Mary Berenson: A Self-Portrait from Her Letters and Diaries
A movie about the life of Bernhard (after 1914 known as Bernard) Berenson might bear a resemblance to Citizen Kane, though taking place in much more exalted circumstances. It would be an American story of a man who, emerging from a background of poverty and hardship, moves into a world of sweetness, light, power, and great wealth, becomes king of it, builds himself a palace, marries a beautiful woman of whom he demands that she should in every respect conform to his idea of her as worthy of him. The king is surrounded by courtiers and the object of almost universal adulation (although a few acquaintances and collaborators, interviewed after his death, spread ugly rumors about him).
B.B. (as everyone called him) was the immensely clever child of immigrant Jewish parents who came from Lithuania to Boston slums. Before arriving in America he could speak several languages. He shone at school but educated himself chiefly through his independent reading at the Boston Public Library. Largely as the result of the interest taken in him from a very early age by a rich Bostonian, Isabella Gardner, he was able to go to Harvard and, later, to travel in Europe. In Italy he became interested in works by early and Renaissance Italian painters. In his passion for making distinctions between different schools of Italian painters, and discovering which works within those schools could be authenticated as being by certain artists—at a time when, even in the great art galleries of Europe, attributions were often vague—the young Berenson had no thought of personal gain. In her biography of him, Sylvia Sprigge quotes a letter he wrote in 1888 (when he was twenty-three) to his friend and fellow student Enrico Costa, in which he declares:
We are the first to have no idea before us, no ambition, no expectation, no thought of reward. We shall give ourselves up to learning, to distinguish between the authentic works of an Italian painter of the fifteenth or sixteenth century, and those commonly ascribed to him.
In the same letter he mentions the art historian and senator Giovanni Morelli, who based his attributions of particular works to particular artists not on some general impression of them, but on detailed study of their idiosyncrasies in painting details of anatomy, or draperies. By his examination and comparison of great numbers of paintings and drawings, and through his application of Morelli’s methods, Berenson made himself the supreme authority of his time on attributions. Collectors and dealers referred to him for certificates guaranteeing the authenticity of the works they owned or contemplated purchasing. On this, and on advising and buying works for Isabella Gardner and other collectors, Berenson built his fortune. But in doing so he did not lose sight of his ideal of pure scholarship and disinterested love of art.
The essential characteristic of the hero of the fairy story is that a gift is bestowed upon him by a good fairy at his cradle; but a proviso is added, perhaps in the form of a curse by a bad fairy, imposing on him the necessity of pursuing a course of action in realizing the gift, which however threatens to corrupt its virtue. Gift and course of action, virtue and un-virtue are inseparably linked. There may be a moral to the fairy story, but it is not a morality play, because the hero is not behaving immorally if he pursues the course of action necessary to fulfill his gift. What is required of him is that the gift remain uncorrupted, though the course of action may appear corrupt.
Every witness of Berenson’s life would feel, I think, that B. B. was the hero of a fairy story and not a character in a morality play. It would be idle for the guest at luncheon or dinner at the Villa I Tatti to consider whether Berenson would have been a purer soul if he had chosen to become a professor at Harvard or, perhaps later, at Oxford. When I first went to a meal there, in the mid-1930s, Roger Sessions, who had taken me there, warned that I should on no account mention the word “attribution” or perchance the name of Isabella Gardner. A previous visitor, the English painter Duncan Grant, who was a house guest, had innocently inquired of Berenson, in the middle of lunch, what might be the identity of a fabulously beautiful picture that he had seen standing on an easel under a skylight in a room whose door he had opened accidentally. This question produced a thunderous silence, followed by furious denials from Berenson that there was any such picture in the house. (In the 1950s Grant submitted to me for Encounter an article describing this incident. It was unpublishable for legal reasons: he ended his article by conjecturing that Mary had packed the picture at the bottom of her suitcase and smuggled it out of Italy a few days later.)
Berenson has been reproached for not publicly acknowledging his indebtedness to Isabella Gardner. There is also the suggestion that his reputation is tainted by his association with the great art dealer Joseph Duveen, who obtained a monopoly of deals in Italian masterpieces by hiring Berenson—whose certificates of authenticity for the pictures Duveen sold were then available to no other dealer (though Berenson’s dealings with Isabella Gardner were excluded from the arrangement).
No one has suggested that Berenson lacked integrity in making his attributions. What many have criticized is that he directed his truth into one commercial channel. Finally he broke with Duveen after refusing to authenticate as a Giorgione the Nativity now hanging in the National Gallery. He then took it to be an early Titian, though later he was to change his mind about this.
