SHADOW OF THE LAST AESTHETE

In his Tuscan palazzo, Sir Harold Acton created what he hoped would be an enduring idyll. Two years after his death, the dream has turned sour

SIR HAROLD ACTON was never entirely part of the modern world. Holding court at his grand villa in the hills above Florence, he epitomised the British fascination with Renaissance Italy. His was a universe of beauty and refinement, of fine art and letters, of elegant manners and carefully tailored clothing. The bright young men, faded literati, art experts and occasional royalty who came to pay their respects over afternoon tea saw him as a living symbol of a bygone age - the Last Aesthete, as he liked to be called. For him, the vulgarity and sordidness of the late 20th century began beyond the gatehouse of his 57-acre estate, La Pietra; it was an age he neither knew nor sought to understand.

But now, two years after his death at the age of 89, the modern world is catching up with him, slowly encroaching on what he spent his life guarding and, in the process, sending frissons of scandal through the Tuscan hills.

Some things are as he foresaw and provided for. The house-servants are gone, as are the celebrity visitors and tea parties. In their place are the administrators and fledgling student classes of New York University, named as the estate's new owners in Sir Harold's will; NYU, which won the right to take over La Pietra after Oxford, Acton's alma mater, turned it down, is in the process of converting the place into a conference and study centre with the Acton art collection as its centrepiece. But other recent developments would have filled the old man with horror.

Most sensational has been the unexpected appearance of Liana Beacci, a 78-year-old Florentine lady who claims to be Sir Harold's illegitimate half-sister and has now thrown herself into a legal campaign to have her parentage officially recognised. Not only is she out to prove that Sir Harold's father, Arthur Acton, was her own; she also means to go on and demand as much as half of the family inheritance for herself.

According to Signora Beacci, it has been well known for decades in the Acton circle that she was the offspring of an illicit liaison between Arthur Acton and his secretary, Ersilia Beacci. As she tells it, the affair was hushed up and in 1917 Ersilia left La Pietra (already the Acton family home), a few months before giving birth to her. In due course Ersilia set herself up as a hotel-keeper in a smart palazzo, almost certainly bought for her by her former employer, on Florence's main shopping street, the Via Tornabuoni. Liana Beacci claims she has letters from her alleged father showing his affection, as well as portraits he painted of her. She says she was on close terms with him right up to his death in 1953, and remained in sporadic contact with Sir Harold thereafter. Her claim on the inheritance is based on the fact that Arthur died intestate; under Italian law, an illegitimate child in her situation is entitled to a portion of the deceased parent's estate.

Signora Beacci's story is troubling on several fronts, not least because the circumstances of her birth are generally held to be true. Arthur Acton was well-known for his extramarital affairs and was reputed to have sired a whole clutch of illegitimate children. The Beacci story even made it, in coded form, into a novel, The Ant Colony, by a one-time visitor to La Pietra, Francis King. Under the circumstances, Sir Harold's legatees, who include the British Institute of Florence as well as NYU, have been forced to take Signora Beacci's case seriously, applying their full legal weight to trying to prevent her from having her putative father's remains exhumed for DNA testing, as her lawyers are demanding. Her claims could pose a threat to both the financial basis and the spirit of Sir Harold's will, which stipulates that the stunning collection of painting, sculpture and furniture brought to La Pietra by Arthur Acton must remain at the villa. If she wins her case, she may earn the right to cart off some of the priceless medieval Madonnas, inlaid wooden cabinets and silk tapestries for herself.

Andrea Scavetta, who is one of the executors of Acton's will as well as the lawyer acting for NYU, argues that, even if everything went Beacci's way, she would still have no claim on La Pietra because it belonged not to Arthur Acton but to his American wife, the Chicago banking heiress Hortense Mitchell. "Arthur was a rather impoverished English aristocrat and his estate was very small," Scavetta said, "so by the time the court calculates her share and subtracts the value of the palazzo on Via Tornabuoni - which she has already 'inherited' - it might find not only that she is entitled to nothing but that she actually owes us something."

There are other reasons to object to her claim. Why, if her case is based on Arthur's estate, did she wait until the death of his son before she acted? Why, if all she wants is justice, is she also attacking the reputation of her half-brother, whom she accuses of resting on the laurels of his more accomplished father? Having grown rich on the Via Tornabuoni property and marriage to an Italian aristocrat, la Beacci is not exactly down to her last 50,000 lire, either. Approached for an interview for this article, she said she did not have time: first her house was being refurbished, and then she was leaving for successive trips to Paris and Skiathos.

