Walter Kaiser

Presentation Date: 

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Villa I Tatti

Ladies and Gentlemen, Carissimi Tattiani,

For many of us here today, the Deborah Loeb Brice Loggiato represents the fulfillment of a very old dream.  But it isn’t often in this life that one’s dreams come true in quite such a spectacular way; and today, those of us who shared the dream can only gaze in awe at its magnificent realization.  

Fifty years ago, when I Tatti first opened as Harvard’s Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, the vestiges of the Berenson villa were still dominant.  What are now the Geier Library and Granaio were still in active use as farm buildings, and Casa Gioffredi was, as the name implies, the home of Mr. Berenson’s devoted fattore and his family.  Within the villa itself, it was necessary somehow to find rooms that could provide studies for each of the Fellows.  Initially, some of the maids’ rooms were used for that purpose, but as the number of Fellows increased to fifteen, various other rooms, a few of them little more than broom closets, had to be converted into studies.  Above the fototeca, the Berensons’ chauffeur, the redoubtable Parry (to drive with whom, as I can attest, was an inane act of bravado), had his residence, and those rooms eventually provided 10 of the needed 15 studies, some large, some small, none of them ideal.  The simple fact was that some studies were better than others, but none were really very satisfactory, and they were scattered throughout the villa and library.   Eventually, when Casa Gioffredi became available, a few additional studies were created there, with the idea that, after the Loggiato had been built, they would be perfect for visiting scholars.  But we dreamed of a building in which all fifteen Fellows could have well-appointed, comfortable, luminous rooms in which to work, a building which would be near the library yet serenely removed from all the distracting quotidian activity within the library and the villa.  That is the building we celebrate today.

From the moment I arrived in 1988, the staff and I decided that one of our top priorities should be to improve the working conditions of the Fellows, and as early as 1989 the Commune of Fiesole was informed of our hopes to build a new building for that purpose; 9 years later, in 1998, we presented the architect’s plans for that structure and requested the necessary permits.  It’s essential to understand why we thought it was important not only to provide better studies for the Fellows but also to have them all in the same building, a building exclusively dedicated to that purpose. 

Our 15 annual Fellows are I Tatti’s raison d’être.  Whatever else this institution may offer in the way of short-term appointments, library facilities, garden pleasures, academic exercises, concerts, works of art, or delicious meals, its defining central mission is to give 15 young scholars a year of freedom to do their own scholarly writing and research and to participate in an interdisciplinary intellectual community.  Such a community does not occur instantaneously the moment the Fellows arrive; on the contrary, it grows organically, takes its distinguishing shape slowly, and usually requires most of a year to come to fulfillment.  It is something scholars who are here for only a few weeks or even a few months don’t fully experience, for the community we try to foster really requires a full participatory year in order to grow and blossom:  it is the result of a daily interchange, day after day, of ideas and interests, not only at the lunch table or at morning coffee or afternoon tea, but in prolonged conversations that may arise unexpectedly in the course of the day and over the course of many months.  I always used to say that I felt I Tatti was most fully achieving its interdisciplinary goals when I saw two Fellows strolling in the garden, engrossed in some topic of mutual interest.   But now, with all of the Fellows in the same beautiful monastic retreat, with its own garden spaces and welcoming loggia, there will be increased opportunity for Fellows to visit each other in their studies, to sit together on the low wall between the pietra serena columns of the loggia, or to chat beside the fountain or in the charming giardinetto.   The intimacy provided by proximity will undoubtedly lead to a profounder, more comprehensive interdisciplinarity and to more enriching intellectual friendships.  I have often described I Tatti as a locus amoenus, but now, within that locus amoenus, the locus amoenissimus is undoubtedly going to be the Deborah Loeb Brice Loggiato and the Pellegrino garden.