To argue that Berenson always, or almost always, was scrupulous in judgment, that he took money but did not sell his own truth, is beside the point: the point being that the world of dealings in masterpieces seemed itself to be a betrayal of the values of those masterpieces and of the genius of those who painted them. As he pointed out in his Sketch for a Self-Portrait:
I too needed a means of livelihood…. Mine took up what creative talent there was in me, with the result that this trade made my reputation and the rest of me scarcely counted. The spiritual loss was great and in consequence I have never regarded myself as other than a failure. This sense of failure, a guilty sense, makes me squirm when I hear myself spoken of as “a successful man” and as having made “a success of my life.”
But it was only at moments that he felt guilty, and his argument here suggests that what made him squirm was receiving applause for the worldly success that for him was only the precondition of an entirely different kind of success, which was unworldly, the fulfillment of his gift. In the same passage he compares his livelihood with the “tent-making” of Saint Paul and the “glass-polishing” of Spinoza, “if the comparison is not blasphemous”—which most people, I suppose, would certainly take it to be. The truth, surely, is that he tried to transform his own circumstances into the image of some civilization out of which arose the art that he loved with such detachment. His work was for him an intensely creative act which, although implicated in a materialistic world, put him above material considerations.
His life was dedicated to adoring the work of artists who often had great patrons in the Church and among the Medicis. He retroactively became, as it were, one such patron—a patron of the past, recreating the past—who redeemed the gross materialism of his transactions from the vulgarity of the collectors, most of them American, for whom he acted as intermediary. On a superficial level he justified this by saying (in his correspondence with Isabella Gardner) that he was doing a tremendous service to America through art while at the same time saving the masterpieces he smuggled out of Italy from the neglect and depredations of Italians.
Yet when he saw the results of his public-spiritedness as they appeared on the American scene he was appalled. Here is Mary Berenson’s account of the visit that B.B. and she made to “Mrs. Gardner’s Palace” in Boston on December 24, 1920:
…The worst of all is that her great Palace, in spite of the marvellous pictures in it, looks to our now enlightened eyes like a junk shop. There is something horrible in these American collections, in snatching this and that away from its real home and hanging it on a wall of priceless damask made for somewhere else, above furniture higgledipiggled from other places, strewn with objets d’art ravished from still other realms, Chinese, Japanese, Persian, Indian objects, that seem as if they were bleeding to death in those dreary super-museums.
Berenson’s marriage to Mary Costelloe—born Mary Smith—who in 1891, when she was twenty-seven, abandoned her husband and children in order to live and study with and work for him, falls into place in the pattern of the Berenson fairy story. Spells are cast, blessings granted, conditions made that rain down like curses. As with the rest of B.B.’s life, the spectator is left feeling that though there may be a moral somewhere, this is no place for moralizing. Mary Smith was the daughter of a very dominating mother Hannah Whitall Smith, Quaker, Evangelical, preacher, feminist, doer of good works. She was married to a very successful Evangelical preacher, Robert Smith, whose career was spoiled by the scandal that arose when he came unfortunately to believe that physical love was the gateway to divine love. Hannah Whitall Smith had remarkable progeny who included not only Mary but also her sister Alys (who became the first wife of Bertrand Russell) and the essayist Logan Pearsall Smith.
Having fallen in love with Berenson and abandoned her husband and children, Mary brought lost religious fervor to her conversion to Berenson’s gospel of aestheticism. She was remarkably clever and soon became an indispensable colleague to him in his work of comparing paintings and drawings of Italian painters, making attributions and compiling lists. She also encouraged him to become a writer, and when they were married she greatly assisted him in writing his books, which, in their early drafts, contained passages of deplorable writing. A year after the death of Frank Costelloe in 1899 Berenson and she were married.
To Mary the relationship with Berenson was until her dying day the central reality of her life. But if the good fairy attendant on her cradle had made her queen to Berenson’s king of I Tatti, there were plenty of bad fairies around determined to provide conditions that would wreck her happiness. There was for her a wonderful sense of communication with a being of almost divine intellect and sensibility. (Her sister Alys must have felt the same about Bertrand Russell, whom she never ceased to love.) But she also remained very attached to her two daughters, and to her mother, with whom she constantly corresponded. She returned to England for two months every year to see her children, and she sometimes invited them to I Tatti where B.B. (who when Mary was pregnant by him had insisted on her going to London to have an abortion) regarded them as an affliction.
Mary also had, together with her great cleverness, a vein of obtuse candor which was perhaps part of the family heritage, since her sister Alys seems to have had it too. This shows very clearly in a letter which she wrote to her daughter Ray, who was then five and a half. It begins:
I know very well that people would tell thee I was not a loving mother. They cannot see into my heart, or they would not say that! But thee promised to keep it in thy mind to believe me, and not them. Because I ought to know, ought I not? Whether I love thee. And I do know, that I love thee dearly, dearly, my precious Ray…. I love thee more than anybody else in the world, except myself. Gram will be surprised at me for saying this, because people do not usually tell the truth and say they love themselves most of all.
