Villa I Tatti: Past, Present, and Future
If he could walk up via di Vincigliata today Mr. Berenson would find himself looking at a familiar scene. San Martino stands alone and lovely on its hillock, the sound of its bells still filling the valley; the Corbignano farm looks down towards the old Mulino as serenely as ever; the Mensola whispers her story to a few passers-by; and the cypress alley soberly greets every visitor who enters I Tatti at the lower gate. From this blessed little valley, Mr. Berenson could still address Florence today with Ugo Foscolo’s words of two centuries ago:
Lieta dell’aer tuo veste la luna
di luce limpidissima i tuoi colli
per vendemmia festanti; e le convalli
popolate di case e d’oliveti
mille di fiori al ciel mandano incensi.
[Gladdened by your air, the moon
with her brightest light covers your hills
as they celebrate the grape harvest; and the valleys,
peopled with homes and olive groves,
lift the scent of a thousand flowers to the sky.]
Yet continuing his visit, passing up through the renovated Myron and Sheila Gilmore Limonaia, Mr. Berenson would discover changes he could never have foreseen. The Villa’s farm houses, still fully functional in the 1950s, have become library buildings, the farmyard has been replaced by the Scholars’ Court, and the old huts and barns above the hanging garden have been turned into the wonderful Deborah Loeb Brice Loggiato, housing fifteen studies and a state-of-the-art multifunctional hall. Mr. Berenson’s library, numbering about 50,000 volumes at the time of his death in 1959, has more than tripled in size, and continues to grow daily. His collection of photographs, mainly of Renaissance works of art, has become a rich Fototeca, where images are currently being digitized and properly stored for the use of scholars. The Morrill Library of early music has become one of the greatest of its kind in the world. Finally, Mr. Berenson’s beloved art collection, in a finer state of conservation today than fifty years ago, is soon to be accompanied by a catalogue that will critically examine all the information available, and add much that is new, on every European painting.
As for the research center Mr. Berenson dreamed of, there were six Fellows in 1961; this year, we have more than thirty, including short term and graduate Fellows, visiting professors, our first undergraduate intern from Harvard, and our first musicians in residence. The Fellowships remain highly competitive, given the great interest in carrying out research at I Tatti. The many scholars who have won appointments here over the years – now numbering nearly one thousand – have shaped Italian Renaissance studies in decisive ways through their research, publications, teaching, and mentoring. Many of the most important articles and books in the field were conceived, developed, or completed at I Tatti. The Center has funded and organized dozens of conferences – sixteen just in the past ten years. Many of these have resulted in books on all aspects of the Renaissance, from history to science and technology, from philosophy to poetry, art, and music. Our annual journal, I Tatti Studies, will reach its fourteenth issue this year, and our handsome I Tatti Renaissance Library will publish its fiftieth volume. We have held, and continue to hold, two or three rich concerts of early music every year, regularly attended by the I Tatti community and our many friends from Florence and Tuscany. The outstanding resources of our library attract readers from all over the world. Over the last half century, I Tatti has become the leading institution in the world for advanced research in all aspects of the Italian Renaissance.
Turning to our gardens and fields, only georgic Virgil would know how to depict adequately their order, beauty, and usefulness. We lost two old and handsome cypress trees to the winter winds, but otherwise our plants, hedges, lawns, meadows, flowers, and fruits, under the careful hands of our gardeners, are flourishing as never before. Standing on the azalea terrace, I find much pleasure in observing the rows of vines and olive trees under San Martino on the other side of the Mensola, and, as I walk up the cypress alley, I’m delighted to see below Corbignano the new vineyard that this year will produce its first grapes. Our wine is much improved, as old Fellows who come by happily testify; it has now reached a quality that would definitely impress Mr. Berenson and his guests. Bottled and labeled, it is sold to a small world of – how shall I put it? – enlightened connoisseurs. As for our olive oil, it is so good nowadays, that it wins prizes in the local fairs.
