The garden of Villa La Pietra is an extraordinary combination of life and art, present and past, that continues to evolve and change.

Cypresses, oaks, yellow irish yew, statues and fountains of over hundred years old coexist with a variety of vegetables which grow in the Pomario every season. While it recalls the memories and choices of the family who cultivated it for a century, it continues to inspire students, artists, and visitors today. It was originally designed as a prototype of the new twentieth-century formal and geometric garden and has since evolved into a model of sustainability and good agricultural practice.

When the Actons arrived in 1903, La Pietra garden was a typical English-style park. Arthur and Hortense collected books on the Italian Renaissance formal garden and visited many historical gardens in Tuscany, Lazio and Veneto from which they took inspiration. Since 1908, the formal garden has been located on the east side of the villa. It opens down through a series of geometric “rooms” where vantage points along the main axes allow views through arches of foliage or stonework.

“A peristyle of Corinthian columns separates the lowest terrace from the adjacent vineyard and a statue of Hercules stands vigorously in the centre with a couple of ancient cypresses behind him. Many paths running parallel with the hillside lead to stone arches and circular plots enclosed by hedges and statues. On June nights these are illuminated by myriads of fireflies. The whole garden is essentially green; other colours are episodic and incidental.”

–Harold Acton, Tuscan Villas, London, Thames and Hudson, 1973

A New Trend 1900-1930

The Anglicization of gardens in Florence and the replacement of farming land by romantic parks took place in the climate of fashionable “updating” which swept the area at the beginning of the 19th century and was supplanted early in the following century by a new trend, one which owed much to the presence of foreign residents. This was the revival of the formal garden which reintroduced geometrically organized spaces with a new sensibility, leading to an Anglo-Saxon reinterpretation of the Renaissance and Mannerist garden. The garden of Villa La Pietra is one of the most remarkable examples of this movement that marked the territory surrounding Florence. As Cristina Acidini states in the introduction to La Pietra, Florence, a Family and a Villa by A. Richard Turner (2002), “the most learned and sensitive members of this extraordinary Anglo-Florentine community perceived the villas and their estates to be their point of symbolic and physical contact with Tuscan civilization, with what they had yearned for since their school days in England or America.”

The Culture of the Garden from the Acton Library

Through a survey of the Acton Library it is evident that Arthur and Hortense were searching and collecting for ideas and models for the restoration of their garden. The library contains the most influential textbooks of the period on garden history and design, which were read and considered of great value as documented by the bookplates of the owners present in all of them.