Villa Houses Scholars, History
This fall, four thousand miles away from the hubbub of Cambridge—removed from the Occupy movement, library cutbacks, and heated debates over the return of ROTC—scholars at Harvard’s center in Italy harvested grapes.
At Villa i Tatti, Harvard’s center for Italian Renaissance studies, a group of research fellows take part each fall in a harvest festival called the vendemmia, one of I Tatti’s many traditions that preserve the culture and the spirit of the Renaissance.
In a time of continual change in the Harvard community, I Tatti serves as a living time capsule, upholding the vision and traditions of its founder, renowned art critic Bernard Berenson, Class of 1887.
Nearly five decades after Berenson’s death, Villa i Tatti remains a bustling hive of intellectual activity and a haven for scholars to rediscover the Renaissance in the modern world.
FOOD AND FELLOWSHIP
When Berenson died in 1959, Harvard University became heir to an impressive art collection and one of the largest private libraries in the world. His Villa i Tatti, in the rustic Settignano foothills east of Florence, has since become a refuge for scholars and artists.
Former musician-in-residence Christopher Stembridge recalls his days at I Tatti with fondness: studying Frescobaldi in the library, walking a few minutes to Berenson’s study, and sitting down to play the harpsichord in the presence of original Giotto paintings.
Every day, readers and scholars enjoy conversation over morning coffee with olive-oil doused schiacciata Tuscan flatbread. Midday they gather to enjoy wine and a three course lunch in the dining room.
“We come together in fellowship around food and wine,” says Elizabeth W. Mellyn, who has studied at I Tatti.
Fellows and administrators are rightly proud of the wine and high-grade extra virgin oil served at meals, as both are from I Tatti’s own vineyards and olive groves. In a speech during I Tatti’s 50th Anniversary Celebration last year, professor Lino Pertile, director of I Tatti and former Eliot House master, noted that their olive oil has won prizes in local fairs and the wine “has now reached a quality that would definitely impress Mr. Berenson and his guests.”
While it may seem odd to some that the University owns a property that produces Harvard-label wine, the consensus of those at Villa i Tatti is that its production is a part of their broader efforts to celebrate Italian culture and to encourage the cross-culture and to encourage the cross-pollination of ideas and personal interactions among the scholars, students, and guests.
“It’s a monastery for lay-people, in a way—with all the best aspects. That’s how Berenson envisioned it. You meet together for meals, and then you go to your little cells to focus,” says Michael T. Tworek, a teaching fellow in history who spent time as a visiting graduate fellow at I Tatti.
Pertile, a native of Italy and a professor of romance languages and literatures, likened the small I Tatti community to Eliot House, where he served as House master until 2010. Pertile relates with a chuckle an incident when he accidentally welcomed a group of dignitaries to I Tatti by saying “welcome all of you to Villa—Eliot House!”
But the marvels of I Tatti do not come cheap. Although an arm of Harvard University, I Tatti is an autonomous and financially independent allied institution that must raise its own capital to fund projects.