Englishman Arthur Acton and his American wife Hortense created a garden for all seasons, independent of flowers, at the villa of La Pietra on Via Bolognese, near Florence. Their son, Harold Acton, the last private owner of La Pietra, described the gardens as essentially green. Other colours are incidental.
Incidental banks of blue iris against stone walls in spring and occasional flourishes of roses on pergolas, peristyles and walls in summer add much to the beauty of the gardens, but green does dominate. The discipline and form of this green, contrasted with stone and gravel, make the gardens of La Pietra unique and charming.
Harold Acton believed the intercession of S. Teresa Margherita Redi of Arezzo, whose remains are in the neighbouring Carmelite convent, ensured La Pietra retained its character over time.
Hortense rented La Pietra and 24 hectares of land from the Incontri family in 1903 and bought it in 1907. At the time it was a villa enlarged from a castellated farmhouse set in olive groves and a park resembling an English garden, with trees and extensive lawns. The Incontri had removed the original baroque garden when English gardens came into vogue much to the disgust of Edith Wharton, who wrote disparagingly of this fashion in 1904.
The Actons were determined to change the gardens once again, but this time to create a renaissance style, incorporating the olive groves and agricultural land into the overall plan. They wanted a return to the renaissance ideal of a country retreat, where wealthy Florentines could enjoy not only the beauties of shady gardens, cool ponds and fountains, but also the practical pleasures of producing olive oil, wine, grain and fruit and vegetables.
The result is a mixture of elegant green geometric sculpture, topiary, statuary and fountains allied to a natural and practical use of arable land for olive and fruit trees and natural flower-filled meadows. A walled kitchen garden provides vegetables and herbs, and a lemon-house shelters citrus and other tender horticultural specimens during the extreme cold of Florentine winters. An outdoor theatre a Goldonian creation of carefully-gathered box hedges, laurels, statuesque cypresses and statues is a small jewel in a masterly crown.
After Arthur died in 1953, Hortense maintained the gardens until her death in 1962. Harold writer, biographer, poet, aesthete and bon vivant was their heir. He had been forced to flee from his beloved China by the Japanese invasion, leaving behind all his collected treasures. He served in the Royal Air Force during world war two, and then was bidden to Florence by his father to play his part in the continuation of La Pietra. Reluctant at first, he came to love the garden, the villa and his own inimitable Italian life there.
All gardens change over time, and after Harold died in 1994 it was only too obvious that the trees had grown old, box hedges had lost their crispness, and stones and walls had begun to crumble. Harold left La Pietra to New York University, which has now taken over the property and embarked on a programme of extensive restoration.
Summer drought and water scarcity put a stop to proposals to remodel the gardens dramatically. Horticultural associate Nick Dakin-Elliott has restricted the renovations to restoring and replacing stones, plants and bushes where necessary but not deviating from Arthur and Hortenses admirably suitable plan.
In Harolds time, visitors to La Pietra were greeted at the imposing gates on Via Bolognese by a guardian. They then swept up the majestic cypress-lined drive to be met by the butler and led into the grand salon opening out on to the sculptured gardens replete with fountains.
Today, visitors are welcomed at the reception centre inside the gates. They walk up that sweeping drive, admiring the old but still productive olive trees that stretch on either side, and cross over the bridge that spans the busy Via dei Bruni, before arriving on the terrace at the front of the villa.
Behind the villa the formal vistas begin broad descending terraces of elegant gardens, then a side path to the little theatre where summer performances are a joy.
The north side of the garden is informal, with pleasant walkways under rose-covered peristyles, statues placed for reflection and a meadow full of wildflowers and rarely-cut grass and clover, with a view of Brunelleschis cathedral dome.
Inside the villa (among what has been called a magpie collection of renaissance paintings, antique books, frescoes and furniture) there is an archive of great importance. The diaries, letters and literary legacy of Harold Acton are a formidable contribution to English literature. He was open and generous to friends and to those who wished to see the beauties of La Pietra or to talk with him about his life and letters.
New York University has declared that it too will use the legacy of La Pietra to encourage visitors to admire the gardens, and to provide a centre for students who wish to profit from the facilities that it can offer. With the restoration of La Pietra well underway, it is now able to carry out that promise.
For information see www.nyu.edu/global/lapietra.
To visit the villa, contact Patricia Bayona, tel. 0555007207.