Up above Florence, not far from Fiesole and Settignano, is the picturesque Villa I Tatti, formerly owned by Bernard and Mary Berenson, and now the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies.
After Berenson had completed his undergrad studies at Harvard he moved to Italy, intending to be a writer. In 1900, he and Mary were wed and moved into the rented villa with its mysterious name shortly thereafter, which they then bought in 1905. Mary, with architect Cecil Ross Pincent, designed spectacular gardens, including a secret garden and another hanging garden, in the spirit of Italian Renaissance gardens, such as the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace in Florence.
Berenson was not a wealthy man when he first arrived in Florence. But he soon became one as he learned the art business, creating himself as a Renaissance art connoisseur. From as early as 1915, Berenson knew that he wanted to donate Villa I Tatti to Harvard. He had “lucked out”, as it were, upon his arrival in the USA at 10 as a poor Jewish immigrant from Lithuania by being supported for four years at Harvard. He wanted to show his appreciation.
Harvard officially accepted the gift upon Berenson´s death in 1959 at 94. As stipulated in Berenson´s will, all the rooms in the Villa were kept as he had decorated them in 1915, to showcase a variety of art works, including Renaissance Italian paintings and Asian artifacts.
Harvard quickly mobilized and opened for its first Fellows in 1961, 50 years ago. Each year 15 full-year Fellows at the post-doctoral level are selected from around the world, on the principle that “maturing scholars, working independently, will profit from close association with each other”, based on Berenson´s dream of a “cultural center where the heritage of the past would be preserved and fruitfully studied”.
Note: Since it is an active research center and not a museum, I Tatti is not open to the general public. It is, however, possible for scholars, students, Harvard alumni, and other persons with ties to Harvard or with a special interest in the Renaissance to arrange a visit. I Tatti can accommodate no more than eight visitors at a time (no children under 12). Guided tours of the gardens and art collection are conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons at 3:00 o’clock. Written appointments requests, including names, addresses, and preferred dates, should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that visits aren’t possible in August, over Christmas, or on Italian national holidays when the Villa is closed.
ItalianNotebook.com reader and Central Italy expert. Also a recent Senior Advisor at the UN’s World Food Program as well as head of WFP’s Programme Unit in Kabul, Afghanistan, for 15 months. Expert in gender issues and community health.