Although Spring started almost a month ago, Tuscany has enjoyed sunny beautiful weather only since a few days ago. It seems like the perfect condition to enjoy our magnificent gardens at the peak of their beauty.

Tuscany boasts an extraordinary number of villas and gardens. From the 15th century on, gardens were created for palaces or more often villas without interruption. This is a region where nature merges with art, past with present.

A garden calls for great care and attention, maintaining is often very expensive.

Let’s try to discover the one belonging to Villa La Pietra, near Florence.

La Pietra means “stone” in Italian and it marks the distance one Roman mile from the Florence city gate of San Gallo, today Piazza della Libertà. In the past this was the home of famous Florentine families: the Macinghi in the 14th century; the Sassetti from 1460-1545; the Capponi from 1545-1877, and the Incontri until the 20th century.

In 1903 Hortense Mitchell Acton, coming from a prominent Chicago banking family, and her husband Arthur Acton, a British painter and art dealer, rented La Pietra, attracting a group of culturally passionate expats.

For thirty years the couple enriched their house and garden with an art collection. The structure of Villa La Pietra still manifests its Renaissance origins: the floor plan is built around a once-open courtyard where the main axis extends through the house into the garden.

Austere grey and white vaulted rooms alternate with the later 18th Century frescoed rooms. In 1881 the courtyard was changed by the Incontris into an enclosed rotunda with a grand staircase leading to the second floor.

Upstairs the Actons had their bedrooms, a Ball Room and a Library. After the birth of their two children, Harold and William, Hortense bought the villa in 1907. The Actons became immersed in a society of writers, historians, politicians, actors, artists and art collectors among which William Merrit Chase, Sarah Bernhardt, Charles Loeser and the Berenson couple, Winston Churchill, Graham Greene, William Somerset Maugham and the Royal family of England.

During World War II, the villa was occupied by German troops and the art collection was confiscated by the Italian Government.

The Actons decided some decades later to donate La Pietra to a university with the expertise and vision to care for and benefit from the estate. This generous gift, including five villas and 57 acres, was granted to New York University upon Sir Harold’s death.

The artworks, building and garden have been officially listed as cultural heritage and fall under the protection of the Italian Ministry of Fine Arts.

The collection includes more than 5,500 art objects, furniture, outdoor sculpture and decorative arts ranging in date from Classical Antiquity to the 19th century. A library of 10,000 volumes with many first editions, a family archive and an important collection of over 17,000 historical photographs are also part of the Actons legacy.

Most of the works of art were bought during the first thirty years of the 20th Century. Today the house museum preserves the style of the Acton home, as it was maintained when Sir Harold left it to New York University.

The Actons enjoyed appropriating the symbol of the Medici family and thereby linking themselves to the greatest age of Florentine cultural patronage.

The garden of La Pietra is one of the most celebrated in Italy. As a Renaissance revival garden, it’s one of the best examples of its kind. Laid out from 1908 onwards, it drew its inspiration from the 16th-Century gardens of Florence such as the Boboli Gardens and the garden of Villa Medici in Castello.

One of the most famous features of the garden is the Teatrino, a theatre where a grass stage is enclosed by topiary side wings and footlights. It is animated with lively figures by the Veneto sculptor Antonio Bonazza. The walled kitchen garden or Pomario is the oldest part of the garden and here in winter the Limonaia houses over a hundred lemon and orange trees in terracotta pots. Along the rocaille-decorated walls, iris and yellow roses bloom and, in early spring, the odd violet may be spotted growing between them.

In 1999 New York University began a project to restore, to their 1930s heyday, all the gardens and agricultural land that make up the La Pietra estate. Based on the many photographs preserved in the photo archive of the villa, the period immediately before World War II is considered to be the moment which the estate reached its full splendor. In 2011 the restoration of the main La Pietra garden and the agricultural land was completed. Work on the outer gardens of the estate continues.

Villa La Pietra is the heart of NYU Florence, undergraduate and graduate study center. The undergraduate academic program accommodates approximately 350 students per semester. Many departments and schools of NYU also run summer and winter intersession programs and organize cultural activities on campus like workshops, alumni events, or venues for the performing arts.

Graduate programs at La Pietra also include the Program in Museum Studies and the Department of Italian Studies. NYU also organizes a series of initiatives: a season of cultural events is planned each summer, showcasing NYU talent and also drawing on the local performing arts community.

The Acton Miscellany, the Graduate Studies Seminar and the Megaphone, a series of lectures, readings and performances open to the local community, take place throughout the academic year.

La Pietra Dialogues brings together international experts to discuss some of the most important issues of contemporary society, from politics and international relations to immigration, human rights and the environment in a series of conferences and talks.

A program of weekly guided tours makes the art collection and garden available to the public.

Villa La Pietra is open to the public by appointment.

Guided tours of the collection and garden are available on Friday afternoons.

Guided tours of the Garden only are available on Tuesday mornings.

During the weeks starting the third Monday of April and October, guided tours are offered free of charge by appointment.

Elisabetta Marchi has been working as tour guide in Florence and Siena for the past 11 years. She likes to travel worldwide and has a personal website with a blog