At the end of the nineteenth century, the hills around Florence were filled with abandoned villas whose aristocratic owners had gone bankrupt, lost interest, or moved on to Rome when it became the capital of the newly unified Italy.
In his 1909 book, Italian Hours, Henry James observed, ‘if one is an aching alien half the talk is of villas’; he also noted that for less than the price of a good painting one could purchase an entire villa, garden and surrounding estate. Outcasts, exiles and adventurers of all nationalities rushed to do this, but it was the English and Americans who focussed on the gardens, and the Americans who had the money to do so in style.
To speak of these gardens as American, however, is misleading. These gardens are infused with an English sensibility and an Edwardian love of formality, though perhaps an American sense of scale and a Puritan suspicion of ornament can be detected in their simple, monumental lines.
La Pietra – New York University
The most famous of the so-called American gardens of Florence is undoubtedly La Pietra, which owes its name to the milestone at its gate, one mile from the ancient Porta San Gallo, along the historic via Bolognese. In 1907, this venerable villa was purchased by Hortense and Arthur Acton. Acton, an English artist, had been drawn to Florence by its Renaissance art.
To supplement his income, he became a dealer, supplying art and artefacts to America’s east coast elite. After an advantageous marriage to the wealthy daughter of a Chicago banker, Acton began collecting for himself. Though he was too grand to do anything as vulgar as open a shop, Mabel Dodge Luhan, a fellow expatriate, asserted that everything at La Pietra was for sale ‘if the price is right.’ While the villa offered a suitable backdrop to Acton’s Renaissance paintings and furniture, the garden he created enhanced the effect, providing an elegant setting for his huge collection of statuary. Harold Acton, guardian of the property through the latter half of the twentieth century, proudly proclaimed that most visitors believed his father’s garden was a genuine Renaissance creation.
To modern eyes, however, the abundance of English roses, the French-style scrollwork parterres, the dominance of box hedging, the numerous Roman umbrella pines and the sheer number of sculptures stuffed into the space, identify it as distinctly Anglo-American.
I Tatti – Harvard University
Another much-loved garden, I Tatti, also owes its fame to an art connoisseur and collector, the controversial Bernard Berenson. Triply disqualified from the American establishment by his Jewish roots, his Lithuanian parentage and his long affair with a married woman, Berenson settled in Florence in the late-nineteenth century, where he’d been sent to acquire paintings for his patron, Isabella Stewart Gardner. In 1900, when the death of her first husband allowed him to marry Mary Costello, Berenson rented a rural farmhouse known as I Tatti, which was named after an earlier owner called Zatti.
Perched on a hillside just below Settignano and flanked by cypresses and a few lemon trees, I Tatti was much more humble than its inhabitants, and in 1907 when Berenson’s growing fortune enabled him to purchase the villa, Mary immediately set about creating a setting worthy of her illustrious husband. She hired a young English architect, Cecil Pinsent, to oversee the works, and while Berenson is often given credit for the gardens, documentary evidence that survives suggests they were Pinsent’s design and Mary’s initiative. Negotiating his way between two very demanding clients, Pinsent provided a cutting garden near the house to satisfy Mary’s desire for flowers, while creating a symmetrical, terraced, topiary garden spanning the slope to satisfy Bernard’s demand for Renaissance formality. A straight cypress-lined walk to one side is balanced by an open wild-flower meadow to the other, while a small wood at the base of the slope links the garden to the landscape beyond.
With its masterful balance of man-made and natural, of formal and informal spaces, I Tatti secured Pinsent’s reputation, making him the landscape designer of choice in the expatriate community.
Le Balze – Georgetown University
In 1909, Berenson’s old Harvard friend, the philosopher Charles Strong, came for a visit and ended up staying. Following Berenson’s lead, he commissioned Pinsent to turn a narrow, vertiginous strip of agricultural land in Fiesole into an elegant villa and garden, now called Le Balze. Here Pinsent created a series of garden rooms round a modest Palladian villa, balancing open and closed spaces, short and long axes, vertical and horizontal enclosures. With its dark, mysterious grotto cut into the hillside behind and its dramatic 190 degree terrace overlooking Florence in front, many believe this is Pinsent’s most successful design.
All three villas are now academic institutions, and all provide limited public access.