The Villa la Pietra, a renaissance villa near Florence, Italy, is the former home of art collectors Arthur and Hortense Acton, and later their son, Sir Harold Acton, a British writer and scholar. Upon his death in 1994, it was bequeathed to New York University, which aims to maintain the estate in the manner of the Acton family. NYU has always prioritized conservation of the collection, which comprises thousands of art objects as well as a library of about 12,000 volumes that reflect the varying tastes of the different Acton family members, from Hortense Acton’s garden books to Sir Harold Acton’s collection of early Modernist works. There are several valuable first editions, including some that are signed by the authors.
In 2013, two students from NYU’s Conservation Center began a survey of the library collection under the supervision of Maria Fredericks, Drue Heinz book conservator at the Morgan Library & Museum. The survey aimed to catalog the condition of the individual volumes in the collection and identify issues that would affect their preservation in the immediate future as well as in the long term.
The library collection is housed in five different spaces – the main Biblioteca, the Studiolo, the Biblioteca di Sopra, the garrett, and the office of the Villa Director, Ellyn Toscano. As such, the first year of the survey identified the types of materials held in each area, while also noting specific environmental and condition issues that related to the volumes and the places in which they were housed. As volumes with immediate condition issues were examined, they were brought to the conservation lab for stabilization treatments.
In 2014, I was part of a similar team of two students led by Ms. Fredericks focused on the areas of the collection that received the most attention and use during the academic year. Based on discussions with Francesca Baldry, Collection Manager at the Villa, the Biblioteca di Sopra became the priority for the year’s survey and repair activity, along with the garden books in the Studiolo, which see frequent use. A third priority was the completion of enclosures for large-format items that had been identified during the previous year’s survey as items in need of additional protection and support. In addition, repairs were conducted on books that had been requested by scholars over the course of the year, and had been identified as being in need of treatment.
During our second week at the Villa la Pietra, Maria Fredericks was replaced by Margaret Holben Ellis, Eugene Thaw Professor of Paper Conservation at the Conservation Center and Director of the Thaw Conservation Center at the Morgan Library & Museum. While I assisted Ms. Ellis with the treatments of works on paper, my colleague continued the library survey.
Over the course of the two weeks, our team surveyed 178 items, and treated and/or rehoused 66 books. Two aquatint portraits of Harold Acton and his brother, William, had also been treated to reduce light staining and tide lines, and significant work conducted to stabilize a double fan silk screen with decorative paper elements. In addition to the survey and treatments, there was also discussion of steps towards ensuring the long-term preservation of the collection. To that end, we organized a session on the safe handling and cleaning of books, led by Ms. Fredericks. This session was attended by Villa la Pietra staff, consulting conservators, and students from NYU’s Museum Studies program, who were interning at the Villa over the summer. To ensure that items continued to be handled safely during the absence of conservators, a document outlining guidelines on handling and cleaning books was compiled for staff to refer to over the course of the year. In addition, we made recommendations as to the care and housing of books, such as the installation of dust protection for the books in the Biblioteca di Sopra.
While our time in Florence was short and the facilities available to us limited in resources, we were able to make a significant contribution towards the long-term preservation of the collection.
This project would not have been possible without the support and collaboration of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Villa la Pietra staff.
All content copyright Saira Haqqi, 2016.