General Collection


Consistent with the scholarly mission of the Harvard Center, since the early 1960s the development of the library’s collections in all formats has focused mainly on Italy in the “long” Renaissance from roughly 1200 to 1650, and on closely associated subjects. This emphasis diverges from the profile of the private library that Harvard inherited from Bernard Berenson, which while large and distinguished owed more to the eclectic interests and passions of its founders than to any systematic design.

The original collection ranged widely across subjects and genres from the ancient world to the twentieth century, highlighting in its scholarly core the growth of Western visual culture from antiquity through the early modern period. Outside Berenson’s own fields of expertise in Italian Renaissance painting and drawing, his library gave no particular prominence either to Italy or to the Renaissance, and its holdings for the history, literature, and music of the period were meager or lacking altogether.

In the context of the new research center, then, with its multi-disciplinary scope within a much narrower geographic and time frame, much of the library’s collection had to be built painstakingly from the foundations up. Over the past decades the library has made great strides in tailoring the collections to the Center’s mission and evolving to meet the information needs of modern scholars.


Though it was more selective in the early years, the library now aims to provide comprehensive research-level coverage of current scholarship on the history, fine and applied arts, music, literature, religion and philosophy, law, politics, science and medicine, and other aspects of late medieval and early modern Italy. It also collects significant works in the allied fields of classical and medieval studies and texts, Byzantine, Islamic, and Mediterranean studies, Renaissance Europe, and the world at that time even farther to the east and west. In music history, a post-Berenson addition to the library, the collection ranges more widely on European subjects, and the Morrill Music Library (see below), established as part of the Biblioteca Berenson in 1964, has become one of the most comprehensive research collections in Europe for medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque music.  Building on other strengths of the original Berenson collection, the Library also has very strong resources in Asian and Islamic art and architecture, as well as an important collection of art auction catalogs. 

Overall the collection of print materials has grown from around 52,000 volumes and 130 scholarly journals received when the Center opened, to around 200,000 printed volumes and 625 current periodicals today. The library also has over 14,000 titles on microforms, mostly manuscripts and early printed books.  Its holdings also include distinguished and growing archival and other special collections, which are described more fully in other sections of our Collections page.