illustrated volume Italian Gardens of the Renaissance by two young architects, John Shepherd and Geoffrey Jellicoe, was published: also in this case the garden of Villa La Pietra was placed, with photographs and drawings, in the chapter dedicated to Renaissance villas (Shepherd Jellicoe 1925, 106-08).
A few years later, American landscape architect Rose Standish Nichols described Hortense and Arthur’s residence as one of the best examples of an Italian Pleasure Garden in the peninsula: “few Florentine villas can boast of so many characteristic attractions as La Pietra “. (Standish Nichols 1928, 118-22) Even Italian scholars soon recognized the garden’s importance: high-quality photographs commissioned by the Acton Mitchells from the Brogis were shown at the impressive exhibition Mostra del Giardino Italiano held in Palazzo Vecchio (curated by Ugo Ojetti, Carlo Gamba and Nello Tarchiani) in the spring of 1931. For the occasion, the garden was opened to the public, together with Villa Gamberaia, Palmieri, Salviati and the famous Medici residences of Careggi, Petraia and Castello.
Just as Hortense and Arthur had traveled the peninsula to discover the Old Italian Gardens, in 1931 Villa La Pietra became a “pilgrimage” destination for garden lovers: Villa La Pietra’s garden itself had become an Old Italian Garden.