Skip to Content

An Interview with Allen Grieco, Visiting Scholar

Posted On May 04, 2012 | 15:52 pm | by lisaw | Permalink

Michael Lee

Allen Grieco (PhD École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales) is Lila Acheson Wallace Assistant Director of Gardens and Grounds & Scholarly Programs as well as Senior Research Associate in History at Villa I Tatti (The Harvard University Centre for Italian Renaissance Studies). In April 2012 he was Visiting Scholar in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks.

Dr. Grieco has published extensively on the cultural history of food in Italy from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries and co-edited several collective volumes, amongst which are Food Excesses and Constraints in Europe, special issue of Food & History (2006), Dalla vite al vino. Fonti e problemi della vitivinicultura italiana nel medioevo (Bologna, 1994), and Le Monde végétal (XIIe–XVIIe siècles): savoirs et usages sociaux (Vincennes, 1993). Currently co-editor-in-chief of Food & History (Turnhout, Brepols), he is also in charge of a bibliographic project on the history of food in Europe funded by the Mellon Foundation and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. He has taught at Harvard, Florence, and Bologna, and has created an English-language graduate program at the Università delle Scienze Gastronomiche, Pollenzo (Italy).

Q. Dr. Grieco, you have come to Dumbarton Oaks to conduct research on the gardens of Cecil Pinsent (1884–1963). How have your responsibilities as director of the gardens at Villa I Tatti led you to pursue this project?

I have been at I Tatti for 23 years, where I spend about half my time overseeing the gardens and grounds. These include not only the gardens proper (7 acres) but also a surrounding agricultural landscape of about 66 acres that includes olives and vines. Careful management requires making historically-informed decisions regarding maintenance and restoration in order to ensure that the original character of the landscape is respected, even as it is allowed to evolve. So from both a practical and a scholarly point of view, it is essential to understand the history of the site as it was designed through the collaboration of the patrons with their landscape architect and architect.

The villa was acquired by Bernard and Mary Berenson in 1901 and bequeathed to Harvard University in 1960. An existing farmhouse was redesigned by the architect Geoffrey Scott as the Berenson residence, and Bernard Berenson’s friend and associate Cecil Pinsent began work on the gardens in 1909. Construction progressed through several phases, was interrupted by World War I, and then completed in 1919–25.

Over the years I have been able to piece together through various sources the general evolution of the gardens. My initial interest in Pinsent’s work grew out of this practical need to understand the history of I Tatti, but it has expanded to include Pinsent’s career as a whole. I am particularly interested in how I Tatti, his first major garden, fits into his larger body of work.

Q. Prior to your arrival at Dumbarton Oaks, what have you have you been able to learn by consulting primary materials such as plans and letters in the holdings of the Berenson Library at I Tatti?

The holdings at I Tatti have provided insights into certain phases of gardens’ construction, with glimpses of Pinsent’s conversations with the Berensons, particularly with Mary, through correspondence, as well as some preserved building permits that help document construction. There is also a collection of historical photographs that show the state of the gardens, as well as the larger site, during the various phases of construction. However, we are at a great disadvantage in reconstructing this history because Pinsent burned the vast majority of his papers and drawings before he died.

Q. With so many gaps in the primary materials related to Pinsent’s work, what are you hoping to find in the Dumbarton Oaks library?

My research at Dumbarton Oaks focuses not so much on Pinsent’s work at I Tatti, but rather on the contextualization of his design approach within the broader world of landscape architecture during the early twentieth century. For this purpose, the library’s holdings have been especially helpful because of their depth—not only in early twentieth-century monographs on garden design but also in garden and design periodicals of that period. It is this broader view that I have had difficulty constructing elsewhere and that the time here at Dumbarton Oaks has been so useful in addressing.

Q. What is the potential scholarly significance of the project?

I plan to publish this research as a series of articles on the gardens of I Tatti, or perhaps as a monograph on Pinsent’s work as a whole. As significant as Pinsent was in his time, and especially given his prolific output, it is curious that he has been largely ignored by scholars. He began to attract some notice in the 1980s, and there have been a few articles and one conference on him since that time, but much of the discussion has been anecdotal rather than analytic and interpretive. I am hoping to draw attention to Pinsent’s qualities as a designer, and to reassess his significance for early twentieth-century landscape architecture.