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Libraries in Florence: Harold Acton Library

british institute library florence italy

A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.

–Neil Gaiman

As long as I can remember, or actually before I even knew how to read, I have books. Flipping through pages that transformed fantasy into reality if just for a few hours was my ultimate happiness on dusty hot days in Texas. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t do all of the things I wanted, because through reading — I felt I could. Of course getting older means more responsibility, and sadly, a lot less free time.

I’ve gone through periods of not being able to finish a book when before I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without two or three tucked in a backpack. Every time we go away on a (relaxing) vacation, I load up my kindle and bring a few paperbacks that won’t might be crushed in my carry-on, and off we go, fantasies welcome. I happily trade hours of sleep to read those last, few pages. Florence is a wonderful place to be for those who love to read, simply because there are many libraries and quirky bookshops (and we all hope they survive) but people just need to know about them.

This new series on the blog is all about libraries and bookshops, as often as I can, I will feature an interesting place in town that has a relationship with the written word.

The first in the series is a recent find though it has been here for some time, the Harold Action Library of the British Institute. A place that Jeremy Boudreau, Head of History of Art, has described as ‘a place you can’t help but feel at home’. Indeed it does have that quirky vibe but one that I really get excited about.

books in florence italy | Girl in florence

You can find an extensive collection of books (including rare copies), interesting history of art lectures open to the public, and language and cultural programs.

British Institute florence

In the drawing room (I feel fancy writing that)

History | Pre-War Anglo-Italian Cultural Relations

This acclaimed institute has been a part of anglo-Italian cultural life since 1917 by like-minded scholars, and it also happens to be the oldest cultural institute from Britain operating overseas. Originally intended to combat anti-British propaganda in the end of the first World War.

The library itself  was named after Harold Acton in 1989. The son of a rich heiress from Chicago, his father had roots from Shropshire in England and they bought the Villa La Pietra after marrying. Upon his death he donated the villa to New York University and his apartments in the Palazzo Lanfredini to the British Institute in Florence. You can read more on this extraordinary man’s history here.

In pre-war Europe, places like this were a hotbed for thinkers, poets, writers in order to facilitate conversations and cultural exchanges between Italians and Brits. According to the British Institute “The Institute’s objectives, defined in the 1923 Charter, were 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.” This has still remained true today.

British Institute

The library wasn’t always in this location, first passing from Via della Vigna Nuova, then in Via de’ Conti, in 1923 the Institute moved to Palazzo Antinori in Via Tornabuoni (for over 40 years) before settling in Harold Acton’s former apartments since the 60’s.

harold action library Florence

The Harold Acton Library has one of the largest lending collections of books in English in continental Europe.

The Harold Acton Library Current Collection

About the collections,  the present collection hosts over 50,000 volumes of books published between the 16th and 21st centuries with about 500 new titles added every year. Essentially the largest lending library of English books in continental Europe. There is a particular focus on the History of Art, English and Italian literature and language, History, Travel, The Grand Tour, and Music. Rare books can also be found here, including many signed first editions.  There is also a digital collection, including music and dvd’s.

Since the British Institute receives no funding from the UK,  help is needed and the best way to get involved is to buy a book for the library *you can see a list of what they are currently coveting today.

Famous visitors the library include Princess Margaret,  patrons The Prince and Princess of Wales, the Duchess of Cambridge aka Kate Middleton (yes ma’am!) who came during her gap year in 2002 and Wanda Ferragamo (co-patron). It kind of reminds me of the film, Tea with Mussolini, a place where I pictured ladies huddling over tea in their posh British accents discussing the fast-changing society during WWII in Florence.

history of art florence italy

Become a library member

Membership to the library is open to all, students at the Institute get an automatic membership for the duration of their course. They have a wide range of memberships for families, students, associations and anyone who wants to join. Member benefits include access to internet and work-space, over 52,000 volumes of literature, borrowing up to four books a month, newspapers and journals in English and Italian, DVD loans, and special discounts to participating businesses like Mama’s Bakery and the Odeon Cinehall.

Never Stop Learning | History of Art Programs

Another very interesting aspect to this place is the fact that they also offer a wide range of interesting short or month-long history of art courses for anyone looking for a bit of self-enrichment from top professors along a wide range of subjects. This includes interactive and illustrated lectures, site-visits, and professional workshops. Each session lasts roughly an hour and half to two hours and a half and are held on weekdays with some exceptions.