All this may go well beyond what Mr. Berenson might have imagined in 1959. How did it all come about? Many people should be thanked, starting with the six directors who preceded me, each of them adding immeasurably to the Villa’s strength, while preserving its unique character. Much gratitude should also go to the librarians, administrators, and household staff, who have cared for the Villa with so much diligence and pride from the day it passed into Harvard’s hands. But I want to single out for special thanks the group of our donors – scores of people, who throughout the past fifty years, have believed in Mr. Berenson’s dream and helped to make it come true. Without their support, I Tatti could never have become the magnificent place it is today.
Undoubtedly, the Villa has flourished in the past fifty years, while remaining faithful to its core values, but change outside its walls has been profound and has had its effects inside. Indeed, things have changed more in the past fifty years than they did in the previous five hundred, and in many ways Mr. Berenson was in his day closer to Desiderio da Settignano than we are to him today. In the early fifties it took two winters to plant a vineyard below the Villino, using spades and pickaxes. Then the first tractor came, and the planting of a second vineyard took just a few days. Today, our agricultural workers text each other, and a Fellow, sitting in his or her study at I Tatti, can examine in the minutest detail, at any time of day or night, a manuscript, a book, or a work of art held in a museum or private collection in Washington DC, Paris, or London.
Ideas, attitudes, and values have changed too. When Mr. Berenson bequeathed Villa I Tatti to Harvard, he did so on the strength of one fundamental assumption: that the arts and humanities play an essential role in “humanizing mankind.” A half century later, many people no longer hold this view. The arts and humanities no longer have the unquestioned position of eminence they once enjoyed, and in most university departments the Renaissance is offered as an option, not as a must. Similarly, when spring break comes to universities in the United States, undergraduates are just as likely to fly to Beijing or Santiago de Chile, as to Florence and Rome. And if they are interested in exploring Chinese and Arabic, it is hardly for the reasons for which the young Bernard Berenson studied Sanskrit and Hebrew at Harvard. In light of these changes, are Renaissance values still valid today? How important is it that we maintain here a research institute dedicated to the study of Italian Renaissance art, literature, science, and culture?
What is the Renaissance? For well over a century, scholars have tried to define the period and identify its essential qualities. The predominant view, formulated around the time when Bernard and Mary Berenson were students at Harvard, holds that the Renaissance, in the simplest sense, is the rediscovery of classical antiquity. At the same time, it has been seen as both the rediscovery of beauty and the affirmation of a new, critical mindset. Take the example of Lorenzo Valla, a humanist educated in Rome and Florence and active at several Italian courts in the first half of the fifteenth century. For several centuries, the Church of Rome had exhibited a legal document, allegedly written by Constantine in the fourth century, in which the Emperor donated Rome and the whole of the Western Empire to Pope Silvester and the Church. Successive Popes used this document to legitimize their temporal claims whenever other Italian, or foreign, states disputed them. Some thinkers might have disagreed with the spirit of this document, but hardly any doubted its authenticity. Dante himself, around 1310, wrote a treatise arguing not that the document was false, but that the actual donation was unacceptable, as Constantine could not give away what did not belong to him. In 1440, however, Valla examined this document in light of a new philological approach to the history of Latin, and found that it contained several words that were introduced into the language a full five centuries after Constantine died. The document, he concluded, must have been a forgery. Valla did not accept the document uncritically; he questioned its form and content, and in the end he rejected it. This is what the Renaissance is about: thinking critically, examining evidence, asking questions, refusing to be satisfied with appearances or inherited assumptions. It is not a fixed system of values and beliefs, but rather a mental attitude, a way of thinking about oneself and the world. Less than a century after Valla’s essay, Copernicus came out with another wild idea that defied both the Bible and common sense: it was the earth – he wrote – that circled around the sun, not vice versa.
