The NYU/Purdue U NAVSA/AVSA La Pietra conference (May 17-20, 2017) will include a plenary lecture by Garrett Stewart, James O. Freedman Professor of Letters at the University of Iowa, as well as “material culture” workshops led by scholars largely on aspects of the La Pietra collection.  Workshop leaders include:  Francesca Baldry (NYU Florence), Dorothea Barrett (NYU Florence), Cristina Bellini (NYU Florence), Margherita Ciacci (NYU Florence), Jay Clayton (Vanderbilt), Dino Franco Felluga (Purdue), Hilary Fraser (Birkbeck), Jessamyn Hatcher (NYU), Leah Price (Harvard), Jonah Siegel (Rutgers), and Garrett Stewart (U Iowa). During this time, participants will also have a chance to choose one of two tours:  one to the English Cemetery (led by Julia Bolton Holloway of the Biblioteca e Bottega Fioretta Mazzei, Italy); one to visit the Victorian holdings of the National Archives, Florence, with its director, Carla Zarrilli, and Caterina del Vivo of ANAI Toscana, Italy.

See below for more information.  We will also have a special sequence of panels on Charles Darwin, with papers by David Amigoni, Isobel Armstrong, Miranda Butler, Gowan Dawson, Devin Griffiths, John Holmes, George Levine, Cannon Schmitt, James Secord, and Jonathan Smith.

In advance of the conference, Dino Franco Felluga and Catherine Robson will run a Professionalization Workshop for graduate students (May 15-17 and May 21, 2017), like the one run successfully at the 2013 NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA conference in Venice, Italy.

The lead organizers are Dino Franco Felluga (Purdue) and Catherine Robson (NYU).


The Collectors’ Interior: Time and Space through the Looking Glass

Francesca Baldry in reflection at La Pietra

“There is a place of dim, familiar things, of contacts vaguely subtle to the touch−I call it home; in my imaginings each detail is of value overmuch.” In 1923, a nineteen-year-old Harold Acton composed a Proustian ode about his family home at La Pietra. Ten years earlier, Jacques-Emile Blanche a friend of Marcel Proust, had depicted Harold with his father in one of the sitting rooms. Hundreds of archival photographs document the many villa’s arrangements, indicating a strong interest for the creation of a perfect art space. From the Goncourt brothers to Balzac, from D’Annunzio to Serao, from Vernon Lee to Henry James to Walter Benjamin, the bourgeois interior became a subject of creativity and an image of history and interiority. Conceived as a camera obscura, a theatre and a mirror, the Acton interior is characterized by a detailed-orientated vision and the constant reflection and dialogue of present and past, interior and exterior worlds. It is a place of fantasy where one repairs to be anywhere except in the here and now. With the aid of visual and literary sources, participants of this workshop will be invited to deconstruct and explore three rooms. We will compare patterns and motifs, track influences from other art interiors in Italy, Europe, USA, and the Far East, and finally trace a map of the origin of the collectors’ spaces and their ramifications into museums and exhibitions.  Seminar leader: Francesca Baldry

Romola at La Pietra and Other Stories: Speed-Dating Short Texts

Dorothea Barrett with a copy of Romola

In George Eliot’s Florentine Renaissance novel Romola (1862-63), there is a striking scene that takes place at the milestone on the Via Bolognese for which the Villa La Pietra is named. In Chapter 40, “An Arresting Voice,” Romola is leaving Florence and her husband with the intention of going to Cassandra Fidele in Venice and starting a new life as a scholar. She stops to rest at the milestone and is accosted by Fra Savonarola, who commands her to go back to her “place.” The scene is full of interpretative possibilities that we will explore together in a speed-dating workshop in which each participant chooses the quantity of material covered. Chapter 40 of Romola will be our starting point; we could then move on to writings by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, and Harold Acton (the Barrett Browning and Dickinson texts are interesting together in terms of literary influence; the Forster and Lawrence are contrasting descriptions of the Piazza della Signoria). If we get to these latter readings, we can extend our discussion to a comparison of Victorian and modern viewpoints on different aspects of the same multi-faceted object: the city of Florence. Seminar leader:  Dorothea Barrett

The Acton Family Library: A (book)case Study

Leah Price in Sir Harold Acton’s library

Can we reconstruct a family’s habits and feelings by examining the books that they left behind?  This seminar gives participants the opportunity to explore the library that Hortense, Arthur, William and Harold Acton assembled at Villa La Pietra.  Together we’ll look at signs of wear and tear (or lack therof) in selected volumes, including two copies of The Spoils of Poynton that contain dueling annotations by mother and son; duplicate copies of Pater’s Renaissance; a guidebook taken from a hire car, some marked-up bilingual dictionaries, and a children’s book.  But since in this collection as in most others, marginalia form the exception rather than the rule, we’ll also debate what we can and can’t glean from other forms of evidence: house layout, bookshelf organization, furniture design, and (where available) letters, diaries, account-books, visitors’ books, probate inventories, auction records.  Participants will be asked to introduce the session by describing their own research, and we’ll conclude by thinking about what aspects of the book-historical exercise we’ve just performed are specific to this collection, and which can inform research on, or teaching in, other library collections. Seminar leaders: Cristina Bellini & Leah Price

