Just outside Florence, on the sides of the via Bolognese that climbs gently through the hills, splendid villas have sprung up over the centuries. The gates still guard the secrets of that distant past of aristocratic opulence, when the city had not yet invaded the neighbouring countryside.
At number 120 there is Villa La Pietra, a splendid estate reached by way of a tree-lined path. The building, of Renaissance foundation, is surrounded by lush Italian gardens.
Harold Acton was born in one of the rooms of the house, scion of a rich Anglo-Italian family of Catholic tradition, art collector and writer of rare erudition. His death in 1994 at the age of eighty-nine was the disappearance of the last representative of that British colony which, in the first half of the twentieth century, had animated the cultural life of the Tuscan capital.
It was not uncommon to see the young Acton walking through the streets of Florence with Norman Douglas and Reggie Turner or engaging in heated conversations with Ronald Firbank. He also frequented those fashionable places where Russian nobles gathered, forced into exile by the communist revolution, and never missed an opportunity to exchange a few words with the bibliophile Pino Orioli or with the art historian Bernard Berenson.
Acton, who was educated in Eton and then in Oxford, lived in England during his first years of adulthood, the era of the “Bright Young Things”, characterized by jazz and pharaonic parties.
Meanwhile he cultivated poetic ambitions and met Gertrud Stein, the Sitwell brothers, Robert Byron and Evelyn Waugh, of whom he was a lifelong friend (the two met during a G. K. Chesterton lecture at the Newman Society). Waugh dedicated his first novel, Decline and Fall, to him, and Acton wanted to return the favour by steering the writer towards the Catholic Church. Apparently, the character of Anthony Blanche, the homosexual dandy of Brideshead Revisited who stutters and recites poetry with a megaphone, was based – at least in part – on Acton.
England was only a parenthesis in latter’s life and he never stopped considering Florence as his real home. He loved the Italy of small homelands and universal values, of the Renaissance and of the Faith, which he presented and praised in the books dedicated to the Medici and the Bourbons as well as in his autobiography, Memoirs of an Aesthete, published in 1948. Inclined to delicate and floriferous phrases, Acton did not hold back even when it was time to openly denounce the arrogance of the fascists, in reaction to which he was led to enlist in the RAF during the Second World War.
He was also a tireless traveller. After university he tried, unsuccessfully, to live as a writer in Paris, after which he moved to China.. From 1932 to 1939 he lived in Beijing, where he learned to appreciate oriental culture, becoming one of the leading experts in Europe. Later he visited Southeast Asia and it was only with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war that he decided, albeit reluctantly, to go home.
In 1971, taking refuge in the tranquillity of Florence, he became the protagonist of the ecclesiastical chronicles since his signature appeared at the bottom of the appeal that would lead to the so-called “Agatha Christie Indult”: following the liturgical reforms promoted by the Second Vatican Council, some English intellectuals , including the famous author of detective stories, had signed a petition to ask for the preservation of the Tridentine rite in England. Paul VI, unable to ignore a request that came from such important names, resigned himself to accepting it.
In addition to Villa La Pietra – now owned by the University of New York – to Acton’s long career remain several historical and artistic essays, three novels, some collections of short stories and four volumes of poems.
Although a “minor” among British Catholic writers, he was nevertheless a fascinating figure, a proudly modern man who nonetheless never ceased to feel that he was the orphan of a mythical past characterised by order, chivalry and holiness.