Villa I Tatti's roots as a center for advanced research go back to the late 1950s when the art historian and connoisseur Bernard Berenson left his villa and extensive collections of books, photographs, and works of art to his alma mater Harvard. The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies opened its doors to the first scholars in 1961, and the villa which had hitherto been home to Berenson and his wife Mary was transformed into an institution where gifted scholars could exchange ideas, find tranquillity, conduct research and write, and be physically close to the many sites of historical importance in Florence and beyond. The Harvard Center is dedicated to the exploration of all aspects of late medieval and early modern Italian culture and society, including the multi-faceted connections between Italy and the world beyond. Berenson took a broad geographic view of the Renaissance, urging scholars to travel and gather knowledge beyond European boundaries, and he expressed the hope that scholars benefiting from fellowships at I Tatti would originate not only from the United States but from many countries, bringing with them their own approaches and viewpoints. These notions of collaboration, exploration and fellowship remain central to I Tatti’s mission to this day.
The Photo Archive is an integral part of the Berenson Library, a major resource for the study of all aspects of medieval and early modern Italy and related fields. With its origins in Bernard and Mary Berenson's pioneering work with photographs, it has long been acknowledged as an important tool for the study of the history of art. Now holding around 250,000 photographic prints and other related materials, the still-growing collection contains photographs of artworks in many media ranging from antiquity to the mid-20th century, focusing on the Mediterranean basin but including other parts of the world.
The collection's central focus is on Italian art, especially painting and drawing, of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance from 1250 to 1600. This area constitutes the vast majority of the archive overall, and is the only section that since the 1960s continues be developed. Other smaller sections nonetheless contain important older materials and often reflect Berenson's wide interests beyond the Italian Renaissance. These include significant groups of images of illuminated manuscripts; Italian sculpture, architecture, and views; post-Renaissance Italian painting (up to the 20th century); archaeology; early Christian, Byzantine and medieval art; applied arts; non-Italian European art; Islamic architecture: and early 20th-century views of Indian monuments. Additionally, the extensive Papers of Bernard and Mary Berenson, held by the Berenson Library, provide an indispensable related resource for understanding the broader scholarly and commercial context of Berenson's image collection.
Since Berenson's death in 1959, the Photo Archive has grown through purchases and sponsored photographic campaigns as well through significant donations or bequests of the study photographs of art historians or conservators, and of collections of early photograph albums. The Berenson Library's holdings of photographs overall is also enhanced and enriched by numerous archival collections of personal or institutional papers that contain significant groups of images.
To date, the holdings of the Photo Archive are accessible online through collection-level records by artist or, where appropriate, by category, and through item-level records and digitized images for roughly ten percent of the collection. The Berenson Library is actively pursuing cataloging and digitization projects for images both in the Photo Archive and the library's historical archives.