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Up at the Villa

Harvard should take the responsibility to preserve culture

By J. hale Russell

FLORENCE, Italy—Nestled atop a grassy hill just outside Florence lies Harvard’s least-trod campus. If power at the University is measured in steps from the John Harvard statue, the Villa i Tatti would regrettably fall off the radar screen.

Here, 15 resident postdoc fellows inhabit plush residences, dine on fresh gourmet food at an antique table and amble across acres of well-groomed Italian gardens. (Five full-time gardeners, provided by Harvard, tend to the century-old landscape.) A staffer at the villa explains that visitors cannot see the library for fear of disturbing the scholars who are “hard at work,” somehow escaping the temptation to pluck lemons from the villa’s trees in the sunny Tuscan weather. The massive library collection at their disposal seems at least as tempting—150,000 volumes and 300,000 photographs, including some of the most rare and significant tomes for Renaissance art history scholars.

Bequeathed to Harvard by Bernard Berenson, Class of 1887—an art critic as renowned as he was wealthy—these 94,000 square feet of space house the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Study. The villa’s walls are covered in paintings by some of the top names of the Renaissance, pieces that make it the envy of museums worldwide. The facility garners a mention in most guidebooks to the area (though tours are hard to come by, offered only twice a week to no more than 8 people.) The pristinely-tended gardens, hedges perfectly trimmed and grounds always swept clean, are considered one of the best surviving examples of early 1900s English and Italian gardens. (Berenson couldn’t decide if he wanted the Italian or English landscape style, so he made a bit of each.)

Harvard’s little-known decision to maintain the Villa i Tatti’s grounds and collections shows a laudable commitment to international culture and the arts—one otherwise all too rare at this University. At first glance, the Villa would be an easy candidate for critique by most undergraduates, who might, with some justification, ask why Harvard can’t provide them a decent gym when it has Tuscan villas lying around. Villa i Tatti ate up a hefty $5 million of the University’s total budget in a recent year, and it employs a staff of about 50—including chefs, gardeners, librarians and security guards. A guide at the villa commented casually that Harvard is always ready to give the center more money, a statement one would be surprised to hear from a Cambridge-based administrator. And despite the lavish expenditures, only the 15 resident scholars and a group of about 500 affiliates can use these resources, and the application process is excruciatingly competitive.

But the center, despite its exclusivity, is not a waste or misguided allocation of money; instead, it epitomizes a mission Harvard should be embracing whenever possible. As a world-renowned institution of scholarship, the University’s responsibility extends not just to those within its Cantabrigian walls. Maintaining the villa—both as a top center of research and as an opulent and historically significant physical plant—is an honorable undertaking.

Its facilities attract the best researchers in Renaissance art history studies who hole themselves up here for a year of study. It is something of a cult to visit, marked only with a discreet note on the electronic security gate that opens into paradise for art scholars. Respect for the founder abounds: one veteran of the center is fond of using the term “Berensonian” and situating time with the terms “pre-Berensonian,” “post-Berensonian.” There are no signs that this is part of Harvard until one peers in the windows and sees Wideneresque bookshelves.

With the Villa i Tatti, Harvard is serving as caretaker of cultural and personal legacy: paintings, books, buildings and grounds that epitomize their respective eras and locales. It would be a tragedy—not just to Renaissance scholars, but to human culture—to let them tarnish. Though the occasional guided tour may be the closest most people will get to Berenson’s paintings—a regrettable decision, but one necessary to keep the fragile art and books safe—the Villa frequently funds top-notch restorations of the canvases on its walls. These paintings one day will be important for a researcher and may wind up in a museum. In a similar vein, the Fogg Art Museum’s collections serve art history students, but they also provide a rich collection for public visitors, and (equally important) collect and catalogue and preserve and restore artwork of extreme significance. Houghton Library is a fantastic resource for literary scholars; but of equal credibility is its mission of meticulous preservation of monumental books. And the villa naturally serves its select and enviable group of scholars; but the facility would have reason to exist even without them as a rare preserve of something special.

Moreover, the villa gives Harvard an international component that surely benefits both sides of the Atlantic. Harvard is fond of calling itself a “global institution,” though demonstrations of this commitment are harder to come by. But at the villa, scholars come from worldwide, and it demonstrates an attentiveness to the world beyond the narrow confines of Harvard Yard and a history beyond that of the University’s.

An institution of Harvard’s caliber has a twin responsibility: to those who directly use its resources, but also to the culture and society it indirectly studies and honors. If anything, Harvard could use more centers like this—and should increase openness by better publicizing the important work that goes on here. And keep paying those Tuscan gardeners well. Those lemons looked pretty juicy.

J. Hale Russell ’05 is an English concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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