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Inside the Italian Villa That Launched Some of the World’s Great Philanthropic Programs

For more than 60 years, The Rockefeller Foundation has hosted scientists, academics, and artists for a unique summer program.

In the annals of ostentatious philanthropic giving, it’s hard to beat Helena Holbrook Walker, an American heiress turned Italian noble. In 1959, shortly before her death, Walker gifted her gorgeous Villa Serbelloni on the shores of Italy’s Lake Como to The Rockefeller Foundation for “purposes connected with the promotion of international understanding.”

That became the Bellagio Center, where each year Rockefeller hosts dozens of hand-selected scientists, artists, academics, and more for a four-week residency amid the Italian Alps. Their mission, as Zia Khan, Rockefeller’s senior vice president for innovation, told me, is to combine their disparate skills and experiences to “create a new shared knowledge” that can be put to work solving some of the world’s most pressing problems. (Disclosure: The Rockefeller Foundation helped support Future Perfect in 2018 and 2019.)

Bellagio alumni include names like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Maya Angelou, and Nikole Hannah-Jones. The Center provided a launching pad for historic initiatives like the Green Revolution and the delivery of badly needed HIV drugs to the Global South, which was crystalized with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, put into place two decades ago this year. Today Rockefeller will announce its 2023 residents, including names like data scientist Cathy O’Neil, journalist Julia Angwin, and filmmaker dream hampton.

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