We are, all of us, indebted to the large number of people who, over the years, have seen this project through to completion.   There are so many that even to list them all would require more time than I have, yet I cannot refrain from mentioning a few people who have made contributions of special significance.  Joe Connors loyally and generously espoused a project he inherited, and it was his determined diplomatic efforts that finally obtained the necessary building permits so that, after many years of delay, construction could begin.  Lino Pertile, who has had to cope with Harvard’s difficult demands as well as with those of the architect and the builders, has consistently given the project his personal attention, and his enthusiasm for it has been unflagging until he at last achieved the triumphant completion of both the Loggiato and the Scholar’s Court.  Alexa Mason, with characteristic grace and patient persistence, has quietly worked year after year to raise the funds to pay for the Loggiato and to get its studies and lecture hall endowed.  Allen Grieco, who was responsible for planning the new horticultural structures below the giardino pensile, heroically stepped in during the final months to supervise the last stages of the Loggiato and to make sure that the Pellegrino garden was completed in time for this occasion.  Roberto Zanobini provided a constant liaison with the Commune, keeping a watchful eye on every aspect of construction.  Tony Heywood and Giuliano Valtieri flawlessly converted into Italian everything that was conceived in English and provided essential supervision over many aspects of the project.  And an especially important contribution was made, from the very beginning to the very end, by Mimmo Segatori and Mariella Nives, who not only oversaw the complex site preparation, the amazing foundation work, and the structural soundness of the Loggiato but, recognizing the important architectural significance of the building they had undertaken, were assiduous in determining and in bringing to realization the architect’s intentions, down to the smallest detail.

In addition to these people and to all the others I’ve been unable to mention, three people above all are responsible for the creation of this beautiful building, and I want to say a more extended word of thanks to each of them.

First and foremost, on behalf of all of us, I want to thank I Tatti’s fairy godmother, Debby Brice, in gratitude to whom this beautiful building has been named.  Debby first came to I Tatti way back in the mid-1980s at the time of its greatest Director, Craig Hugh Smyth, and it was love at first sight.   Ever since then, this institution has been sustained not only by her unfaltering support and generosity, but also by her intelligent understanding and her affectionate commitment.  For somehow, from the very beginning, Debby intuitively understood the unique nature of  I Tatti, its importance as a home for the life of the mind, and the profoundly humane spirit that informs its every aspect.  No one I know has a more comprehensive understanding of the ideals I Tatti strives to represent – and, I might add, no one is quicker to point out any infringement or impoverishment of those ideals.  For Debby has always held us all to the highest standards.

But if that sounds to you as though she has been a martinet taskmistress, then you don’t know Debby.  No one is more fun to be with; no one is more appreciative; no one, more full of life; no one, more loving.  Whenever we think of Debby, all of us think of her first of all as a deeply caring friend, whose loyalty never wavers and whose solicitude is boundless.  From the moment she first heard of our plans for the Loggiato, she has been ardent in her enthusiasm for it, and in her role as Chairman of the I Tatti Council for the past 18 years, she has tirelessly helped us raise the money to make this building possible.   We can never adequately express our gratitude to this beautiful human being for all the contributions she has made to our welfare over many years, but the name of the Deborah Loeb Brice Loggiato and the ravishing elegance of its beauty will always commemorate Debby and the loving friendship she has so lavishly bestowed on all of us.

The second person I want to thank is Nelda Ferace, without whose dedication and indefatigable efforts there would be no Loggiato.  For it was Nelda who devotedly guided the construction of this building, coped with the myriad unexpected problems that confronted the builders, managed a million details of both construction and finance, and throughout the entire process was an unfailing source of encouragement and inspiration to everyone who worked on the project. 

For half a century, Nelda, more than any other person, has been the embodiment of everything this wonderful institution stands for.  In a very real sense, Villa I Tatti, the Harvard Center, is her creation.  Directors have come and gone, but she has always been here, the steadfast keeper of the flame; and although those of us who have served as Director have done the best we could in the job, we’ve always known that we could never possibly live up to her high expectations or achieve anything like what she has, with such bounteous generosity, given to this place year after year after year.  Nelda has always insisted on I Tatti’s dedication to excellence; she has unceasingly championed its human, as well as its scholarly and aesthetic, values; and she has unerringly defined the moral and ethical standards that govern this community.  Beyond all that, for generations of scholars she has been the faithful, empathetic, beloved friend to whom they could turn for understanding and encouragement, for companionship in prosperity and comfort in adversity.  And over the years, the Trattoria Ferace has fed almost as many Fellows as the I Tatti kitchen. 

Nelda’s selfless devotion to the Fellows and to her colleagues on the staff has set an example for all of us, and if any one individual can be said to have established the character and quality of I Tatti over the past fifty years, it is she.   I Tatti will, alas, never be the same without her, but she will live forever in the radiant spirit of this beloved place, a spirit which she more than anyone has created.   It is somehow fitting that Nelda’s final assignment should have been the responsibility for seeing that the Loggiato was built, for this building, one of the studies of which has been munificently given in her honor by Fred Koontz, is her enduring monument as well as Charlie’s and Debby’s.  

