Art Scholar Bequeaths Villa to Harvard

Renowned Renaissance art collector hoped that younger students would learn at his villa

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Courtesy VILLA I tatti

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“Miracles happen to those who believe in them,” Bernard Berenson, class of 1887, once said. And surely he must have believed in them.

Though he began his life as a displaced Lithuanian immigrant, Berenson wound up a regent in the court of his own choosing. While he lived, Berenson was the chief diplomat of Italian Renaissance Art throughout the world. Considered a scholar of the highest order—though the insights of history have raised questions about his dealings in the art world—Berenson was friendly with and respected by the foremost literati of his day such as Oscar Wilde and Henry James. His word was often the only authority needed to verify the authenticity of a Da Vinci or Titian, and consequently, Berenson was an indispensable friend to collectors and dealers across the world.

But perhaps Bernard Berenson’s greatest legacy was the villa which he called his own, and which became very much a part of who Berenson was—Villa I Tatti. “It is a machine à vivre, if you like, as there is a similar machine our bodies, but like my body my house has a soul—I hope,” Berenson once wrote.

When Berenson died in October of 1959, at the age of 94, he bequeathed his estate, along with his library and art collection, to Harvard in the hopes that I Tatti would become a center of humanistic learning where younger scholars could come conduct research and encounter new ideas. And since it was first given to Harvard in 1959, Berenson’s Villa has become just that—an institutionalized arcadia that offers a small community of scholars the opportunity to nourish themselves with all the fruits of Berenson’s bouquet.

A PRECOCIOUS CHILD

Born to a Jewish family in Lithuania, Berenson, along with his mother and two younger siblings, followed his father to Boston in 1875, when Berenson was 10 years old. He was a precocious child who could read German by the age of three and was already well-versed in authors of the Romantic period by the time he was 12. After graduating from Boston Latin School, Berenson attended Boston University for one year before transferring to Harvard in order to study Sanskrit, which Boston University did not offer. At Harvard, Berenson studied art history under Charles Eliot Norton and wrote literary essays for the Harvard Monthly, of which he was elected editor-in-chief in his senior year.

After his graduation in 1887, Berenson had intended to be a critic and novelist, but a trip to Europe funded by Isabella Stewart Gardner and others convinced him to devote his life to studying Italian art.

Berenson lingered in Europe well past his sponsored year, and when his pursuit of Italian painting led him to England in 1890, Berenson met Mary Smith Costelloe, who was married at the time with two young children. Costelloe followed Berenson to Florence as his pupil and lover. In 1900, a year after the death of her first husband, Costelloe married Berenson and the couple moved into I Tatti.

APOGEE AND DEATH

Widely regarded as the preeminent authority on Renaissance art, Berenson published several books on the Italian Renaissance and advised a number of museums and collectors in the United States, including most notably Isabella Stewart Gardner. Berenson once said famously that most of the major Italian pictures in America entered with his stamp on their passports.

In the 1930s, despite having converted to Roman Catholicism, Berenson faced insecurity, first under Fascist authorities and later under the Nazis. “We are at the heart of the German rearguard action, and seriously exposed,” Berenson wrote in his diary in the summer of 1944. Berenson remained at I Tatti, though, and miraculously, the villa went untouched, as did most of his collections which had been relocated to a villa at Careggi.

When Berenson died in 1959, he was buried in a small 18th century chapel on the property, beside his wife, who had died in 1945.

BERENSON’S BEQUEST

Even as the man shaped the villa, though, the villa shaped the man. “It made Berenson into the lord of that manor, the sage of that hermitage, the bait of that gilded trap,” wrote William F. Weaver, author of “A Legacy of Excellence: The Story of Villa I Tatti.”

Located in Fiesole at the western edge of Florence, the I Tatti estate covers 75 acres and contains about a dozen major buildings as well as an immaculately tended historic garden, which combines English and Italian landscape designs, and a working farm, which continues to produce wine and olive oil. The entrance is preceded by a long cypress avenue which ends in a small garden leading up to the magnificent Tuscan villa.

As early as the 1910s, Berenson had made clear his desire to leave his house, library, and collection to Harvard, which he credited with opening intellectual doors to him as a penniless immigrant. Berenson reaffirmed this wish in the printed report of the 50th anniversary of the Class of 1887.

The Center for Italian Renaissance Studies opened at I Tatti in 1961 and, from its inception, was devoted to scholarship on all aspects of the Italian Renaissance including art history, literary history, musical history, scientific history, and political, economic, and social history. Berenson would have preferred that the entire community be made up of critics and connoisseurs of art, but Harvard decided to make the center an interdisciplinary institute.