Botticelli and Victorian Culture                                                                  

Margherita Ciacci in the Villa La Pietra kitchen area

One Punch cartoon from 1894 quipped about the naiveté of the young dashing gentleman who, being asked whether he liked Botticelli, declared he preferred Chianti: “But that’s a cheese!” retorted the self-assured friend. By the end of the nineteenth century, Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) had become quite a familiar name for Victorian audiences. Aside from being used as an ingredient for low-brow humor, his work in Renaissance Florence had been hugely inspirational for the artists who, under the encouragement of John Ruskin, recognized themselves in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). Because of Botticelli’s iconic importance in the “idea” of Florence that was fabricated during the nineteenth century (especially at the hands of the English-speaking community)—and continues to pervade contemporary culture (vide the current “Botticelli Reimagined” Exhibition at the V&A)—the Workshop aims at discussing some of the elements that have been feeding and morphing into the present-day, multi-layered phenomenon. Taking our lead from Ruskin’s endorsements and sketching a brief overview of the PRB’s artistic achievements (through a PPT presentation), the participants’ attention will be drawn to a close examination of selected documents held by the Acton Library at Villa La Pietra. Amongst them, H. P. Horne’s opus magnum published in 1908 with the title Alessandro Filipepi, Commonly Called Botticelli, Painter of Florence. Besides this prized work, the Acton Library at Villa La Pietra holds also one copy of the essay that Horne, the architect and learned bibliophile, devoted to book-binding as well as issues of The Hobby Horse published quarterly (1884-94) by the Century Guild of Artists under H. P. Horne’s editorial care.  Seminar leader: Margherita Ciacci

The Virtual Aesthete: A Room, a Life, and a Legacy in 3D

Jay Clayton in Sir Harold Acton’s bedroom

The Virtual Aesthete will be a discussion and hands-on workshop in using digital pedagogy to model the literature and art of the past. Focusing on Harold Acton’s bedroom, we shall look at ways to transform Acton’s already virtual life as a twentieth-century “Victorian” aesthete into digitally available forms for teaching and research. Harold Acton crafted a life for himself in La Pietra as curator of his father’s collections, arranging rooms into virtual collages that mixed historical periods, artistic styles, and furniture into a living Wunder Kammer. We will explore how to do the same using contemporary digital media. The workshop will provide examples of some proven pedagogical approaches, such as having students compose Twitter fictions or remediate the setting and characters in a gaming environment, and then ask participants to share their own classroom strategies. We will conclude by constructing our own historical timeline of objects from Acton’s bedroom using the new timeline tool at The COVE. Please bring a digital camera or phone so that you can upload images for the collaborative timeline.  Seminar leader: Jay Clayton

A Momentous Edition of Sibling Sonnets

The original illuminated text drawing that D. G. Rossetti made of his poem for his mother’s birthday

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem, “The Sonnet,” is the first poem in the sonnet sequence House of Life.  This COVE edition will attempt what Dino Franco Felluga, one of the lead editors, is calling—inspired by the poem—a “momentous edition.” The other lead editor is Jerome McGann.  If we have time, we will also undertake together a close reading of Christina Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio.” As we close-read the poetry, an amanuensis will record our readings using The COVE’s annotation software. Our collective annotations will then be augmented over summer 2017 before being sent out for peer review. If all goes well, the final result of this work will be a collectively published edition in  COVE Editions, NAVSA’s new publication arm: http://covecollective.orgSeminar leaders: Dino Franco Felluga and Herbert F. Tucker

