The Princess Della Torre e Tasso, born Ella Walker in Detroit in 1875, acquired the Villa Serbelloni on the shores of Lake Como in Bellagio, Italy, in 1930. The granddaughter of the distiller Hiram Walker, she lived most of her adult life in Europe. In 1958, worried about the ultimate disposition of the Bellagio property as her health declined, she asked the American ambassador to Italy, James D. Zellerbach, to make inquiries about donating the estate to an American foundation or university, including the Carnegie Endowment, Ford Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation.
Dean Rusk, on behalf of the RF, was the only one to express serious interest in accepting the Villa, its 50-acre park, and the outlying buildings, which included a small church and cloister. The Foundation had been forced to abandon its Paris office and to suspend its European programs during World War II. With the prospect of acquiring a spectacular meeting place in Europe, Rusk saw an opportunity for the Foundation to return to Europe. Cautious about accepting the property, he wanted the donor to provide funds to endow its maintenance and programs. After conversations with the American ambassador, the Princess agreed to add a simple codicil to her will, bequeathing the property and $2 million to the Rockefeller Foundation "for the promotion of international understanding."
The RF assumed responsibility for the estate in 1959 and began to consider how it would be used. John Marshall, a long-time member of the Humanities Division, was named director of the Villa Serbelloni and took charge of the planning. A succession of notable visitors offered their ideas for conferences and residencies and the program took shape quickly. But the most considerable early challenge lay in persuading the Italian government that the Bellagio Center should enjoy a legal status equivalent to nonprofit status in the U.S. The U.S. Department of State made entreaties to Italy's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the difficulties were soon resolved.
By 1960-61, more than a dozen scholars and artists had spent time at Bellagio. The Foundation had also organized its own planning conferences, beginning with one on Tibetan Studies and the rescue of Tibetan scholars. It also made the Villa available to other groups such as the International Association of Universities, the Educational Testing Service, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The pattern was set. As early as 1961, an RF staff member, Gerald Freund, could see how Bellagio might be distinctive, "Only Serbelloni is connected with an institution whose officers are deeply concerned with the advance of disciplines and with the issues of advancing knowledge and understanding everywhere in the world." 
In the ensuing half century more than 4,400 artists, writers, scholars, and policymakers have held residencies at Bellagio. The Center has provided a creative and reflective space for Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel Laureates. Over more than five decades, some 36,000 people have attended conferences, dozens of which are now held each year. The conferences have addressed global challenges of every sort, from questions of international trade and finance to global health, agriculture and food security, population growth and reproductive health.
Conferences at Bellagio have often laid the groundwork for RF initiatives, sometimes setting in motion more broadly collaborative work. An important series of conferences that began in the late 1960s led to the creation of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), whose twenty-four founding organizations began to operate under the auspices of the World Bank in 1971. In the 1990s conferees met to discuss the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. A vaccine initiative was soon launched and in 1999 the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) was organized. Global educational issues have been the subject of countless Bellagio meetings since the 1960s. In 1992, one of the most noteworthy outcomes was the creation of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE).
The Bellagio Center continues to serve as a venue for meetings organized by UN agencies, international NGO's, national development agencies such as the US Agency for International Development or the UK Department for International Development, and universities from around the world.
 Memo from Gerald Freund to Kenneth W. Thompson, October 16, 1961, Record Group 3.2, Series 900, Box 88, folder 484.