Villa La Pietra

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Villa La Pietra

Villa La Pietra is a villa outside Florence, Italy in Italy. The villa and its 23 ha (57-acre) estate is now owned by New York University, after it was bequeathed by Sir Harold Acton. It is used by the university for academic undergraduate programs as well of outside conferences and tours.

The villa houses an eclectic collection of art from all around the world gathered and put together by the family who previously owned the property. A long cypress avenue connects the entrance of the estate to the house itself. The garden that surrounds the villa is designed in a renaissance Italian fashion and contains a large collection of statues Arthur Acton collected, many by Orazio Marinali from Vicenza and Antonio Bonazza from Padua.


Florence has been known for its villas which reside on low hills that surround the city for centuries. These villas are known as places of retreat for rulers and poets in Renaissance Florence. The villas are typically situated in the countryside with gardens carrying on into the natural, but preserved landscape. In the beginning of the twentieth century many prominent Americans deciding to move to Florence purchased villas in the environs, such as Villa La Pietra.

The original villa was built in the fifteenth century by the Macinghi family. It is named after a milestone which used to mark its distance from Florence. It was bought in 1460 by the Florentine banker Francesco Sassetti, manager of the Medici Bank and member of the famous Florentine Sassetti family. Later in 1491 Francesco Sassetti's heirs sold the villa to Piedro di Niccolo Capponi of the Capponi family. Cardinal Luigi Capponi was an important member of the Capponi family and was a director of the Vatican Library under Pope Innocent X's papacy. Luigi Capponi made substantial renovations to the villa in the seventeenth century, adding the baroque exterior, thought to be designed by Carlo Fontana. In 1908 the villa was bought by Arthur Acton and his wife Hortense, the parents of Harold Acton.

Originally, Villa La Pietra was the site of a renaissance garden. However, the gardens were entirely redesigned when it was landscaped in the 'English style' in the nineteenth century. When Arthur Acton and his wife took ownership of the villa they recreated a garden in the original Italian Renaissance style, a task later continued by Harold, their son.

When Harold Acton died in 1994, he left the estate and its art to New York University. Harold Acton was first inspired to leave his home as a legacy for education by Bernard Berenson.[1]

Since the villa's last change in ownership it has been further renovated and restored with the intent to preserve a sense of quirkiness and status the villa and surrounding garden had at the beginning of the twentieth century, while it was owned by the Acton family.

Today students from all over the world come to the villa to live and study as they participate in New York University's study abroad program. The other buildings on the property are used for lodging and classroom space.

Acton Family and Villa La Pietra[edit]

Arthur Acton and Hortense Mitchell

Arthur Acton, husband of Hortense Mitchell was a painter. Together the Actons were seen as insightful art collectors and put together a collection of a vast number of paintings and sculptures, which still resides in the villa today. The two of them took over twenty years to recreate the gardens surrounding Villa La Pietra, creating a number of "rooms" circling the villa. These rooms had terraces, parterres and fountains linked by strategically placed hedges creating intentional walkways providing vista points.

Hortense Mitchell was Arthur Acton's wealthy American wife. She acquired her wealth from her family and father, William Mitchell, President of First National Trust Bank in Alton, Illinois. The property, Villa La Pietra, was purchased by Arthur Acton's American wife, Hortense Mitchell. Hortense Mitchell purchased Villa La Pietra from the Incontri a collateral branch of the Capponi family.

The Actons spent the remainder of their lives living at the Villa La Pietra in Florence, where they received and entertained both Florentines and many English and American residents in the various other villas in and around Florence.

Arthur died in 1953. Hortense died in 1962. After their deaths Harold Acton inherited the property.

Harold Acton

Harold Acton was the son of Arthur and Hortense. He was a poet and a historian. He too, frequently had guests at La Pietra. Those included Nancy Mitford (whom Harold wrote a biography about once), Evenlyn Waugh (a friend from his days at Oxford where he was a celebrated poet), the Earl and Countess of Rosse and the Sitwells.

While living in La Pietra Harold Acton was significantly well known and one of the most famous Anglo-Americans residing in Florence in the twentieth century. He was a large supporter of the British Institute in Florence, was knighted in 1974 and made honorary citizen of Florence in 1986. In his later years living Harold and Villa La Pietra provided hospitality to the English royal family when they would visit Italy. This included Princess Margaret and the Prince of Wales. Harold paid close attention to caring for the villa, the garden and the estate. Through this he realized the culture of the locals who work the land.

Upon Harold Acton's death in 1994 he bequeathed Villa La Pietra and his fortune to New York University, which had already been associated with since the 1960s.

New York University[edit]

Villa La Pietra

New York University is the current owner of Villa La Pietra. The Villa and Harold Acton's fortune was left to New York University in the name of education and in order to ensure it and its collections would be preserved.

Today, it is used by the university as a study abroad site, open to undergraduates from New York University as well as other universities. The undergraduate program includes topics of economics, political science, business, sociology, renaissance art, tuscan gardens and more. Additionally, there is an Italian studies graduate program available.

The university also operates tours of the villa as well as holding conference through La Pietra Dialogues (LPD). LPD bring together some of the leading scholars, policy makers, business leaders, practitioners, public academics and artists whose thoughts, insights and work have made a positive contribution to global society and the support of humanistic beliefs which are a characteristic of Florence. These conferences gather at Villa La Pietra to exchange perspectives and discuss issues of contemporary society. LPD works to emphasize New York University's heart of its mission of being a global network university.

Property today[edit]

Portion of the Villa La Pietra Garden in Florence, Italy

Today the 57-acre-estate of Villa La Pietra is found on the campus of New York University Florence, Italy on Via Bolognese . A large row of tall cypress trees on each side of the road lead up to the villa. It is surrounded by olive groves and fruit trees. Villa La Pietra and its garden remains fully intact and is open for access to the public with appointment and the New York University students residing in Florence.

The garden consists of green lawns and hedges and ornamental architecture throughout. There are arches, temples and statues scattered around the garden placed intentionally to draw the eye to specific views and angles of gaze. It is said that the garden reflects hints of Arthur Acton's personality. It is unclear who designed the garden.

The La Pietra library houses around 10,000 volumes, including Acton family archives and old photos.

Also within the villa are now conference rooms, that are used for academic seminars and talks. Tours may also be scheduled of the villa and the garden.

Villa La Pietra and four other villas have been left to New York University to be used for academic purposed. La Pietra is officially listed as part of the Cultural Heritage of Italy.

La Pietra Dialogues[edit]

Due to the humanistic character found in Florence, the ‘’La Pietra Dialogues’’ hold a connection between New York University and the Florentine community by presenting lectures and discourse within the villa itself. The calendar of events intertwine with the global community and promotes culture through contemporary topics such as: international relations, politics, human rights, ethics, culture and law, the environment, immigration, education, economics, and journalism. World renown scholars, artists, political leaders, journalists and writers are invited by the Director of NYU La Pietra to present their speeches and a question/answer session at the end to open dialogue. Guests such as Roberto N. Shrum, better known as Bob Shrum, Senior Advisor to Gore and Kerry campaigns in 2000 and 2004, political analyst and Senior Fellow of the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, and American novelist and screenwriter Helen Schulman. All current and past events can be found in the La Pietra Dialogues archives [1].

See also[edit]



External links[edit]

Coordinates: 43°47′45″N 11°15′58″E / 43.79583°N 11.26611°E / 43.79583; 11.26611