Monday, June 21, 2010

If you've read my Tuscany and Umbria book, you know that I mention the Anglo-American community in and around Florence, specifically with regards to Sir Harold Acton's Villa La Pietra and Bernard Berenson's Villa I Tatti. It bears repeating that I urge visitors to Florence to set some time aside to leave the city proper and head for the hills surrounding it -- the views of Florence from the outskirts of the city are beautiful, and you can have some idea of what it was like to live here during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the period when the Anglo-American community was largest.

An interesting and beautiful book to page through before you go or when you get back is Paradise of Exiles: The Anglo-American Gardens of Florence by Katie Campbell (Frances Lincoln, London,,%202009/). Campbell notes that by 1869, 30,000 of Florence's 200,000 residents were British or American and by 1900 anglophones represented one sixth of the resident population. The British already had a history of coming to Florence, notably after 1815, when the Napoleonic Wars ended. In 1820, Campbell informs us, Percy Bysshe Shelley invited his cousin to join him in Florence, and he referred to his adopted city as 'the paradise of exiles, the retreat of pariahs.' "To many the Italian peninsula was associated with liberality -- Napoleon having refused to criminalise homosexuality during his brief tenure as Emperor of Italy. Nonetheless not all the city's expatriates were sexual outcasts or social misfits."

The Anglo-Americans bought the villas that had been abandoned during the time of Italy's unification, and though many of them were writers and artists and art historians, horticulture was also a topic of great interest among them. But Campbell's book, though filled with lots of great black- and-white and color photographs and illustrations of the villas' gardens, is equally a history of this community. In addition to La Pietra and I Tatti, the villas featured include Janet Ross' Poggio Gherardo, Lady Paget's Torre di Bellosguardo, Mabel Luhan's Villa Curonia, Sir John Temple Leader's Viollage Maiano, Sir George Sitwell's Montegufoni, Sybil Cutting's Villa Medici, and her daughter Iris Origo's La Foce, among others. Among Americans mentioned who rented villas in and around Florence are the sculptor Hiram Powers and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote, "I hardly think there can be a place in the world where life is more delicious for its own simple sake than here."

The Anglo-American community in Florence stayed intact through the First World War, and not until the eve of the Second World War, when Italy sided with the Axis, did its idyll finally end. "Overnight English and American residents found themselves enemy aliens. Reluctantly they dispersed, returning to homelands which were no longer home." Many of the villas were then sold to affluent Italians. The only two members of the community who remained, simply because they didn't have anywhere else to go, were Bernard Berenson and Harold Acton, and both of their villas were bequeathed to academic institutions (I Tatti to Harvard, La Pietra to New York University).

Paradise of Exiles is one of the few illustrated books focusing exclusively on the Anglo-Americans in Florence, and it's a fascinating look at the life they created there. A lsit of villas open to the public appears at the back of the book.

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