Victorian Vasari

Hilary Fraser in front of Giorgio Vasari’s Holy Family in the Sala da Pranzo

One of the prized paintings in the Acton Collection at Villa La Pietra is Giorgio Vasari’s Holy Family with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist. This sixteenth-century Mannerist work, splendid in its original ornate frame, formerly held pride of place above the fireplace of Arthur and Hortense Acton’s sumptuous bedroom, and now hangs in the Sala da Pranzo. The painting provides the focus of a workshop that looks at Vasari’s art and writing and his reputation and influence in the nineteenth century. Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, which played such a role in the renaissance of the Renaissance in Victorian England, helped form the Actons’ taste. Their library includes, as well as several editions of the Lives in Italian, French and English, a volume of Stories of the Italian Artists from Vasari for children, with Harold Acton’s childhood bookplate. It also contains a book on the house in nearby Arezzo that Vasari created for himself and his collection, whose dense pictorial decoration celebrates the life of the artist. This invites reflection on the house museum itself, on the private residence as a heterotopian space of collection and display, and on the ways in which art is intertwined with lives. Vasari’s choice of biography as the medium for his history of Renaissance art chimed with the Victorians’ own passion for life writing and the painting of modern (and historical) life, and we will think about his legacy in relation to forms of artistic representation in the nineteenth century.  Seminar leader: Hilary Fraser

Fashion and the Actons

One of Hortense Mitchell Acton’s dresses (with portrait), Villa La Pietra

A number of years ago, a conservator entered a storeroom at Villa La Pietra and stumbled on a pile of Louis Vuitton steamer trunks. She opened them and discovered a collection of exquisite dresses, the kind usually only seen in movies, or inside protective vitrines in museums. Closer inspection revealed silk labels, handwoven with the name “Callot Soeurs.” The dresses belonged to Hortense Mitchell Acton, the Chicago heiress who, in 1907, bought VLP.  As for the “Callot Soeurs”—the Callot Sisters—they are not much remembered now. Yet, not long after they opened their atelier, in 1895, they became one of the great names in Belle Époque fashion. Although she could not have known it at the time, the conservator had discovered the largest private collection of Callot Soeurs in the world. In this seminar, conducted in part in Villa La Pietra’s conservation lab, we will study the outside and inside of several examples of Hortense Mitchell Acton’s gowns, as they have been preserved, and as they have decayed, together creating a collective model of how to read the intimate, social, economic, and labor histories stitched into a dress.  Seminar leader: Jessamyn Hatcher

Reading in the House (with the City in Mind)

Jonah Siegel in the upstairs library, La Pietra

Michelangelo’s marble Day and Night at San Lorenzo; Botticelli ‘s painted Madonnas at the Uffizi; the blue and white terra cotta children festooning the facade of the foundling hospital at the Piazza Santissima Annunziata: these are just a few of the distinct aesthetic experiences available to the traveler to Florence today, much as they were in the Victorian period and for centuries before. The visitor to la Pietra finds more art, but not simply a domestic version of what is to be seen in Florence proper. Polychrome wooden sculpture, a Renaissance bas-relief made out of papier-mache, gilded paintings on wood panels, garden statues made not of marble, but of a more vulnerable stone. At city and villa, the real presence of objects makes unavoidable the encounter with material conditions only fully appreciable on site. This workshop will reflect on the intersection of the experience of the matter of art with speculation on its meaning. Florence and the villa will be in our minds as we work through a small selection of texts by John Ruskin, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and Vernon Lee (most of them revolving around Florentine art) with the goal of coming to terms with the ways in which major thinkers on art of the period mark the intersection between material experience and idea. We will also take the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which the collection in which we find ourselves—itself a manifestation of informed late-Victorian taste—does or does not instantiate the kinds of concerns present in our reading.  Seminar leader: Jonah Siegel

Reading Extensive and Intensive

Garrett Stewart in front of Palmezzano’s Saint Jerome in an Extended Landscape

For a site-specific workshop in a transmedial genre, the Acton villa offers a unique architectonic frame around representations of reading when housed within the outside-in ideals of Palladian space. A mansion of many libraries becomes a storehouse for the iconology of reading’s mystified inwardness. Amid dozens of painted saints with bibles, two images serve to bracket a 500-year trajectory of painted book culture in Western art (to be sampled by numerous slides). Within the strategic sightlines of the Villa’s windows and mirrors, these images project back from an inhabited room-with-a-view to a recessional depth not just wholly virtualized but differently figurative for the reading act. Close attention to the Renaissance emblematics of Palmezzano’s “Saint Jerome in an Extended Landscape” will elucidate the double phenomenological register of perspective’s outer and reading’s inner distances. We will then turn for contrast to a commissioned work by author-painter Jacques-Emile Blanche—known elsewhere for his portraits of turn-of-the-century writers like Henry James and George Moore—in which Arthur Acton oversees from behind his young son’s reading. Given their intensive and immersive nature, books in the normal ocular tropes of painting bring the outside in, containing little worlds in themselves. Here, however, the novice reader and his patriarchal superego appear in a sitting room of the Villa against a complex trompe l’oeil backdrop of strictly illusory depth, no longer “extended,” as in sacred reading, to the world it sanctifies and explicates, but closed on itself. Why? With what compositional impact? That’s where our inquiry will begin.  Seminar leader: Garrett Stewart