I attended a lecture last month of Medici ‘Matronage’ by the amazing Lisa Kaborycha at the institute and I really enjoyed the experience. The feel is informal, interesting and creative, I wish I would have known about this before, I was fascinated from beginning to end. It is amazing just how cool it is ‘to learn’ without the pressures of exams or papers, just pure knowledge at it’s very best. An upcoming series that I find very interesting is that of ‘Florence in Festival’ in June, “discover the many Florentine traditions that take place during Renaissance festivals” by enrolling in one of their special programs from 22 to 27 of this June.

I like the fact that this is flexible, on your terms and open to the public. Perfect for those who are on a sabbatical, researching art history in the city or like me, just wanting to learn something about the city I live in and all of the incredible art it holds in a fun, relaxed environment. Anyone can enroll and the prices and additional upcoming programs can be found here. They also offer a number of bespoke programs with affiliated institutes which can be seen here. Previous and current themes include Women in Renaissance Art, Music in Art, Man in the Making.

Tea and Culture | Interesting Events Weekly

One thing I did hear about this library before finally coming to visit, was the weekly meetup every Wednesday at 6pm. This is beyond amazing because they are offering such a wonderful and interesting chance to not only learn something, meet new people  and enjoy a beautiful evening at such a low price, did you hear me say ‘five euros?!”

Usually this includes a lecture, concert or other event in the Sala Ferragamo in the Harold Acton Library followed by an informal drinks reception. If you aren’t a member of the library, no worries, to attend of these events you can get a daily membership at a very reasonable rate of 5 euros. Upcoming events include a piano concert on April 15th and plenty of lectures. Also don’t miss the film screenings which also include an informal discussion afterwards.

Every Thursday, they offer an afternoon tea at 4:30 pm which is open to the public. 

Inside the courtyard of this pretty palazzo

Inside the courtyard of this pretty palazzo

The British Institute of Florence
Lungarno Guicciardini 9, Firenze 50125, www.britishinstitute.it

History of Art Department, email: hoa@britishinstitute.it / +39 05526778268

Have you visited this library in Florence? What did you think? I would love to hear your thoughts on any other places like this in Florence I should know about. 

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7 Comment

  1. Reply
    Noelle
    07.04.2015 at 17:54

    Great post! When I was in Florence, I lived right down the street from the Biblioteca delle Oblate and I loved that library!

  2. Reply
    Gil
    07.04.2015 at 21:51

    Very interesting! I just visited places that I am sure I might not have seen if I went back to Florence again. Great pictures of the beautiful antique libraries and furnishings.

  3. Reply
    Amanda W.
    09.04.2015 at 17:09

    As a librarian, and someone planning a trip to Florence/Tuscany/Umbria this summer, I adored this post. Sadly, my little school library in Maryland is not nearly so picturesque. Thank you for sharing this!

    ~amanda

  4. Reply
    Giovanna
    11.04.2015 at 22:07

    I am definitely going to check out the tea on Thursday afternoons when I am in Florence this June. I have been wanting to do that for 3 years now and your post has spurred me on to make sure I do it this year! I like to “take tea” in different cities in the world to see how the custom varies. Thanks so much for your post it reminded me that I still want to do that in Florence.

  5. Reply
    Carol Schroeder
    15.04.2015 at 18:58

    Two years ago I spent 8 weeks in Florence. During four weeks I took one of the art history classes, the Dawn of the Remaissance at the British Institute. It was wonderfully varied with lectures somedays and tours on other days. The course was 2-3 hours every day. One nice feature is that if you can only take one week of the course that is OK. The BIF also has some new one week only courses. Check their website. Everyone is very friendly and the library is fully available to you while you take the course, allowing you to even check out books. If you want to do research or browse for just a day you can do that for €5. I am not an Italian speaker and this was a wonderful English -speaking oasis. I hope to return for another course.

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      16.04.2015 at 11:47

      Hello Carol! I am so happy you have been to the BIF, they are quite the fun team of lecturers. I like that the vibe is casual and very academic, I never felt like I couldn’t ask plenty of questions and delve a little more into a bit of self-enrichment with their extensive course list. I like the idea that you can visit even just for the day even if I think the memebership is a great deal. I plan on going to their Wednesday/tea dates very soon! I’ll cross my fingers that you make it back!

  6. Reply
    Robin Plapp Killoran
    19.04.2015 at 3:07

    This will definitely be one of the first places I visit when I arrive in August! I’d read about it in other places on-line, but this post is the best informational one I’ve found….thanks!

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