Villa I Tatti in Fiesole, in the hills above Florence, was for over 60 years the home of renaissance art entrepreneur Bernard Berenson and his wife Mary.
Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes, Edith Wharton, the Sitwells, Rosamund Lehmann and much later, Freya Stark, were among the guests who thronged there each summer from about 1910 to the late 1920s, enjoying the art collection, the sumptuous library, the exquisite gardens and the glittering conversation.
Relationships among this group were febrile rivalries, secret and not-so-secret love affairs and petty jealousies abounded. A young Englishman, Geoffrey Scott, was destined to stir these passions to often delirious heights.
In 1989 during a study break at I Tatti (now owned by Harvard University), Richard Dunn, an American scholar, discovered 30 large envelopes containing letters that had not been included in the inventory of the Berenson papers. The envelopes contained about 1,000 letters marked "Please destroy". They contained the stuff of Scotts life and circle. Most were written by the Berensons, Wharton and Scott himself.
Skilfully and with a pleasing irony, in his book "Geoffrey Scott and the Berenson Circle", Dunn has re-created a literary and artistic expatriate circle that glittered for two decades in and around Fiesole, that was at home in London, Paris and New York, that provided a fascinating milieu for a young Englishman with no prospects, but with talents of extraordinary breadth and depth. It is an important contribution to the genre of diaries and letters of the time, and the reader can only be pleased that no one took seriously the instruction to destroy those letters.
In 1906 Mary Berenson sent word of her need to have some young men as summer companions to her two young daughters, Ray and Karin, children of her late husband Benjamin Costelloe. Keynes and Scott obliged; Scott stayed on.
Mary had long desired the conversion of I Tatti from a relatively humble country house with a rough garden into a renaissance villa of luxurious proportions and interiors. Scott was a charming aesthete and another young Englishman, Cecil Pinsent, was a newly-proclaimed architect living in Florence, so she took them under her wing and employed them to undertake the conversion. They learned on the job.
Mary did not mind, she adored them, but Bernard who had to pay did not. He was constantly irritated by the impracticalities of their designs and artistic endeavours. In spite of his disapproval he later employed them to design and build the famous library at I Tatti and agreed (under pressure) that they should create a garden to enhance the villa.
Pinsent went on to build up a successful architectural practice in Florence and later created the elegant gardens of the Origo family at La Foce near Chianciano Terme.
Scott became the darling of Mary and Wharton, and between travelling with them, helping them buy antique furniture and enjoying the life of a proteg, he wrote a highly regarded treatise on the aesthetic of renaissance architecture, "The Architecture of Humanism". He also wrote a biographical bubble "The Portrait of Zlide" a witty reconstruction of the life of the novelist Isabelle de Charrire who was for many years the mistress of the Swiss writer Benjamin Constant.
Scott was an unlucky lover but that never constrained him in his amorous adventures. His first female love was Marys daughter Karin. Mary did not want Scott to become her son-in-law, and nor did Berenson. He had sensed (rightly) that Mary felt more than the affection of a patroness for the handsome young man. Karin eventually married Virginia Woolfs brother, Adrian Stephen.
Over time, Scott recovered from this rebuff and then fell in love with Nicky Mariano, who later became Berensons companion and secretary. When Mariano was forced to stay in Russia with her family during the war and revolution, Scott decided to take up the suggestion (made in jest, he later discovered) by Mary and Wharton that he marry the rich and neurotic widow Sybil Cutting (mother of Iris Origo), who owned the neighbouring Villa Medici and had been Berensons lover for some years.
Mary and Wharton were furious and vengeful when the wedding took place. Then Mariano came back and found Scotts attentions embarrassing. Scott pined, Cutting cried. Then Vita Sackville-West appeared on the scene a love affair blazed, but Sackville-West tired of him, preferring her husband Harold Nicolson, as she always did. Then Virginia Woolf caught her eye and it was off with the old Scott and on with the new Virginia.
Cutting had had enough. She divorced Scott and married safe, unhandsome Percy Lubbock. Scott left Italy and returned to London, a shattered, discarded man.
There he had to face the need to earn his living and some self-respect as a professional scholar and writer. He had lost favour and could no longer count on adventures with rich or glamorous women. Just when his life seemed doomed to dullness, a rich American, Ralph Isham, entered with a collection of James Boswells unseen papers and a desire to publish them. He needed a scholar as editor and Scott was the very person.
Scott sailed to America, took up residence in his employers mansion on Long Island and began work on the Boswell papers and letters that had been discovered in Ireland. He also found another lover, Muriel Draper, who loved him back and introduced him to the intellectual charms of New York. At the height of his victory over life he took ill and died.
This book is not only a collection of scandalous gossip although to an aficionado of diaries and letters of the 20th century it is a feast. References to Scott are to be found in the diaries of Woolf and Harold Nicolson, the letters of Sackville-West, Mary Berenson and Wharton and the autobiography of Origo. He seemed destined to remain a footnote to other peoples lives.
Yet Villa I Tatti stands as a monument to his taste and style. His biography of de Charrire ranks alongside the best of Lytton Stracheys writing, and his study of architecture remained a basic text book for students until the mid 1960s. The three volumes of the Boswell papers that were published before his death were a critical success. He was a charming and erudite polymath richly deserving of a biography to himself. Dunn has written that biography.
"Geoffrey Scott and the Berenson Circle", by Richard M. Dunn. 1998, The Edwin Mellen Press. Lampeter, Ceredigion, Wales, UK.
Villa I Tatti, Via de Vincigliata 26, 8 km north-east of Florence. Gardens are open by appointment, tel 055603251.
Photo. Bernard Berenson at I Tatti