Villa I Tatti is located on an estate of olive groves, vineyards and gardens on the border of Florence and Fiesole. For almost sixty years it was the home of Bernard Berenson (1865–1959), the connoisseur whose attributions of early Italian Renaissance painting guided scholarship and collecting in this field for the first half of the twentieth century. It houses the Berenson collection of Italian primitives, and of Chinese and Islamic art, as well as a research library of 140,000 volumes and a collection of 250,000 photographs.
In 1900 Bernard Berenson married Mary Whitall Pearsall Smith, who had formerly been married to the British politician, Frank Costelloe. Mary Berenson came from a liberal Quaker family from Philadelphia, and had two daughters from her previous marriage, but the marriage to Berenson remained childless. The couple moved to I Tatti shortly before their marriage, first renting the property from the expatriate English aristocrat, John Temple Leader, and then in 1907 buying it outright from Temple Leader’s heir, Lord Westbury. Between 1907 and 1915 the seventeenth-century farmhouse became a Renaissance-style villa under the direction of the English architect and writer Geoffrey Scott, while a formal garden in the Anglo-Italian Renaissance style was laid out by the English landscape architect Cecil Pinsent.
Berenson envisaged Villa I Tatti as a “lay monastery” for the leisurely study of Mediterranean culture through its art. He was against academic production, specialization, degrees, and what are now called in the Italian academic world “titoli,” and instead prized the slow maturing of ideas in tranquil contemplation. He considered his own achievement to lie as much in conversation as in writing.
Berenson died at the age of 94 in 1959 after bequeathing the estate, the collection, and the library to Harvard University. “Villa I Tatti, The Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies,” as it was officially named, opened its doors to six fellows in 1961. In the intervening five decades since then it has welcomed over 700 fellows and visiting scholars from the United States and Canada, almost all of the European countries east and west, as well as Japan and Australia.
Berenson’s esteem for Harvard dated from his youth. He arrived in Boston at age ten as a poor Jewish immigrant from Lithuania. His brilliance was soon recognized and, after finishing the Boston Latin School and completing a year at Boston University, he was supported through Harvard College by wealthier members of Boston society, graduating with the class of 1887. His interests there were in literature and ancient and oriental languages. He trained himself as a connoisseur of early Italian painting by travel throughout Europe and especially Italy, beginning in 1887. As early as 1915 he expressed his intention to leave his house and library to Harvard, and he reaffirmed his intention in 1937, in a letter published in the fiftieth-anniversary volume of his Harvard class. However, Fascism, war, and post-war travail in Italy made Harvard hesitate, and the bequest was only formally accepted by the Harvard Corporation at the time of Berenson’s death in 1959, opening its doors to the first class of fellows in 1961. “Villa I Tatti, The Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies” is thus owned and administered by Harvard University, but it is not the typical American student program abroad. Rather, Harvard conceives of Villa I Tatti as an international institution for the advancement of Italian Renaissance studies on the post-doctoral level. Villa I Tatti is one of three centers for advanced research in the humanities belonging to Harvard but located outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The others are Dumbarton Oaks, founded in 1940 for Byzantine, pre-Columbian and garden and landscape studies, and the Center for Hellenic Studies, founded in 1962, both in Washington, D.C.
While remaining true to the principal outlines of Berenson’s vision, Harvard altered Berenson’s intended structure by admitting other fields than art history. History and literature were present from the beginning of the Center’s existence as a Harvard research institute, and music followed upon the establishment of a library in music history, generously funded by gifts from Elizabeth and Gordon Morrill. It was Harvard’s insistence on a mix of fields that gives I Tatti its distinctive character. Although “interdisciplinary” was not much in use as a term in 1961, the Center was effectively an interdisciplinary institution from the start.
I Tatti offers Fellows the precious time they need to pursue their studies with a minimum of obligations and interruptions together with a maximum of scholarly resources, a combination that distinguishes the Harvard Center from most others. I Tatti Fellowships provide recipients with a unique opportunity to explore problems and questions collaboratively, and receive valuable feedback from other members of the community during the fellowship period..
Each year fifteen full-year fellows are chosen from about 110-120 applicants. All have the doctorate at the time of application but are still in the early phase of their careers. Senior distinguished scholars are not eligible for the fellowship, but every year the director invites some who come without stipend as Visiting Professors in Residence. In a given year perhaps a third of the fellowships tend to be in art history, a third in history, and a third in literature and music. There are no quotas of nation. About half of the fellows over almost 50 years have been from the United States and Canada and half from other countries.
In addition to the fifteen year-long fellowships there are a number of short-term awards aimed at specific groups. A limited number of Mellon Visiting Fellowships, for periods ranging from three to six months, are available each academic year for advanced research in any aspect of the Italian Renaissance. This Fellowship is designed to reach out to Italian Renaissance scholars from areas that have been under-represented at I Tatti, especially those living and working in Asia, Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula and the Mediterranean basin (except Italy and France) and the Islamic countries. There is a similar three-month award, called the Craig Hugh Smyth Fellowship, for Renaissance scholars whose career paths do not normally allow sabbaticals or afford extended summer vacations, such as museum curators.
Berenson described I Tatti as a library with a house attached. Library spaces were added to I Tatti in 1909, 1915, 1923 and 1948-54. The shelf space created during Berenson’s lifetime was doubled in 1985 when an additional section, the Paul E. Geier Library, was created in one of the former farm buildings. The wing of the library built by Berenson in 1948-54 was recently renovated by the Roman architectural firm of Garofalo and Miura and renamed in honor of I Tatti’s third director and his wife, Craig Hugh Smyth and Barbara Linforth Smyth. Opened in October 2009, the new Smyth Library effectively doubled both the wing’s original shelving capacity and the number of workspaces available there.
At his death Berenson left a large personal library of 50,000 volumes, principally dedicated to Mediterranean culture seen through its art and archeology. It also included significant holdings in Chinese, Indian and Near Eastern art, reflecting his collecting interests in those fields. The books were located in a library designed by Cecil Pinsent in 1915 but also scattered throughout the house. It was not conceived as an interdisciplinary Renaissance library from the beginning but as a reflection of Berenson’s personal interests. Italian literature was not strongly represented and music was absent. During the early decades of the institution’s life it became a priority to flesh out the library’s holdings in areas of Renaissance studies not collected by Berenson himself, and to initiate periodical subscriptions in these fields.
Transformed from a rich but idiosyncratic personal library into a modern research library, the Biblioteca Berenson aims to provide comprehensive research-level coverage of current scholarly publications in all fields of Italian art, architecture, history, science, medicine, society, culture and literature approximately from 1200 to 1650. Research tools are also acquired in adjacent fields such as northern Europe in the same period, medieval studies, and Byzantine and Islamic cultures around the Mediterranean, especially where these relate to Renaissance Italy. It tries to provide modern editions of many of the works of Greek and Latin literature. Currently it holds some 140,000 volumes, which include 106,000 books, 7,000 offprints, 14,000 auction catalogues, and 23,000 periodical volumes. Over 600 periodicals are currently received, most with complete runs from the start of publication.
In 1993 I Tatti joined with three other research libraries in Florence to form a consortium for joint, on-line cataloging, IRIS, which now counts seven member libraries. The Biblioteca Berenson is also one of the 73 libraries that form the Harvard College Library and its holdings are accessible through the Harvard on-line catalogue, HOLLIS. In addition, the considerable electronic resources available through the Harvard library are also available at I Tatti, which makes it one of the largest collections of electronic resources in Italy.