Some Historical Notes


The Harvard Center’s research library has its origins in the impressive private collection assembled by Bernard and Mary Berenson, and in the three stately rooms they had built to house it between 1909 and 1915. When the university inherited it in 1959, the Berensons' library consisted of more than 50,000 volumes and perhaps 170,000 photographs. The collection was contained not only in the library proper, which by the time of Berenson's death had grown to eleven small and mid-sized rooms, but books also lined the corridors and graced several private rooms of the villa. Late in his life Berenson aptly described I Tatti as “a library with rooms attached for living.”

The library’s beginnings as the personal collection of scholars and avid book-lovers, and physically as part of a private residence, have ever since conditioned its growth and character. Under Harvard’s administration the book collection has nearly quadrupled in size, and the historical and photograph archives have also grown substantially. With new construction on the bucolic hillsides of Fiesole nearly impossible due to stringent building codes, the library has instead steadily expanded into several former farm and service buildings nearby that have been remodeled for this purpose.

The converted buildings have accommodated the growing collections, more comfortable areas for reading and study, computer terminals, and improved public services. Though it retains in its historical parts the old-world elegance of a gentleman’s library, the Berenson Library has gradually been transformed in a modern and functional space for research.

The library's historical nucleus

Soon after the Berensons purchased I Tatti in 1907 they began to enlarge the original house under the supervision of architect Cecil Pinsent, with the assistance of Geoffrey Scott. Their plans included the construction of a suitably grand library to hold the rapidly growing collection of books and photographs. In just a few years their library took shape, and it remains to this day as the monumental and essential heart of a greatly expanded complex.

The library's original room, the spacious hall now known as the Berenson Reading Room, with its high vaulted ceiling, two great windows, walnut bookcases lining the walls, and a massive stone fireplace, was completed in 1909. The Berensons quickly commissioned the painter René Piot to fresco the lunettes of the library with scenes from Virgil’s Georgics, but the results fell far below their expectations and the artist was dismissed in 1910 after decorating only four of the room’s twelve lunettes. The room’s beautiful cabinetry, besides holding books and photographs, was and still is decorated with numerous sculptures, objects, and paintings from the art collection.

A low and narrow room, the intimate “Small Library,” was added to the back of this original room in 1911. The uniform historical core of the library was completed in 1915 with the addition of a third impressive room, the so-called New Library. Adorned with the serene stone Ananda from the Buddhist cave temples of Xiangtangshan in China, the New Library closed a circuit around four sides of an inner courtyard that attached it to the main structure of the house, and also opened out onto the magnificent walled "hanging garden" as if the latter were a continuation of the library itself.

In the mid-1920s two small rooms, one atop the other and furnished with less graceful and darker cabinetry, were added behind the New Library. The library maintained this configuration until after Mary’s death, in 1944, and the end of the Second World War. In 1948, as books were piling once again into the library, a small apartment and several storage and service rooms on two floors behind the main library complex were joined together and remodeled on the modest design of Pinsent, becoming the library’s “New Annex.” (Neither of these later additions is visible any longer, as these areas were incorporated into the latest renovation in 2009.) At the same time Pinsent designed the charming “French Library” on the ground floor of the villa, now serving also as one of the Harvard Center’s two dining rooms.



The library’s growth as part of the Harvard Center

Under Harvard's administration, the library has extended far beyond the rooms that Bernard Berenson had built, and has also transformed the less distinguished later additions of his day.

In 1966 the former garage to the north of the library was remodeled to create a new Fototeca, or Photograph Archive, which would house the approximately one hundred and seventy thousand photographs in the collection and provide a designated space for consultation and curatorial work. Up to then, photos had been stored in cabinets under the bookshelves in the original library room and the New Annex.

Two years later, a porch off one of the 1920s rooms was enclosed to create an appropriate home for the Morrill Music Library, a collection established within the Biblioteca Berenson in 1964 with funds provided by F. Gordon Morrill and his wife Elizabeth. The benefactor himself, an amateur architect, provided the design.

The transformation in 1985 of a large farmhouse beside the Photo Archive into the Paul E. Geier Memorial Library doubled existing shelf space and also significantly expanded study areas for readers. In 1994 and 2004 the ground floor of the former granary and the wine cellar in buildings next door were overhauled and outfitted with compact shelving for high-density storage.

In 2009, exactly one century after the Berensons completed the first room of their monumental library, I Tatti inaugurated the beautiful new wing dedicated to former Director Craig Hugh Smyth and his wife Barbara. The product of a complete overhaul of the 1920s rooms and the 1940s New Annex, the Smyth Library is a crisp and luminous space with abundant glass and warm wooden paneling. It offers a very contemporary but harmonious contrast to the adjacent historic library, with its dark walnut bookcases, vaulted ceilings, and decorative details inspired by the Renaissance. Most recently, in 2017, the original grand room of the Berenson’s library was refurbished, with the addition of handsome new tables and sixteen workstations equipped with data outlets, task lighting, and comfortable designer chairs.  Now dedicated to former I Tatti Director Walter J. Kaiser, the result is a beautiful integration of stylish and functional new elements with the old-world elegance of the original library.