Villa I Tatti

May 9, 2011 / Places
Florence, Tuscany
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 Please note that visits aren’t possible in August, over Christmas, or on Italian national holidays when the Villa is closed.

Gretchen Bloom

by Gretchen Bloom 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.

11 Responses to “Villa I Tatti”

  1. terry levi

    Thank you for another beautiful Florentine secret.

  2. Great note, Gretchen! It’s wonderful to discover about the behind-the-scenes lives of Italian villas!

  3. vanna moore

    what a great italianNotebook note! I will definitely try to visit Villa I Tatti on my next visit to Florence. So nice to learn about hidden treasures in Italy. Thanks! Vanna

  4. Lenore Chicka

    What a beautiful tribute of his appreciation shown to Harvard.

  5. Janet Reider

    Re. I Tatti. If one has a connection to Harvard University it is possible to make a reservation to visit I Tatti by calling Harvard University I Tatti department. We found this useful as there were only 4 of us – not the required 8 for the group tour. Although my husband is a Harvard grad, it seems as if one’s 5th cousin’s Harvard connection would suffice!

  6. Barbara

    I was fortunate to make a casual visit to I Tatti many years ago because the son of one of my Florentine friends was a gardener there. The quiet beauty and elegance of the villa and gardens still stays with me.

  7. Tori RItchie

    And I was lucky enough to go to I Tatti and study in the library when I was a Stanford student at the nearby Villa Salviatino in 1979. I remember it being so quiet that all I could hear was the birds in the garden. Not sure where all the people were! Truly elegant.

  8. Helen Burbery

    Being a great lover of renaissance painting AND the work of Bernhard Berenson, I have longed to go to I Tatti for many years……having just survived a cardiac arrest, I am more determined…..but still waiting. I long to get there before I die…I’m 66 now. I live too far away – Australia! Thank you Gretchen for this delightful article and photos…….

    Helen Burbery (retired graphic designer)


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