Creswell and the Berensons

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Though I Tatti is primarily known as a center for the study of the Renaissance, stowed away in the air-conditioned corridors of the fototeca are thousands of photographs of Islamic architecture. As an intern at the villa and a concentrator in the History of Architecture and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, I dug into this chapter of I Tatti’s history.

The impetus to study these photographs is largely due to their age and the current geopolitical moment. Recent destruction of cultural heritage sites, especially in Syria and Iraq, makes the 1920’s era photographs held at the villa especially valuable. A key figure in this story is K.A.C. Creswell, a former British military officer and renowned, but controversial, historian of Egyptian architecture. The mass of his photographs accumulated over a lifetime of travel in the Middle East is at the core of I Tatti’s Islamic collections.

Beyond their attribution to Creswell, little was known about the prints held at I Tatti. This summer I investigated how and when they arrived, the Berensons’ financial support of Creswell’s work, and when Creswell took the photos. In addition, as part of an international project, I began the process of preparing the photographs for an international project to digitize and catalog all of Creswell’s photographs, currently held in several institutions spanning three continents.

In return for Berenson’s “tribute” as he referred to the monetary aid, Creswell sent prints of his many thousands of photographs as well as his publications to the Villa. The correspondence held at the villa (now completely transcribed) between Mary, Bernard, and Creswell testifies to the intellectual engagement of all three with Islamic architecture he studied. This is further evidenced by the Berensons’ own travels, sometimes with Creswell, in Egypt.

Since Creswell dragged his camera across the Middle East, restorations, wars, and urban development have greatly impacted many of the sites that he meticulously documented. The geographic space he covered, his attention to detail, and the photographs’ age makes the Creswell images an essential source for scholars.

I am proud to have worked in line with Berenson’s vision of I Tatti as a center for study of the Mediterranean world and I hope that the digitization of the photos, transcription of the correspondence, as well as reconstruction of the bibliographic exchanges between the Berensons and Creswell, will aid in critically understanding the complexities of Creswell’s scholarship.

 

Gavin Moulton, I Tatti Intern Summer 2018