In a document that Berenson entitled “On the Future of I Tatti,” composed towards the end of his life in the 1950s, he dedicated a short but significant paragraph to the garden and grounds of Villa I Tatti. His intention was “that not a single square yard of the grounds…ever be alienated” because he wanted this land to “serve as a protection against the invasion of the suburbs and to promote a feeling of free space and of distance.” Today, for anybody who takes a bus to the area from downtown Florence, the first green space they encounter are the fields, vineyards and olive groves that were meant to constitute the “free space” surrounding Berenson’s villa and his garden. Aerial photographs of the property and its surroundings furnish an eloquent testimony of how this green area has not only survived, but has also continued to provide the protection Berenson envisioned half a century ago.
The gardens and grounds of I Tatti are very much part of an integral visual experience. The gardens and the grounds constitute an inherited landscape with a strong historical component that also needs to be kept in order to offset the ravages of time. This need for conservation partially reflects laws with regard to historic landscape preservation that have been passed by the Italian government from the early 20th century up until 1991, as well as reflects I Tatti’s intent to maintain the agricultural land as well as possible while still producing above all wine and oil. The gardens cover ca. 3.2 hectares (7 acres), while the rest of the property covers a total of more than 30 hectares (66 acres).
Bernard Berenson and his wife Mary bought Villa I Tatti in 1905. In 1909, they commissioned the English architect Cecil Ross Pinsent (1884–1963) to supervise a series of extensions and alterations to Villa I Tatti, as well as to design a garden and supervise its planting and construction with the help of the English writer-scholar Geoffrey Scott (1884–1929). The surviving documentation suggests that, while Pinsent was certainly the maitre d’oeuvre for this job, he had to contend with patrons who had clear ideas about what they wanted their garden to look like. Both Bernard and Mary Berenson did not fail to ask their architect for some substantial modifications to his original project. Their intervention was all the more understandable, as this was Pinsent’s first major commission.
Work on the garden of I Tatti began with the construction of a little house at the bottom of the property to house the head gardener, as well as a large cistern sunk into the ground at the very top of the garden to provide a more adequate water supply for the planned plantings. This cistern, fed by spring water that still ensures the necessary water supply for the garden, was above all destined to keep the Berenson's "English lawns" flourishing in a climate that was hardly favorable to such a luxury.
In the spring and summer of 1912, the intricate and much admired pebble mosaics were completed on the landings of the staircase of the Italian garden and in various other parts of the garden. Work in the garden continued well into 1914, although it came to a halt in late August due to the beginning of the World War I. Fears of a conflict that would involve all of the peninsula, combined with apprehensions with respect to possible difficulties in transferring funds, stopped most of the building activity at that point in time. When work was resumed some years later the garden was finally brought to completion, with only some small modifications that did not significantly alter the construction and plantings that had been accomplished before the war.
After Harvard inherited I Tatti from Mr. Berenson, little work was done on the garden for many years. Thanks to an extraordinarily generous gift from Lila Acheson Wallace, co-founder of Reader’s Digest, extensive restoration work has been carried out over the past thirty years. Recent work in the garden, completed in 2010, created a work area in the most appropriate location; a gardener’s building in a state of disrepair has been completely rebuilt, and a state-of-the-art greenhouse has replaced an old one. A recently constructed staircase leads directly from the new Anne Pellegrino Garden in the Scholars’ Court to the historic garden.
The estate produces enough table wine from San Giovese, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and other grapes for consumption at the Villa, as well as an increasingly expanding clientele. It is also justifiably proud of its prize-winning extra virgin olive oil. Hard work and the constant improvement of practices have raised the quality of both products. The farm also produces a small quantity of grain and alfalfa, both of which are sold locally.