The reader may feel that it would have been better if Mary had written a letter along these lines to B.B., whom, unfortunately, perhaps she did love more than herself.
Perhaps Mary’s worst offense, in Berenson’s eyes, was one for which she was not responsible. Dieting, medicines, and taking “cures” could not prevent her from growing very fat. She was in any case two inches taller than B.B., but her height was doubtless Junoesque and attractive when she was in her slim early twenties. It was unforgiveable for her, however, to supplement her verticality by growing in a horizontal direction. It was as though B.B. had married, if not a sylph, a Valkyrie, and then, to his disgust and consternation, some wicked fairy had transformed her into a large piece of domestic furniture, a cupboard or wardrobe. And as if, though herself aware of the appalling change, she had retained all her love for him together with great tenderness for Geoffrey Scott and other young men who came to I Tatti.
When I first read them I found Mary Berenson’s journals and letters almost unbearably painful and I thought of her as a tragic character. Perhaps she was this, but on a second reading I felt rather differently. It became clear to me that although she suffered greatly. Mary also enjoyed much happiness with B.B. She had, until nearly the end of her life, the joy of knowing that she was indispensable to him—and by then she was too ill and exhausted to wish to be indispensable to anyone. Finally, he provided for her a kind of angelic discourse that underlay everything else in their life together, including his most violent and cruel tantrums and his considerable displays of heartlessness.
There was, at any rate in the early days, a streak of robustness about Mary that made her enjoy Berenson’s dealings. If he had been a gangster, she would have entered heartily into being a gangster’s moll. Some of the best things in this very lively book are Mary’s descriptions of charming Italian forgers of paintings whom she and B.B. discovered to be working in the neighborhood. She thoroughly enjoyed smuggling, justifying it highhandedly with the thought that the Berensons were “saving” pictures from the Italians for conscientious American restorers and curators. This is how she writes to her daughter Karin Costelloe (November 25, 1899):
They take [the picture] to the Overseer at the Gallery here, packed in a large box, to get permission to export it. That is, they’re supposed to, but in reality they take another picture, some worthless daub of the same size. The Inspector looks at it, and of course says they can do what they like with rubbish like that. He then gravely seals up the box and puts the mark on which serves to carry it through. But all the time the box is cunningly made to open where he would never think of putting a seal, and they carry it home, open it in this secret way, and substitute the good picture for the bad. Myself I think the Director knows all about it…. So for dealers with whom he is good friends (i.e. who bribe him) he doesn’t look too carefully into how the boxes are made!
In her letters home, Mary gives wonderful descriptions of the great who pay court at I Tatti, for instance, D’Annunzio and Eleanor Duse (March 8, 1903):
The Duse, a sad, interesting woman looking about 50, dressed in black with a grey veil waving about her head, à l’Américaine, swept in saying she could only stay a minute. Dandified, hideous, vulgar little D’Annunzio followed smirking in her train. He has Sidney Webb’s figure, and a head like a white worm—intelligent though—he looks like a ‘full grown lamb’, very weak.
Although she was always in love with Berenson, Mary’s heart was highly susceptible to the charms of various young men, perhaps partly out of desperation on account of Berenson’s philandering with the most glamorous of his lady worshippers. Undoubtedly she had a passionate attachment for Geoffrey Scott (she came greatly to regret this), Berenson’s co-assistant together with the landscape gardener Cecil Pinsent during the years when, with tremendous setbacks and flaming rows, I Tatti and its wonderful garden were under construction.
During the long, slow end of her life Mary Berenson gradually withdrew from the life of I Tatti back to her own family, to her grandchildren, and particularly her great-grandson Roger. During the war she returned to I Tatti, where she lived as an invalid, content that B.B. should be cared for by Nicky Mariano—the assistant who was loved by virtually all who mer her. One of the last letters printed here is to Nicky Mariano:
What I want to express I could never express even if I had the use of my hand and eyes. It is the love and admiration and affection of many years. There is no cloud in the thought of you as there is in almost everything else. The end of life, if you remain conscious, is a sort of purgatory in which all your sins and mistakes come crowding upon you, but between you and me there is nothing of the kind—all is perfectly serene and I think of you with the deepest love. If I die in time I hope you will marry B.B. You will have my deep sympathy, but all the wordly things are fading away.
Mary died in the spring of 1945. Berenson lived on another fourteen years, cared for by Nicky Mariano, who did not marry him.