The most Anglo American-styled library in Florence, the Harold Acton Library, is owned and operated by the British Institute of Florence. Contained on 2 ½ book-lined floors, the library allows full access to the stacks and provides knowledgeable assistance to the collection and extensive archives. The full catalogue is computerized and is available on-line. The Acton library contains the largest collection of English-language books in Italy.
There is a reading room, furnished with ancient over-stuffed couches and chairs, where both English and Italian newspapers and a variety of literary, economic, news and travel magazines completely cover the coffee table. Computers are available to use for a fee, but it is rumored that free wi-fi may be offered in the future.
The British Institute of Florence, established in 1917, granted a Royal Charter in 1923, was the first of the post-colonial British cultural institutes to operate overseas. The Institute’s objectives are “to promote understanding between the citizens of Italy and the countries of the British Commonwealth through the maintenance in Florence of a library illustrating Italian and British culture and the promotion of the study of both the English and Italian language and the cultures of both countries.”
The library, with its panoramic views of the Arno River, was born from dozens of small donated collections and has matured into the present compilation of over 50,000 volumes published between the 16th and 21st centuries. About 500 new titles are added each year.
The collection has a strong emphasis in history of art, English and Italian literature and language, history, travel, the Grand Tour (mostly undertaken by Brits and Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries), and music. The library has a couple of thousand literary novels by both American and British authors, mostly from the first half of the 20th century, enough to keep an expat busy catching up on a must-read list of the likes of Wharton, Austen, Henry James and Virginia Woolf.
The library was named after Harold Acton. Harold’s father, Arthur Acton, well-bred, but poor, was from Shropshire. His mother, Hortense Lenore Mitchell, was a banking heiress from Chicago. When Hortense married Arthur in 1903 they moved into the Villa La Pietra on the via Bolognese in Florence – a short time later she bought it for him.
Harold Mario Mitchell Acton was born at La Pietra in 1904, and grew up in the cultured and cosmopolitan Anglo-Florentine society before the First World War. He was sent to Eton and then to Christ Church, Oxford, where his contemporaries included Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Cyril Connolly, and Brian Howard.
Harold was an active member of the British Institute. He joined the governing board in 1950 and made available his apartments in the Palazzo Lanfredini (in the Oltrarno neighborhood downstream from the Santa Trinita Bridge) for the library in 1966.
When, in 1994, Harold died, he left his portion of the Palazzo Lanfredini to the British Institute and the Villa La Pietra and its surrounding properties to New York University.
The Harold Acton Library can be visited free of charge and offers a free well-attended lecture series on most Wednesday evenings. To check out books and use the internet, a variety of fees apply. See the website.
Address: Lungarno Guiccardini 9
Hours: 10am to 6:30pm, Monday through Friday