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Only in America

Being Bernard Berenson

by Meryle Secrest
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 473 pp., $15.95

If small, lithe tigers could speak, they would have the voice and intelligence of this feline Pole. He has velvet paws and killer talons of steel. He’s let his beard grow to cover up the fact that he is only half a man. His eyes are blue, the better to deceive…. His ambition, which is consuming, is to be recognized as the world’s greatest expert on the Italian primitives; and he achieved his goal about three years ago. He is a dying man, but he’ll go on for a long, long time. He doesn’t do business or accept commissions, but he shares in the profits. ‘Here are 25,000 francs, M. Berenson.’ ‘Merci, Gimpel.”’

This entry from the 1918 diary of the art dealer René Gimpel is the best thumbnail sketch of Bernard Berenson yet written. It was a curious fact of cultural life, and perhaps a tribute to the old serpent’s powers of intimidation, that nobody else could deal with him in such terms, catching his epicene grace, deviousness, hypochondria, greed, relentless ambition, and ophidian charm in a few lines. It is now twenty years since Berenson died in 1959, and it seems longer, partly because of the fuzziness and piety of his memorialists, and partly because of his own remoteness from modernist culture. And yet he is still an extraordinarily interesting, even a legendary, creature. Berenson’s success story was one of the most spectacular in the history of art—the poor Jewish boy from a Lithuanian shtetl who became a millionaire dictator of taste; the Harvard scholar who rose, by the end of his life, to be regarded as a latter-day Goethe; the neurasthenic youth who outlived nearly all his contemporaries, dying at the patriarchal age of ninety-four in the elaborately plain Tuscan villa where, for fifty years, dealers, collectors, historians, minor nobility, princes, kings, and politicians had paid assiduous and often slavish court to him. Berenson was one of the wiliest and yet most self-deluded men that ever lived, a great connoisseur, but also a master of opportunism who came to believe in his own fictions. He was, to put it mildly, a hard nut to crack, and is a harder one to write about.

Of the many pieces written on the Sage of I Tatti, as Berenson was routinely called in his old age, few have biographical value and most are silly. One need not count the articles which had become, by 1950, a subgenre of American journalism all on their own, written by the hordes of Luce staffers and CIA spooks on holiday who made the trek up the hill to Settignano and were rewarded by the sight of Berenson, trundled out like a reliquary by his companion Nicky Mariano, with some rich young man being groomed for a future in the art world—Carter Brown, William Mostyn-Owen—in attendance. It was one of the sights of Florence and, unlike the view of the Duomo from San Miniato, not everyone saw it, so that those who did felt both humble and privileged. Berenson’s unsereiner felt duty-bound to sustain the legend and treat him as a secular saint, as though he had actually become the modern Goethe he once aspired to be.

Occasionally, as the years went by, a chink would appear in the curtain, as when Kenneth Clark in his unrevealing first volume of autobiography (Another Part of the Wood, 1974) described him as sitting “on the pinnacle of a mountain of corruption.” The memoirs of Nicky Mariano (Forty Years with Berenson, 1966) are wholly uncritical, as one might expect from a devoted protector who spent the last years of her life trying to make sure no biographer would get access to any document that shed anything but luster on Berenson’s memory. And the only previous attempt at a full-dress biography, Sylvia Sprigge’s Berenson (1960), was less written than poked into shape by an author who had few responses to art or art history, and a naïve view of relationships within the I Tatti circle.

But the twentieth anniversary of Berenson’s death has brought two new works on him, both immeasurably superior to earlier biographical attempts. They should be read together, since they approach their subject from different angles. The more elaborate and scholarly of the two, Ernest Samuels’s Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur, is a lucid and exhaustively researched account of less than half of Berenson’s life, taking him through the years of his Lithuanian childhood, his emigration to America, his intellectual blossoming at Harvard, his return to Europe and self-discovery in connoisseurship. It leaves him in 1905 when, in his fortieth year, having blitzed the American museums and collectors on a tour of the eastern states and set up his reputation in the US as the world’s top eye on Italian Renaissance art, he made his final departure for Italy.

The second book, Meryle Secrest’s Being Bernard Berenson, covers the whole life, so that we see the transubstantiation of Berenson the scholar into B.B. the culture hero. Its texture of detail is necessarily sparser. Samuels’s book, from the point of view of I Tatti and its jealous ghosts, is the official biography: in 1966, two years before she died, Nicky Mariano gave Samuels access to the Berenson archive, whereas her nephew—no relation to Berenson, but, by some testamentary quirk, the inheritor of his personal papers—refused the same courtesy to Secrest. Neither of them could read the all-important correspondence between Berenson and the dealer Lord Duveen, in which many bodies presumably lie buried. Berenson was Duveen’s chief adviser for thirty years, and only their letters can finally resolve the highly vexed questions of Berenson’s business morality and the disinterestedness of his attributions. Unfortunately, they are under seal in the Metropolitan Museum until the year 2002, by which time anyone who ever did business with either man will be unable to sue.