And finally, there is Charles Brickbauer to thank most of all, for a supreme work of architecture which confers an artistic distinction on I Tatti far beyond anything it ever had before.  Charlie was first brought to I Tatti by his and my mutual friends, Laurance and Isabel Roberts, more than two decades ago, and he and I almost instantly became friends as well.  As I learned about his work and came to admire the buildings he had designed, I knew that he was the architect we were looking for.  Because Charlie has an uncommon combination of talents:  although he is celebrated as a modern architect, whose work makes use of the latest technology and often verges on minimalist spareness and simplicity to effect its felicitous results, he also has a comprehensive knowledge of historical styles as well as an aesthetic and intellectual veneration of the past. 

You have only to look at the Loggiato for a quick moment to realize at once that it reflects the harmonious confluence of those two gifts; for it is a thoroughly modern building, incorporating the most advanced technology and a 21st-century aesthetic, yet at the same time it is totally imbued with the spirit of an Italian Renaissance cloister.  The elegant simplicity of the pietra serena columns is a case in point:  in one respect, they are completely rinascimentale, yet in other respects, they are completely modern.  The two incised bands at the top are Charlie’s invention, as is the fact that most of the columns – all except three, in fact – don’t actually support the roof, which magically seems to float over them.  Similarly, the lovely fountain nestled in the grass in front of the Loggiato, although inspired by Giovanni Gambara’s fountains in the barco of Villa Lante at Bagnaia, is nonetheless Charlie’s contemporary interpretation.

One might say that the Loggiato embodies the spirit of quattrocento architecture, except that some elements, such as those which are derived from the upper floors of the Uffizi for example, give it a certain cinquecento aura as well.  Whether 15th or 16th Century, Florence, as Charlie has succinctly put it, “Florence is the source.”  Charlie was concerned to create a structure that would fit into the incongruous surroundings of the former fattoria buildings designed by Cecil Pinsent; but in a much broader sense, he also wanted his building to relate to Florentine architecture generally and to reflect the institution’s scholarly focus on the Italian Renaissance.  His restatement of a characteristic Renaissance roofline, the coffered ceilings of gleaming wood, the seriate progression of offices with their heavy monastic doors, the venerable use of pietra serena and intonaco, the slight convexity of the stone ledges between the columns, the fenestration of the sunlit studies, the breathtaking monumental staircase – all of these elements are derived from earlier buildings, yet they are reinterpreted in a contemporary idiom and miraculously given what Leon Battista Alberti, that great Renaissance theorist of architecture, asked for:  a concinnitas universarum partium – an elegant harmony of all the parts.

Early on, Charlie pointed out to us that, given the slope on which the building was to stand, it would be possible to have at least a partial lower floor.  In order to make the studies larger and still meet the requirement to stay within the footprint of the wretched garages that had originally marred that spot, Charlie suggested that a few studies be put on the floor below, opening onto a little giardino secreto.  As we discussed various possibilities, it seemed to us that the remaining space should provide for a much-needed medium-sized lecture hall.  The Gilmore Limonaia is fine for large lectures, concerts, and convegni, but it is too large for smaller lectures and, also, is unusable in winter, when it is filled with lemon trees.  Hence, it was always necessary to borrow either the Geier Library or the Big Library for smaller lectures, which disrupted the librarians and scholars who wanted to work there.  So Charlie created the magnificent Florence Gould Lecture Hall at the foot of the grand staircase, which is acoustically superb and beautifully lit and which in no way feels like a cramped basement room but, rather, has a spacious, lofty nobility.

The Deborah Loeb Brice Loggiato is, quite simply, a masterpiece – perhaps the outstanding masterpiece of an architect was has specialized in creating masterpieces.  It is unquestionably the finest contemporary building in the whole of Florence, and yet, appropriately, it resonates with the spirit of the Italian Renaissance.  If, as Goethe once claimed, architecture is frozen music, this Loggiato is a madrigal by Monteverdi.  The city of Fiesole should be as proud of this building as we are, for there is nothing of such architectural eminence anywhere around.  Speaking personally, I have to say that the Loggiato moves me more deeply every time I enter it, not simply because it represents a long-held dream come true, but because it is the consummate expression of all that I Tatti stands for.  You have only to look at this building to know that it is concerned with the Italian Renaissance, to recognize that it represents learning and humane letters, elegance and excellence, and to surmise that it is a welcoming, accommodating refuge for the pursuit of the vita contemplativa.  Beyond all that, my friends, this incomparable Loggiato radiates (to borrow another lovely phrase from Alberti) quaedam lux pulchritudinis – a certain glow of beauty.