“Research for the lust of research,” Berenson said a year before he died, “is not to be encouraged.” Berenson envisioned a humanistic institute that provided scholars with the opportunity to pursue long-term projects and intellectual interests and freed them from the urgent pressure to publish.

“What counted,” according to I Tatti director Joseph Connors, “was to achieve the highest standards in these fields and to make an impact on international scholarship, as well as on the Florentine scholarly world.”

The resources at I Tatti continue to attract broad scholarly interest. In accordance with Berenson’s wishes, his collection of about 120 priceless works of Renaissance art, as well as a few Asian and Islamic masterpieces, remains at the villa.

The villa also houses the Berenson archive, with letters to and from the Berensons’ 1,400 correspondents, 6,000 letters between Bernard and Mary, their diaries, manuscripts, and other personal records.

It is the library, though, which was most beloved by Berenson, who reportedly said that in an afterlife, he would have liked to haunt his library. Today, the Biblioteca Berenson has grown from the original 50,000 volumes to about 150,000 volumes, and over 300,000 photographs and other visual materials are housed in the Fototeca Berenson, which will soon be made digitally accessible.

‘AN ARCADIA’

Since the original class of six post-doctoral fellows first convened in 1961, the number of scholars I Tatti welcomes has grown to 15 full-year fellows and approximately 20 other fellows and visiting professors who stay for shorter terms. While the fellows were once all American, recent fellows have hailed from as far away as Australia, Ireland, and the Czech Republic. The fellows, whose fields range from art history and music history to English literature, are selected by a committee of scholars from around the world that meets annually at Harvard.

According to Marica S. Tacconi, a professor of musicology at Pennsylvania State University who was a fellow at I Tatti for the 2002-2003 academic year, I Tatti provides a wonderful opportunity not only for scholars to have time away from their regular teaching responsibilities and to write, but also to interact with others who share an interest in Renaissance Italy.

“The intellectual environment is so vibrant,” Tacconi said. “I really don’t think I could have written my book without it.”

Machtelt Israels, a fellow in 2004-2005 from the University of Amsterdam, echoed Tacconi’s sentiment about the value of bringing scholars from across disciplines and countries together.

“I think the place is a kind of arcadia,” Israels said. “Once you’ve got in there, you’re part of a wonderful humanist Renaissance-studying community.”

Since taking over as head of I Tatti in 2002, Connors, previously a professor of art history at Columbia and the Director of the American Academy in Rome, has introduced several new one-semester fellowships including one for museum curators or others already working professionally and one for graduate students to pursue scholarship outside of their dissertation.

Two graduate students per semester, usually from Harvard, but occasionally from other institutions, are selected as Readers at I Tatti on the basis of an application, interview, and recommendation.

Yulia Ryzhik, a graduate student in English literature at Harvard, spent the fall semester at I Tatti this year.

“I think it’s a really wonderful idea to have graduate students… come and take time off, not to work on their Ph.D.s, but just to read and broaden their horizons,” Ryzhik said.

Ryzhik was joined this fall by Max M. Freeman, another graduate student at Harvard who reiterated the value of non project-based work. “The whole point is to ramble about on a sort of intellectual adventure,” said Freeman, who spent his time visiting churches and reading a lot of Boccaccio.

Freeman said that the fellowship for graduate students is aimed at people who are not primarily Italian specialists. “I think the point is to sort of tempt people over to the Italian side of things,” he said. “And it works.”

The whole I Tatti community gathers around an antique table for lunch, served at the estate every weekday. The lunches, while informal, provide an opportunity for scholars to exchange ideas and cement long-term friendships.

“At lunch, you mingle, you socialize, you talk about your work, you commiserate about your progress or lack thereof,” Tacconi said. “When you live so closely together and you share so much of your work, you really become close, not only as colleagues but as friends as well.”

I Tatti also sponsors a regular lecture series and organizes field trips for the fellows to Florence and other Italian cities. An annual conference in the spring draws prominent Renaissance scholars from around the world.

This October, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Berenson’s death, the villa will host a three-day symposium on the Berensons’ intellectual world with over a dozen different scholars delivering papers on Berenson’s life and legacy.

Also in October, I Tatti will complete a major renovation of one wing of the library, and next spring, a new building will open with studies for fellows as well as a small lecture room.

While I Tatti is closed to the general public, Harvard affiliates can write in advance and make special arrangements to visit the villa and gardens.

—Staff writer Alexandra Perloff-Giles can be reached at aperloff@fas.harvard.edu.