A backwards glance at Villa Capponi

Nicholas Clifford
July 27, 2006

Shortly after their marriage in 1928, my parents, Henry and Esther Clifford, bought the Villa Capponi. The house, with its famous gardens and stunning view of Florence from the hills of Arcetri, had earlier been owned by Charles Perkins, a Boston art historian, and later by Lady Scott, grandmother of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the future queen of George VI of England.Less than a year old then, I remember nothing of my first visit in the summer of 1931 (my brother, born there in 1929, was named Pier, after Pier Capponi, who saved Florence by facing down Charles VIIIs French army in 1494). Later, more concrete memories of summers emerged slowly from the mists of childhood, their predominant note one of eternal sunshine. But there was surely more than that, for years later, when I read Matthew Arnold on the severity of the storms visiting the valley of the Arno, it called vividly to mind the lightning flashing over Monte Morello, and the thunder cascading among the hills.My father was at the Philadelphia Museum, where he would later become curator of painting, and in those first years immersed himself in a study of Italian painting under the tutelage of the redoubtable English art historian, Evelyn Sandberg-Vaval. He and my mother, a medievalist, introduced my brother and me early to the glories of the city, into which we would descend, along the gently winding viale to the Porta Romana, or directly down the steep Costa San Giorgio to the southern flank of the Ponte Vecchio. No long ticket lines back then; you could simply walk in to museums like the Uffizi, and though I had little idea what I was seeing, the paintingsor at least the larger ones, like the Giotto and Cimabue Madonnasleft a considerable impression on me.In those days (perhaps its still true) on holidays and religious feasts, the ribs on Brunelleschis great dome were outlined in electric light, while kerosene lamps illuminated the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. June 24, the feast of Florences patron, San Giovanni, was the greatest of these celebrations, culminating in a magnificent display of fireworks. Though I didnt see it, on one of these occasions the closing number was a huge pyrotechnic portrait of Mussolini, hanging for some seconds in the night sky over the city, until it burned itself out.Not till I was older, of course, back in America during the war, did I begin to realize the harm the il Duce was inflicting on his country. Though the villa suffered little physical damage from the fighting, it housed German officers, at least after 1943 when Badoglios surrender to the Allies brought the full force of the occupation to northern Italy. In July 1944, as Allied forces drove the Wehrmacht out of Florence, troops from New Zealand were the first to arrive at the villa, apparently, to defuse a land mine found in the front hall. I didnt see the house again until the summer of 1948, when I was about to enter Princeton as a freshman, with all the worldly sophistication that state entails. But visits were fewer after the war, and the house was frequently rented to a variety of British and American tenants. One such was Elizabeth Buffy Ives, the sister of Adlai Stevenson, who took it for several summers. Presumably through Ivess Democ-ratic Party connections, Lady Bird Johnson, the widow of President Lyndon Johnson, became a later tenant. In the summer of 1979, after the decision to sell the house following my fathers death, my wife, myself, and our four children spent three marvelous weeks there, using it as a base to explore Florence; as soon as we left, my brothers family, also with four children, moved in. Two years later, we sold the house to Aureliano Benedetti and his wife, Maria-Teresa. Thus, after a break of somewhat more than a century, the villa returned to Italian hands. One final story: For reasons none of us understood, my father did not bask in the favor of the great Bernard Berenson, the most famous American expatriate in Florence during those years (some suggested it was because he had earlier been under the tutelage of Evelyn Vaval, and B.B. was, apparently, not a man to brook competition). At all events, in 1957, when I was a graduate student at Harvard, I married Deborah Pickman, whose parents had indeed been friends of Berenson (Deborah, in fact, had earlier met him at Vallombrosa). On our honeymoon that June, we spent several days at the villa, and found ourselves invited to lunch at I Tatti. Suitably in awe, we joined the great man and his guests for the meal, and a tour of the gardens by Nicky Mariano, Berensons private secretary. Then, later that summer an invitation to my parents arrived from Settignano. The rift was healed; my father and Berenson became friends, and today a large number of his books, left at the Villa Capponi at the time of his death, form part of the library at I Tatti.Villa Capponi Pian dei Giullari, 4; For information and private tours: tel and fax 055-223465; the garden can be visited by groups of at least ten; interested parties must make an appointment in writing; entrance fee is 10 euro.

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