So far, the paternity case has gone through one civil tribunal and one appeal court, with the lower court favouring NYU and the upper one Signora Beacci; a final appeal hearing is expected to give a last adjudication on whether to proceed in the next few months. But there is more to the saga than the question of how far Signora Beacci gets in the Italian courts. Her actions have already wreaked the worst kind of damage imaginable to Sir Harold's closest friends and admirers, because she has cracked open the hermetically sealed world of La Pietra and exposed it to public embarrassment. In the rarefied atmosphere of aesthetic purity and Edwardian good manners cultivated in Sir Harold's Florentine house on the hill, sordid matters like sex and infidelity don't bear thinking about. According to such a value system, to know about the existence of an illegitimate child is merely unpleasant; to hear it discussed in public is the height of vulgarity.

Liana Beacci has not been the only person to break this taboo of discretion. Last July, the American writer David Plante published a profile of Acton in the New Yorker, which - in addition to speculating about Acton's possible illegitimacy and dwelling unpleasantly on the probable suicide of Harold's brother William - dared to address the issue of Acton's homosexuality. Plante discussed the years Sir Harold spent at Oxford as a "virile aesthete- dandy". He talked about Acton's years in China in the Thirties where his predilection for young boys caused him to be described in a classified government document as a "scandalous debauchee" and prevented him from serving in China in the intelligence services when war broke out. Perhaps worst of all, Plante talked about Acton's fondness for the company of young men at La Pietra, particularly the German photographer and artist Alexander Zielcke, who first came on to the scene in the Sixties and remained Sir Harold's closest companion for the rest of his life, living at La Pietra with him for 25 years.

Grubby, unpleasant, ghastly - such were the terms in which Plante's article was dismissed by the expatriate British community in Florence. Whether Plante was right or not seemed secondary, although even here the comments of Acton's admirers were revealing. "He was more asexual than anything else," said the author AN Wilson. "To call him homosexual would be to misunderstand the whole essence of his being." In other words, so strong was Harold Acton's sense of propriety and composure that it was hard to imagine him taking off his crisp silk ties, let alone any more intimate articles of clothing.

Such attitudes, which seem to come straight out of EM Forster or Henry James, only begin to make full sense in the context of La Pietra itself. The villa gets its name from the first Roman milestone on the old road from Florence to Bologna, and sits at the foot of the hill climbing up from the city centre towards Fiesole. It is an imposing 15th-century building set in idyllic rolling parkland covered in olive trees, with a haunting view across to Brunelleschi's warm red cathedral cupola and Giotto's campanile. Arthur Acton, heir to a dying line of Anglo-Italian aristocrats from Naples, bought the property in Florence in 1903, the year before Harold was born, using some of the money his wife Hortense had inherited from her family of Chicago bankers.

It was here that Arthur Acton, with the support of his friend Bernard Berenson who lived at the nearby Villa I Tatti, built up his lucrative art dealership, buying up medieval and Renaissance art on the cheap and selling on all but his favourite pieces to the gilded families of east- coast America. It was here, too, that Harold first suffered from his parents' obvious preference for his more outgoing brother William, that he fought against his father's wish for him to go into business and saw his mother degenerate into alcohol-soaked depression as she sat around in her favourite Chinese Mandarin outfits complaining about the Italians and making appointments with her Swiss hairdresser.

Astonishingly, this was the world that Harold chose to pickle in time after his father died in 1953 and La Pietra became his. Whether out of insecurity at his own relative failure as a man of letters (his early novels and historical essays received indifferent reviews) or out of a deep sense of loyalty towards his parents, he preserved his father's art collection exactly as it was, and ordered the ground staff to preserve the vegetable garden the way Arthur Acton had built it up in the 16th- century Tuscan manner.

