di Cristina Bellini, Bibliotecaria di NYU Florence

Tema della settimana: Distanziamento

Nella biblioteca della famiglia Acton a Villa La Pietra, c’è una versione per bambini dei Racconti di Canterbury di Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1345–1400). Gli autori definiscono i loro obiettivi nella prefazione:

We trust that this version of the ‘Canterbury Tales’ will lead children who may read it to turn later to the rich original, there to find a splendid amplification indeed, but not a contradiction of the old story-book. The tales here selected have passed muster with many a childish audience when told by the fireside, and this leads us to hope that they may please a wider circle of young readers in their written form. (vii)

Francis Storr and Hawes Turner, Canterbury Chimes, or, Chaucer Tales Retold for Children (London, 1878)

L’edizione americana del volume che si trova a La Pietra è stata pubblicata a Boston nel 1880 e reca la firma di Hortense L. Mitchell, quindi doveva  essere parte delle sue letture quando era bambina (Hortense nacque a  Chicago nel 1871). Si tratta di uno dei molti libri per l’infanzia conservati alla Villa e proveniente dalla collezione di Hortense a Chicago. Fortunatamente, in alcuni casi, la combinazione della sua firma e dei raffinati  Ex Libris realizzati per i figli da piccoli (o viceversa), ci permette di stabilire che questi libri venivano tramandati di madre in figlio.

Harold Acton con la madre Hortense e il fratellino William, ca. 1908-09, Acton Photo Archive. NYU Florence

Tra questi racconti, la storia di “Costanza” nel Racconto del Sergente della Legge mi è rimasto impresso in modo particolare perché riecheggia la vita di Hortense, caratterizzata da tante traversate transatlantiche e viaggi in tutto il mondo.

Sognando ad occhi aperti Hortense negli anni Dieci, mentre leggeva ad Harold ed al fratello William, ho cominciato a riflettere su come lei avrebbe potuto adattare il racconto di Costanza, riferendosi ai suoi tragitti e alla sua stessa vita.

Citando verbatim dai passaggi nella versione di Sorr e Turner (1878), ma sostituendo i luoghi in cui è andata Costanza con Chicago, Egitto (dove Hortense ha viaggiato da ragazza e dove lavorava Roger Acton, il padre del suo futuro marito) e Firenze, naturalmente – mantenendo, invece, il loro comune passaggio in Inghilterra dove Hortense sposò Arthur a Londra nel 1903 – in un certo senso, è possibile immaginare un racconto di Canterbury come avrebbe potuto essere “riletto” per i piccoli Actons.

Qui di seguito il risultato del mio frivolo passatempo, scritto durante questi giorni lontani dalla Villa.

Adattato da “Constanza” nel Racconto del Sergente della Legge
Francis Storr and Hawes Turner, Canterbury Chimes, or, Chaucer Tales Retold for Children (1878)
Di Cristina Bellini, immaginando Hortense nelle vesti di Costanza




“Our Emperor of Chicago has a daughter so fair and so good that the like of her has not been since the world began. She is beautiful and yet not proud, young and yet not foolish, a princess and yet humble.”

This description of Hortense made the Sultan of Egypt fall in love with her, though he had never seen her.

Soon the day for her departure came, and she and all her companions made ready to go.  She knew that she must go; but it grieved her to the heart to leave her friends at home. Can you wonder that she wept? She was leaving her parents, who had nursed her so tenderly, and going to a strange people, to obey a husband of whom she knew nothing.

Now the Sultan’s mother was a wicked woman, and she contrived to have the Sultan and Hortense murdered during a banquet.

Of all that company, Hortense alone escaped. Her they seized her and carried her off to a boat that was ready, waiting for her. And so they sent her adrift, and told her mockingly to find her way back again to Chicago as best she could.

So she found herself alone on the wide sea with none to pity or to aid her, and she cried bitterly.

Years and days passed, and still the boat drifted on across the waste of waters, and still she lived.

And so she drifted on and on till she came to the narrow straits which divide the Great Sea from our western ocean, and still the boat drove on till at last it was cast up by the waves on the coast of England, beneath a great rock on which stood a castle.

Arthur, the King of London, asked Hortense to tell him her story, and when he heard from her own lips all the wonderful things that had happened to her, he fell in love and, not long after, he married Hortense.

It was a merry wedding, if ever there was one, with feasting and dancing and signing.

They had not been long married when King Arthur was called away to France to fight against his foes.

So Hortense stayed behind at the castle, and in due time a son was born to her, and she christened him by the name of Harold. A messenger was sent to King Arthur with the joyful news, and he wrote a merry letter to Hortense.

But the messenger, instead of taking the letter straight to Hortense, rode first to the king’s mother who forged the letter to this effect:

“The king orders that Hortense leaves the kingdom within three days and three hours. Put her and her son and all her goods into the same ship that you found her in, and push her off from the land, and charge her never to return.”

Many a day and night did Hortense drift over the waters, and many a fresh peril did she suffer.

But her father, the Emperor of Chicago, had sent a captain with his ship to rescue her.

After long tossings, the winds and tides had carried her through the narrow straits of Gibraltar, into the Mediterranean. Who she was they knew not, for she would tell nothing of her name or story.

The captain brought her with him to Italy and delivered her and child into his wife’s keeping in a Villa in Florence.

All this while, King Arthur mourned for his lost wife and son. He determined to go to Italy on a pilgrimage, and it so happened that the officer who was appointed to ride forth and meet him was the captain who had saved Hortense. The captain entertained the king right royally, and the king in return invited him to a feast. The captain took Constance’s boy with him to the feast.

The boy stood during the whole meal facing the king, and the king wondered at him and asked, “Who is that lovely boy?” and the captain answered, “I know not; he has a mother, but not a father to my knowledge.” And then he told the king how he and his mother had been found and what a good and virtuous woman she was.

Now the boy was as like Hortense as ever a child is like his mother, and as the king mused on his face, the features of his lost wife came back to him, and he sighed to himself and left the table quickly.

A sudden thought flashed through his mind — is it possible that the boy’s mother may be my wife? At first it seemed a mere fancy and delusion, for he had long given up his wife as drowned. But then he thought again — if by a miracle she was carried to England, why should not a miracle have brought her to this place? He hurried off at once to the Villa in Florence and asked to see the mother.

Long she sobbed, and could scarce believe it true; but, when he had convinced her of his love and truth, her joy was as great as had been her sorrow. Such joy as this has not been before, and will not be again on earth.



Ex-libris (nell’ordine):

Ex-Libris di Hortense Acton. Firenze, data non nota. Incisore: Enrico Michelassi (1872-1957)
Ex-Libris di Arthur Acton. Firenze, data non nota. Incisore: Enrico Michelassi (1872-1957)
Ex-Libris di Harold Acton da bambino, Firenze, 1910-1915. Incisore: Umberto Brunelleschi (1879 – 1949)
Ex-Libris di William Acton Florence, 1910-1915. Incisore: Umberto Brunelleschi (1879 – 1949)