Faced with this problem, Samuels took the conservative decision to leave Berenson a year before he started working for Duveen. Secrest, on the other hand, has tried to reconstruct Berenson’s relation to the art market during those thirty years from other sources—and she appears to have interviewed almost everyone who knew Berenson and is still neither dead nor gaga. Nevertheless, until the Duveen archive is unsealed, this job cannot properly be done; which means, in turn, that there can be no truly definitive biography of Berenson until the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, Secrest’s narrative is the liveliest evocation of this strangely conflict-ridden man that has yet been written, a portrait with the unmistakable ring of psychological truth.

Berenson was not, as Gimpel thought, a Pole; nor was he, as others at one time or another took him to be, English, French, Austrian, German, or American. He was careful to veil his origins, because he was ashamed of them. He was a Jew, a child of the shtetl. He was born Bernhard Valvrojenski, the child of a well-read but poor lumber merchant in a now extinct village named Butrimants, in the northern part of the Pale of Settlement, in 1865. He was an adored eldest boy, “the infant prince of a neolithic Lithuanian ghetto,” as he noted eighty-five years later. When he was ten his family took him to America and they settled in a small row house in Boston. From the beginning, his parents hoped that Bernhard would bring distinction to the family, transcend their poverty, or perhaps become a great Talmudic scholar. What happened exceeded their hopes; but it could hardly have been predicted.

Berenson, as the family name became—perhaps at his prompting, though that is unclear—lived in Boston for a dozen years, first at school and then at Harvard, from 1875 to 1887. In that time, pressed on by his father—a freethinker whose friends, according to Samuels, were given to publicly eating ham sandwiches outside the synagogue on Yom Kippur—he remade himself. The pallid, bookish Litvak became, as Secrest puts it, “the very model of a proper Bostonian, circa 1885: polished, impeccably mannered, exquisitely educated, and fastidiously aesthetical.” In the process, he had to submit to the judgments of his social superiors, most of whom were quietly anti-Semitic. Berenson missed the high tide of proper Bostonian Jew-hating, which came after the great exodus of Jews to America in the late 1880s. Nevertheless the prejudices he met in the society he aspired to join were of an almost Prussian nastiness, and they skewed his life.

He set out to cover his traces. Berenson had an almost pathological need to dissemble his own Jewishness, and Secrest quotes a remarkable passage from an essay that he sent to the Andover Review when he was twenty-three:

It is only by a study of Jewish institutions and literature that we shall begin to understand the puzzling character of the Jews. Begin to understand, I say, for comprehend them we never shall. Their character and interests are too vitally opposed to our own to permit the existence of that intelligent sympathy between us and them which is necessary for comprehension….

This drive to become a Gentile at almost any cost was the fruit of real desperation: young Berenson experienced his race and origins as a Medusa’s head which could petrify his career at one glance. His social climbing, which looks so repellent and calculated, was inspired by the conviction that there was no way back. Proper Boston possessed the first culture he wanted to have; Jewishness was not a culture, only a point of origin, something to transcend by means of any available fiction. In his old age, Berenson would make peace with his childhood, becoming almost rabbinical. But for the first fifty years of his life he fought to overcome and repress it, so that the gifted shtetl boy was displaced by a more literary specter—the pale exile of conjectural but high origins, bestowing his allegiance only on Culture: a Childe Harold of the salons and museums. His pedigree could not impress Boston, but his credentials of feeling could.

Berenson went to Harvard at a time when the cult of sensibility had swollen to unheard-of proportions, dominating all cultural discourse. As Samuels rightly observes, one of William James’s effects on undergraduates in the Eighties was to make them as narcissistically busy with the flutterings of their conscious minds as their great-grandchildren would be with the promptings of their unconscious minds, so that “for young Americans of the fin de siècle imbibing the catechism of art for art’s sake…the great world of politics and social strife was a world well lost.”

Berenson aspired to cultural refinement with an ardor that verged on religious ecstasy, and for the rest of his life it saved him from having to think seriously about social organization. Beyond routine fulminations against fascism, which he opposed, and socialism, which he identified with mob rule or, as he put it, “ochlocracy,” Berenson never had much to say about the political affairs of the world. What he did say would have made sense only to a Boston brahmin of the late 1880s who had forgotten the ambitions of making an ideal society that, up to the end of the 1840s, had given the intellectual life of Boston its unusual tone and vigor. For Berenson, as for George Santayana and Henry Adams, the sphere of culture was a refuge from such matters—a kind of New Jerusalem, a distant, golden, minutely organized refuge and reward for the Elect. In this heavenly city there could be no conflicts of class, only discussions about revealed truth; and the keepers of its keys lived at the top of the sublunary pyramid, on Beacon Hill.

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