But La Pietra was also perhaps Sir Harold's salvation, for it was here that he blossomed as a conversationalist, letter-writer and erudite gossip. He was knighted not for any literary achievement, but for his contribution to Anglo-Italian life, in particular an offer to house the British Institute library for a nominal rent at Palazzo Lanfredini, a family property in central Florence. Thanks to him, Oxbridge graduates of a certain type on their Grand Tours of Europe could step out of the Florence of loud scooters, cheap pizzas and reflective shades and sink back into the glow of the Mitfords, Cecil Beaton, Evelyn Waugh, Osbert Sitwell and the rest of the Thirties generation. Real life was left safely behind: Sir Harold had only one telephone in his 60-room mansion, and was so unaccustomed to the vulgarities of cash that on the rare occasions when he ate out in town his companions usually ended up picking up the tab to prevent embarrassment.

Almost as soon as he had inherited La Pietra, Sir Harold started looking for a suitable institution to take over after his death. Both his old college, Christ Church, and Oxford University itself turned the place down in a piece of bureaucratic shortsightedness described by the British Institute's librarian, Mark Roberts, as "comatose". Forced to look elsewhere, Sir Harold allowed himself to be inspired by the example of Bernard Berenson, who left I Tatti to Harvard, and picked NYU on the recommendation of his American art historian friends.

Surprisingly little of the old atmosphere has altered, even two years after Acton's death. There, in Sir Harold's study, is the desk calendar still reading 27 February 1994, the day he died, and next to it a pair of his glasses, neatly folded beneath a black and white photograph of his mother. In the drawing-room, just to one side of a window bay scattered with old Sotheby's magazines, sits the red upholstered armchair where Sir Harold liked to sit, the imprint of his bottom still evident in the gently fraying cloth.

Even more remarkable, perhaps, are the rooms stuffed full of artworks that were closed off and wired with alarms for decades. These are a treasure trove of reliefs, sculptures and paintings of inestimable value: Madonnas of all styles, including examples from the workshops of Ghiberti and Donatello; magnificent 15th-century inlaid cabinets, Della Robbia painted ceramics, and a Vasari painting; painted Venetian statues of Moorish boys; Chinese vases from various periods; and on and on it goes. "Absolutely everything is in place as his parents had it, every lacquered table," said Michael Mallon, former secretary to Harold Acton's art historian friend, the late John Pope-Hennessy, and now literary executor for both men. "Nothing has ever been moved."

It is hard to estimate the value of the artworks as nobody has yet been through and catalogued them properly. NYU has talked of tentative figures between $100m and $500m. Some art historians suggest the collection is more of a curiosity than a trove of masterpieces, with only the Vasari approaching world-class standard; others, however, believe it could contain material capable of significantly deepening their understanding of the late medieval and Renaissance periods.

Besides the art, throughout La Pietra there are bookcases, cabinets and closed rooms stuffed with letters and papers which have yet to be examined. One can only guess what gems are stored there, given Harold Acton's copious correspondence with all the leading members of the "Brideshead" generation as well as artists such as Picasso and Jean Cocteau. All of which leads us to another little controversy: how come it is taking so long to start reading and cataloguing these things?

Edward Chaney, an Oxford academic who was for a time lined up as Acton's literary executor, says Acton's wishes have not been respected and that people who once had free access to papers and documents now have next to none. Chaney knew Acton well in the Seventies and Eighties and collaborated on a number of books with him. But, in the latter years, Chaney found himself frozen out by Sir Harold's entourage, his telephone messages and letters unanswered even though he says his personal relations with Acton remained warm to the end.

According to Michael Mallon, though, all is in order, and, as far as the literary estate is concerned, there is no rush. One set of correspondence, with Norman Douglas, has been sifted by a scholar writing a biography of Acton's fellow Italophile. The rest, he says, will surely follow. But several researchers say they have requested permission to see parts of Acton's copious correspondence only to encounter stonewalling. There have even been murmurings from some of the aggrieved parties about a "homosexual mafia".

Much of the ill feeling centres around Alexander Zielcke, Acton's German companion, whose protectiveness of Sir Harold during his lifetime appears to have alienated a number of old friends. Zielcke still lives on La Pietra's estate but keeps himself very much to himself, painting vast abstract paintings (having given up photography) and keeping the family treasures bequeathed to him, including Hortense Acton's jewellery.

Once again, the old man's reputation appears to be compromised. Talk of gay cliques and bickering over his estate would no doubt have appalled Sir Harold just as much as David Plante's indelicate probings. With every new dispute, the myths associated with Harold Acton are proving harder and harder to maintain. The old Edwardian veneer is already chipping away. Who knows how much longer his strange, impeccably civilised but almost unworldly presence will survive? !

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