The Renaissance is this confidence in the dignity and power of the human mind, confidence in the human search for truth, and courage in affirming it. But it is more still: it is intellectual curiosity, inventiveness, creativity. The Renaissance innovations in perspective represent a desire to compete with nature – to steal some of nature’s three-dimensional beauty and reproduce it onto the flat surface of a wall, a wood panel, or a sheet of paper. The breath-taking blossoming of painters, sculptors, and architects that took place in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries ultimately defies all explanations, but it is a prodigious display of the new needs and values that characterize that age.
Over the last fifty years, many scholars at I Tatti and beyond have questioned traditional interpretations of the Renaissance, and have shifted their attention to other aspects of life and culture during the period. The very definition of the time frame that encompasses the Renaissance has changed significantly. The “heart” of the period was once thought to be roughly 1400 to 1530, especially for art history. Today, the I Tatti selection committee considers proposals for advanced research in the period ranging from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Fellows now study the architecture, history, literature, material culture, music, philosophy, religion, science, and visual arts of Italy. Some work on the transmission and circulation of ideas, objects, and people during the Renaissance, into and beyond the Italian peninsula, or the historiography of the Italian Renaissance, including the rebirth of interest in the Renaissance in later periods. Even as we continue to scrutinize and refine the legacy of the Renaissance, we find ourselves returning to it again and again. The institutions of learning as we know them today in the West, at all levels, are unthinkable without this inheritance. A sustained, intense engagement with the Renaissance, in all of its forms, is now more than ever essential to the well-being of our society and of a globalized world.
Business as usual then, despite all the changes of the past fifty years, despite the changing status of the Renaissance in our schools and universities? Not quite. For fifty years Villa I Tatti has dwelt beautifully serene among its umbrella pines and cypress trees, surrounded by idyllic olive groves and vineyards. We assumed that there were plenty of people out there who shared our love for the Renaissance, and looked upon its intellectual and artistic achievements as unique in the history of humanity. This cannot be taken for granted anymore. As the world shrinks under our eyes and traditionally separate languages and cultures come to mingle, the Renaissance must prove that it has much of value to offer not just to its traditional devotees, but to the entire world.
This is the invigorating challenge that the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies faces today. The Center must extend its reach beyond its traditional boundaries. In 1956, writing “On the Future of I Tatti,” Mr. Berenson himself encouraged his successors to appoint scholars from “the Soviet Block and the Far East” when they seem “more promising than Anglo-Saxons.” Much has been done recently, and with great success, to bring Eastern European scholars to I Tatti. But, even in Europe, there are still countries where we have hardly made any impact, such as Spain and Portugal to the West, and Greece and Turkey to the East. Beyond Europe, we must make our mark in Latin America, the Islamic world, and the East. Our mission today is not just to support existing scholars in the West, but to foster, indeed generate interest in the Italian Renaissance at all levels and everywhere. This is what we are planning to achieve by opening I Tatti to selected graduate and undergraduate students, by promoting lectures and concerts outside, as well as inside, the Villa, and by reaching out to scholars in areas of the world traditionally under-represented at the Center.
In the past fifty years the Center has done remarkable work for the Italian Renaissance. Now, however, it must do more. The transformations that are taking place in our time are perhaps comparable only to those that occurred during major periods of transition in the past, for example from the late Middle Ages to the early Modern era. The substantial difference is that change now occurs so much faster, and it is global rather than local. We must not be caught unawares, or be passive, in front of change. If we believe in the Renaissance and the values it stands for, we must encourage young people everywhere to enjoy, study, and work on it. Eventually, some of them will come to I Tatti where they will mature to be, in Mr. Berenson’s words, “creative writers and teachers in the interpretation of art of every kind.” In these uncertain times, when new countries with their immense and immensely gifted populations assert their presence in the world, we must be ready to learn from them but also to share with them what we have come to know of the arts and sciences of Renaissance Italy. In a globalized planet, in a multicultural society, in a digital world without borders, we must show that the Renaissance still has a significant role to play not just for a few fortunate Fellows at Villa I Tatti but for people all over the earth.