Between the end of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, Bernard and Mary Berenson acquired a vast array of artworks. Best known today are the Italian panel paintings from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries.
Among these 150 works are many of rare beauty and importance, painted by artists such as Giotto, Bernardo Daddi, Pietro Lorenzetti, Sassetta, Domenico Veneziano, Vincenzo Foppa, Luca Signorelli, Cima da Conegliano, and Lorenzo Lotto. The Villa also houses nearly fifty Asian sculptures, objects, and scrolls, including a gilded bronze Buddhist altar dated 529CE, over twenty sculptures ranging from pre-Columbian and ancient Greek to Renaissance, and fifteen Islamic works—most notably two precious Persian illuminated manuscripts—as well as several fine pieces of furniture. A ceramic dish decorated by Picasso, a canvas by Renato Guttuso, and a handful of other works document Bernard Berenson’s interest in contemporary art.
The Collection offers a remarkable window into the development of the history, criticism, and installation of art. Current cataloguing projects have already shown that the Collection is much more than a gathering of works by two talented collectors. Rather, the acquisitions closely follow the aesthetic and scholarly interests of the Berensons during the very period when they were making their mark as connoisseurs and art historians. The relation of the Collection to the art historical world at the time can be seen in the extensive correspondence between the Berensons and their friends, family, and colleagues, as well as in the couple’s diaries and their early publications.
Late in life, in 1945, Bernard Berenson wrote: “These art objects were not acquired first and foremost with an eye to making a collection, but almost exclusively to adorn my abode. When that was completed some thirty years ago I stopped buying.” Although many works have been moved over the years, the overall appearance of the main rooms and corridors has remained relatively unchanged since 1915. We still see the “layered” installation with precious cloth hangings serving as backdrops to Italian Renaissance paintings, often placed in careful juxtaposition to beautiful Asian objects. The historic house reveals the tastes of the Berensons, who did so much to stimulate appreciation for Italian Renaissance art. The installations, for example, show how pieces of disassembled altarpieces could become aesthetic objects, appropriate for the walls of a refined home. In 1956, Berenson wrote “I would prefer my works of art to remain distributed over the house and not dumped into a separate room as a museum or gallery,” and the successive directors of the Harvard Center have shared his vision. The Collection thus allows all members of the I Tatti community to enjoy the experience of living with great works of art, and helps create the relaxed but stimulating atmosphere so conducive for conversations during lunch and tea. The unexpected dialogue between western and eastern art has always made visits to the Villa a stimulating experience. The Berenson Art Collection serves as a continual source of inspiration for studies, publications, and informal talks at I Tatti.