Librarian Travels: Villa I Tatti & Biblioteca Berenson

While attending the Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG) meeting in Florence, Italy in late October, I was able to spend an afternoon at the Villa I Tatti, a Harvard Center that is considered to be "the foremost research institution in the world for Italian Renaissance art, history, literature, and music." Scholars of the Italian Renaissance, have an opportunity to spend a full year here on a post-doctoral Fellowship or return for shorter periods as Visiting Fellows.  The Center for Italian Renaissance Studies (opened in 1961) is not open to the public as it is a research facility but tours can be arranged by request for those with a special interest in the topic or ties to Harvard. Other key features are the working farm and a historic Italianate garden designed by Cecil Pinsent.

Villa I Tatti was a gift to Harvard from Bernard and Mary Berenson whose lives and work are fascinating. The couple met at Harvard and remembrances of this time can be seen in the online exhibit:  Bernard and Mary Berenson as (Harvard) students.  Bernard Berenson established himself as an expert on Italian Renaissance paintings and drawings and made his living as an art critic and advisor.

Bernard Berenson believed that new and exciting ideas develop through deep study and conversation with others similiarly involved in research.  Thus, one of the requirements for being a fellow at the Villa I Tatti is that you join the other fellows for meals.   The Center sits in the midst of a working farm that grows olives and grapes and produces its own oil and wine.  According to the tour guide, all the products on the farm are for the sole use of those living and working at the Center.  Information about the program states that much of the most valuable scholarship since the 1970s on the Italian Renaissance has been a result of work done at the Villa I Tatti. The Berensons collected enough art to comfortably decorate (but not over-decorate) the main house.  According to the tour guide, the art works were not necessarily top quality--the Berensons often collected second tier works.

Along with the beautiful villa, garden and farm, the Berensons established an extraordinary library that is meant to  provide comprehensive coverage of Italian Renaissance scholarship, an extensive photograph collection, an archive that documents the work of the Berensons, and a music library for medieval and Renaissance music.  Currently there are more than 175,000 volumes, 250,000 photographs and subscriptions to more than 600 scholarly journals. The Biblioteca Berenson is a quite modern facility and it is easy to see how one could become immersed in research there. The library is vital to the mission of I Tatti--the books, photographs, digital images, archives, manuscripts and recordings offer interdisciplinary opportunities for studies of late medieveal and early modern Italy and also the life and times of the Berensons.  Additionally, as part of the vast Harvard Library, there is access to all of the holdings of Harvard.

A Finding Aid to the papers of Bernard and Mary Berenson held by Harvard provides more information about the Berensons.

~Connie Rinaldo