Monastery of Leisurely Culture

An Italian Internship in the Villa I Tatti

The stairs to work at Villa I Tatti, Italy.

Sitting on a pebbled terrace under a canopy of umbrellas, looking out over the rolling countryside outside of Florence, with its profusion of olive orchards, vineyards, and cypresses in the hills below, and taking afternoon tea with the Harvard polo team taking a break from their European tour, I realized that I must have made it, that in the events that had led to this moment, something had surely gone very right. I had not inherited an Italian villa from a distant great aunt, nor befriended some ambassador or high-ranking Italian official; no, I had landed an internship at the Villa I Tatti.

Acquired in 1907 by the renowned art historian Bernard Berenson and his wife Mary, the property which had since the Middle Ages been referred to as I Tatti was once little more than a glorified farmhouse, albeit one located on a vast tract of land with a spectacular view of the Florentine countryside. Over the next fifty years, the pair would transform
the property into “a lay monastery of leisurely culture,” a secluded locale of learning and contemplative living. This involved not simply amassing books and documents, but also attentiveness to aesthetics, like maintaining an English-style garden and collecting art, whether originals or photographic reproductions. Berenson generally favored Italian Renaissance panel paintings, avoiding well-known artists, but his collection does speak to his wide-ranging interests, including Buddhist bronzes, Persian illuminated manuscripts, and a bowl decorated by Picasso. All told, by the time of Berenson’s death in 1959 at the age of 94, Villa I Tatti had become, in his words, “a library with living rooms attached,” containing 150 paintings, 50,000 books, and 170,000 photographs.

In his will, Berenson bequeathed the entire estate to his and his wife’s alma mater, Harvard University. In his 1956 document “On the Future of I Tatti,” Berenson outlined his hopes for what the villa would become after his death:

Our present western world is harassed, hustled and driven. It excludes leisure, tranquility, permits no unexciting pursuits, no contemplation, no slow maturing of ideas, no perfectioning of individual style. Therefore my first and foremost wish is to establish fellowships that will provide leisure and tranquility to sixteen or more promising students.

He outlined how these fellowships should be set up and how the library should be run, and expressed his fervent desire that his collection and the entire 73 acres should be kept together. It was to be not a mere a library focused on “book-learning” and research for its own sake, but an intellectual refuge for budding academics, one that encouraged travel and interdisciplinary scholarship, particularly in relation to art. Harvard has by and large respected Berenson’s wishes, keeping the collection intact while building upon it, and the Villa I Tatti is now a varied community of permanent staff, visiting scholars and professors, short- and long-term fellows, and, occasionally, interns.

In these confines, the gathered community of scholars busy themselves with any number of tasks: some begin work on new research questions, using the library to narrow down and ultimately come upon their topic; others continue earlier research, finalizing their manuscripts and organizing conferences and seminars; and some, such as me, attach themselves to I Tatti’s current projects, such as the ongoing reorganization and cataloguing of the library’s quarter million or so photographs of art, some of which feature artwork that has since been lost or destroyed, or its publications, like the I Tatti Renaissance Library, which publishes retranslations and even some first translations of the classics of Renaissance literature. These translated works include everything from historical and philosophical treatises by well-known authors like Boccaccio and Petrarch, to more specialized books on political theory, musical composition, and church reform, to a satirical epic written by a fugitive monk involving pirates, centaurs, frequent nudity, and a journey to Hell.

Few people at Harvard community are even aware of this little enclave in Italy, formally called the Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, and those who are do not always know everything about it: on a recent visit, President Drew Faust was surprised to learn that she is nominally in charge of the wine produced at I Tatti’s small vineyard, bottled under the authority of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. My own first exposure to the library was in fact slightly hostile, when I would look up a library book in Hollis and discover that Harvard’s only copy was in the Biblioteca Berenson, some 4000 miles away, and that they were unwilling to deliver. I learned in my sophomore year that they do more than hoard books there and, after being encouraged by Professor Ann Blair that Florence might be almost as nice as Cambridge, applied to be an intern. The administrative director was very encouraging and, two weeks after I sent him my resumé and a letter of recommendation, he told me that I had the job.

I really cannot say enough good things about my internship and overall experience at the library. I was given a good deal of choice regarding the work I had to do, which ranged from transcribing old documents, cataloguing photographs, proofreading publications, and helping organize an exhibition [Berenson & HarvardBernard and Mary as Students], to regaling the internationally renowned early music group I Fagiolini with mostly-true tales of college life over risotto. My hours were very flexible; my boss, Jonathan Nelson, was adamant that only half of my internship was to be spent at the library, the other half spent getting to know Florence proper, learning its history and exploring its churches and museums. When I learned that I was only their second undergraduate intern ever, I was shocked: I am no expert on art history and know about enough Italian to order a small gelato, but they still found interesting work for me to do and let me contribute to the library’s operation; imagine what could be accomplished by people who actually know what they are doing. The library is a secret overly well kept in Cambridge, both as a resource and as an employment opportunity. The setting is gorgeous, the people wonderful, and the afternoon tea, served with homemade cookies on the terrace with a view, to die for. So before you die, take the trip, and maybe even write your next MacArthur-winning book there.

Nathaniel Hay
Harvard University '14

Originally published (without hyperlinks) in Tempus: The Harvard College History Review, Fall 2013, 13.2, pp. 60-63.