The Berensons and I Tatti

Bernard Berenson (second from right) as an undergraduate at Harvard College, 1887.

I Tatti, Bernard Berenson, and Harvard

The extraordinary link between I Tatti and Harvard has its origins in the late 1880’s when Bernard Berenson attended Harvard. Over his lifetime of work in the field of late medieval and Renaissance art, Berenson never forgot the opportunities that he had been given by the University as an undergraduate. He decided at a young age that he would leave the bulk of his estate to Harvard in order to establish a center of scholarship at I Tatti that would advance humanistic learning throughout the world.

By the time of his death, Berenson bequeathed to Harvard the remarkable patrimony that he and his wife Mary had fashioned. In addition to the villa, this consisted of their library of some 50,000 volumes, an archive of photographs particularly strong in Italian Renaissance painting, their collection of art, an archive of their correspondence and papers, and the surrounding gardens and farmlands, which included several other buildings. Berenson saw both the collections and the setting of I Tatti as an ideal environment to foster scholarly and creative research.

Fifty years of Harvard’s I Tatti

Harvard University took over the administration of Berenson’s bequest in 1960 and determined that the new Center should be devoted to every aspect of Italian Renaissance studies. The villa, which had been a typical, large Tuscan farmhouse until 1901, became The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in 1961. Nicky Mariano, who had been Berenson’s companion and secretary for nearly forty years, remained as consultant to the first Director of the center and was instrumental in facilitating the transformation of I Tatti from a private villa and gentleman’s library to a burgeoning research institute.

Berenson had a keen sense of what he wanted for the Harvard center, and in 1956 he set out his views in a document he called “On the Future of I Tatti." Unfortunately, the endowment Berenson left was not sufficient for all that he, or Harvard, wished to achieve. In the half-century since Harvard University assumed responsibility for Berenson’s bequest, the success of a series of fund-raising campaigns has allowed I Tatti’s academic community to grow from six scholars a year to about thirty, including fifteen full-year Fellows and a number of visiting professors, visiting Fellows, and graduate students.

Almost one thousand scholars have held an academic appointment at I Tatti. Until fifteen years ago, roughly half came from North America, a quarter from Italy, and the remainder from the rest of Europe and Australasia. Today, the statistics have changed with North America and Italy each providing about 40% of the scholars and the remainder coming from Europe and Australia. I Tatti is now actively seeking to broaden its reach to host scholars from other geographic areas as well. Although art historians predominated in the early years of the center, they now make up roughly a third of the Fellows. Historians make up another third of the Fellows, with literary scholars and musicologists making up the rest.

Building on Berenson’s vision

As the size and needs of the academic community have grown, so too have the facilities developed and expanded. The main property has not increased beyond the original 75 acres, but thanks to the vision of I Tatti's Directors, the careful husbanding of its staff, and the generosity of its donors, buildings have been built, renovated, altered, and their uses changed or expanded. The library has more than tripled its original holdings, and additional spaces for study, conferences, and living have been created on the property. Additionally, an administrative and development office has opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As the staff has grown in number and in expertise, so have the programs. The fellowship program is now just one aspect of the Harvard Center. Over the last five decades, publications, lectures, concerts, and conferences have become integral features of I Tatti. Today, the operating budget is over seven times larger than it was in the first few years of the center. Villa I Tatti is now so much more than the “library with living rooms attached” once described by Bernard Berenson. The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies is now a world-renowned research institute with a strong future in the 21st century.