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Sir Harold Acton gives a US college his Renaissance

Sir Harold Acton has decided to bequeath to New York University his five villas and his Tuscan garden, just north of Florence, with all that lies therein. Priceless examples of early Renaissance paintings and sculpture, for example, and a Chinese Buddha from the 13th or 14th century, and thousands of rare books and manuscripts.

The announcement made the front page, and why not? Friends of young Harold 50 years and more ago would have regarded this event as only slightly less of a wonder than a solar eclipse.

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Sir Harold was a close friend to Evelyn Waugh at Oxford, and later served at his wedding as best man. Waugh, not a notably charitable fellow, has provided the most generous as well as the most vivid portrait of Acton in his youth: ''Slim and slightly Oriental in appearance,'' Harold occupied the ''many platforms of Oxford with inimitable zest,'' speaking ''with a lilt and resonance and in a peculiar vocabulary that derived equally from Naples, Chicago, and Eton.''

Waugh concluded: ''He intended to stir us up, and he succeeded abundantly.''

Young Acton had the courage to stir up the fierce Waugh by complaining that his first novel contained too much ''nid-nodding.''

Waugh responded with unwonted meekness by praising Acton's own first novel, titled ''Humdrum,'' as ''most competent.''

A stranger might cast Sir Harold as the quintessential Oxford fop. In his ''Memoirs of an Aesthete'' he does his share of posing. He laments ''the last days of the great hostesses,'' who understood that ''conversation should touch on everything but concentrate on nothing.''

He admired a friend who stationed his spinet in his Rolls-Royce.

He made a point of having a phone but not answering it, cultivating the small eccentricities obligatory for an Englishman of his generation who wished to hold his own with friends like Osbert and Edith Sitwell.

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How do we get from this dandy young Acton to the sedate English gentleman in fond Italian exile who is leaving his all to an American college? The journey seems almost as circuitous as the voyage from the New York University campus in Washington Square to Sir Harold's Florentine mansion, Villa La Pietra, a 60-room house of honey-colored stone built in the 15th century - 400 years before New York University was founded.

Once again, Waugh - a man of vast contradictions himself - would have known how to reconcile the two Actons. Sir Harold had an American mother, and always possessed, Waugh argued, an American ''gusto.'' The ''one quality he despised,'' Waugh recalled, ''was languor'' - that un-American vice. In all things he was as ''exuberantly appreciative'' as an American can be.

Sir Harold seems to have been drawn to New York University because he judged its Institute of Fine Arts to be ''the best such teaching institute in the world'' - almost as ''exuberantly appreciative'' as himself.

Life, Sir Harold wrote in his memoirs, should be a matter of ''exaltation and delight . . . friendships, colors, and emotions.''

Could an American aesthete have said it better?

What Sir Harold may be doing is putting together European experience and American enthusiasm to stage a masterpiece of an international happening.

At least it is edifying to imagine the scene as the first visiting New York University professor, Manhattan taxi horns still ringing in his ears, strolls down the cypress-lined walk leading from the gatehouse to the Villa La Pietra while 400-year-old statues and a puckish Anglo-Florentine-American cosmopolite watch.

Evelyn Waugh could have made a novel out of it.

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