* This post was originally written for the Villa la Pietra blog, where it will be posted later this summer. Villa la Pietra, bequeathed to NYU by Sir Harold Acton in 1994, is a site for collaboration between various university bodies, including the Conservation Center, whose students and faculty work to maintain the objects housed therein. Another of my classmates, Eve, has written about her experiences at the Villa here. *
This summer, I had the opportunity to visit Villa la Pietra for the first time, accompanying Quinn Ferris, a fourth-year student at the Conservation Center. Although staying for only two weeks, we made use of every spare minute we could get!
During our first week at the villa, we worked with Maria Fredericks, Drue Heinz Book Conservator at The Morgan Library & Museum. Our goal: to continue a survey, designed the previous year, of the Acton family’s library – including over 12,000 books spread across at least five rooms! Alongside the survey, we conducted stabilizing treatments on books that appeared to be in fragile condition. Since Villa La Pietra aims to preserve the house and its objects as it was during the 1920s and 30s – the Villa’s golden age – treatments that dramatically change the appearance of the books are not desirable, so our work had to be non-interventive.
The survey produced some really incredible finds. As a British intellectual in the early twentieth century, Sir Harold was friends with such greats as T. S. Eliot, Brian Howard and Evelyn Waugh – so his collection of books includes some that were signed by those same people. I was particularly charmed by a T. S. Eliot inscription where that incredible poet signed himself “Ted”; and have to admit I got a little weak at the knees when confronted with a signed copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover!
Other books were notable for their beautiful covers. Even the Acton family bookplates were stunning!
During this week, we had the opportunity to visit the Opificio delle pietre dure (OPD), a branch of the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage that functions as one of Italy’s two state art conservation schools and that is widely considered a global leader in the field. Here, we were shown around the paintings lab by Francesca Bettini, paintings restorer at the OPD. It was fascinating to see the restoration of such masterpieces as da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. I was particularly interested to learn that the restoration of pieces damaged by the 1966 flood in Florence still continues today.
Towards the end of the week, we held a small handling session for the Villa staff and interns, demonstrating the correct way to handle books and addressing questions regarding exhibition, photography, and cleaning and maintenance of the collection.
Our second week was divided between continuing our work on the library materials and working on paper objects with Margaret (Peggy) Holben Ellis, Eugene Thaw Professor of Paper Conservation at the Conservation Center and Director of the Thaw Conservation Center at the Morgan. Peggy’s main focus was the preparation of a folding screen for digitization. The screen was made of silk with paper elements, and had clearly undergone multiple campaigns of repair attempts. The level of deterioration of the silk has resulted in a complicated stabilization procedure which was begun last year and will continue next year.
Additionally, two charming aquatint portraits of Sir Harold and his brother, William, as boys, were brought to our attention by Francesca Baldry, Collection Manager at the Villa. She hoped to re-install them in the Villa for the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Sir Harold’s death, and his donation of the collection to NYU; however, one had been slightly damaged by exposure to water while the other was severely discolored. Our treatment of the prints addressed these aesthetic issues as well as the exhibition requirements, ensuring that they could be housed in their original frames without suffering further damage.
Working at the Villa is an amazing opportunity, not just to work with some lovely people and receive much needed practical treatment experience, but also to understand the issues related to working in a house-museum. Not to mention, of course, having endless amounts of gelato and exploring one of the most beautiful cities in the world!