The Passions of Bernard Berenson

Biblioteca Berenson, Villa I Tatti/Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies
Bernard Berenson at twenty-one and seventy-one
Why do I wriggle and toss at the idea of being biographied? It makes me uncomfortable and unhappy. Is it only because there are so many big and little episodes I wish forgotten? Of course, I have much behind me that I hate to recall…. Every kind of lâcheté, meanness, pettiness, cowardice, equivocal business conduct (due more to ignorance and the ethics of art dealers than to my own nature), humiliations, furtiveness, ostrichism, etc….
How passionately one wants to forget! No—not these only or chiefly. I dread having my life written as the “success story,” as it is bound to be, seeing that economically and socially I had to make my way from nothing at all. Yes, economically and socially, but I never from the earliest dawn of consciousness felt proletarian or inferior to the highest class anywhere. I never felt that I was climbing, being promoted from an inferior to a higher standard of life, to a higher social class. I felt only that I was coming into my own, what I had always regarded as belonging to me, of which, for no fault of my own, I had been deprived.1

This revelatory passage was written by Bernard Berenson in his diary in 1954, toward the end of his eighty-ninth year, long after his achievements as a scholar and connoisseur of Italian Renaissance painting had made him famous. With the appearance of Rachel Cohen’s new biography, it’s worth recalling his distaste for being written about. Like most of us, he was adept at self-deception, yet he also possessed uncommonly objective perceptions about himself, which he candidly reported. For his entire life, beginning in early childhood, he seems to have been remarkably self-obsessed, yet he cannot be described as solipsistic, because he was as intrigued by other people as he was by himself.

The striking thing about this diary entry is what he insists at the end—that he was never a parvenu and dreads being described as such. Yet his well-known preference for intellectuals and for the rich, famous, and titled, his creation of a coterie comprised of what he termed Unsereiner (people like us), and the formal elegance of his daily existence all have left him open to charges of snobbery and arrivism. On a superficial level, those charges were certainly justified, yet on a deeper, more intimate level, I believe he honestly did feel he had always belonged to a rarefied world of people of intelligence and achievement, elegance and aestheticism, worldly experience and sophisticated ambiente. He felt a special affinity with intellectual or artistic Jews like Solomon Reinach, Lewis Namier, Walter Lippmann, Isaiah Berlin, and Yehudi Menuhin, and with wealthy ones like the Sassoons and Rothschilds.

Early on at Harvard, his singular intellectual brilliance had been recognized by nearly everyone. In the summer of 1897, a decade after he graduated and two years after the publication of his groundbreaking monograph on Lorenzo Lotto, he fled at the urging of his fashionable friend Carlo Placci to St. Moritz in order to escape the Florentine heat. There he found a world of high society that eagerly accepted him and in which he felt perfectly at home—and he never turned back. In retrospect, it genuinely seemed to him a falsification to describe his life as a rags-to-riches success story, even though that was true financially and socially; for the boy who had taken Walter Pater as one of his “gods” before he was nineteen2 and whose ultimate ideal was Goethe had been trying to burn with a hard, gem-like flame almost from the beginning, hoping always to make a work of art of himself, believing that his legitimate home was with people of exceptional quality and potential.

Like elderly people everywhere, he also expresses in the quoted passage remorse for his failings. What is interesting in this rather commonplace list is his attempt both to admit and exonerate his faults in doing business. In his mind, the biggest fault of all was that he ever had anything to do with the art market; for, like Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, who rejected Rome’s imperial court for an otiose life in the Campagna, Berenson wanted to escape from the agora into an aesthetic life beyond thoughts of money. It literally disgusted him, and in his later years, like royalty, he never carried it himself. But of course, money was never as irrelevant as he would have liked, because the style of life he devised for himself was costly and could not have been achieved without his work advising collectors and dealers. He knew that too. But it bothered him to the very end that he had been obliged to be so involved in the sale of paintings and to derive his income from commissions on those sales.

Sensationalist writers and contentious academics have repeatedly tried to claim that Berenson’s famous lists of works by Renaissance artists were compromised by shady commercial considerations, that he falsely attributed paintings to greater artists than those who actually painted them, because such attributions brought higher prices. I have never believed this, for the simple reason that Berenson’s only source of income was his unblemished reputation, and he was far too intelligent to have sullied it with attributions that he knew—and that others were bound to discover—were deliberately falsified.

It is true that there was repeated pressure on him, especially from the dealer Joseph Duveen and his assistant Edward Fowles, to make more optimistic attributions than he believed in, but I know of no instance when he gave in to such pressure. “There is,” affirms David Brown, the curator of Italian and Spanish painting at the National Gallery in Washington, “no evidence to suggest that he ever made an attribution he did not genuinely believe at the time it was made.”3 It is also true that Berenson frequently changed his attributions, but as he wittily explained, consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.

In opposition to recurrent censorious allegations, John Pope-Hennessy called Berenson “a paragon of principle,” explaining that “his success was due not to the belief that he was necessarily right but to the knowledge that, of available opinions, especially on great artists, his was least likely to be wrong.”4 Berenson himself made the same modest claim, that he was nothing more than “the safest attributor of Italian paintings.”

A vast amount has been written about Berenson, some of it dreadful, some of it merely pedestrian, but much that is of merit. Three biographies that created minor sensations when published have subsequently been condemned by knowledgeable critics as, respectively, “deplorable,” “slovenly,” and “scurrilous.” Nicky Mariano, the person Berenson felt closest to and loved most, wrote with affecting candor and devotion her own hagiographic memoir of him—Forty Years with Berenson (1966)—which contains much invaluable material not only about his private and public life but also about his thoughts and feelings.

During and after World War II, Berenson himself, who admitted to having always been “self-curious,” began writing highly personal books that were eventually published: a Sketch for a Self-Portrait (1949) and four volumes of diaries.5 The extensive Berenson archive at I Tatti contains almost 40,000 letters plus much other important source material. After his death a small selection of his letters was published,6 and subsequently there have been separate volumes of his correspondence with Isabella Stewart Gardner (1987), Clotilde Marghieri (1989), Roberto Longhi (1993), Charles Henry Coster (1993), and Hugh Trevor-Roper (2006). But since Berenson wrote his letters in longhand and never made copies, most of them have disappeared.

The most authoritative and comprehensive biography is the magisterial account by Ernest Samuels in two volumes: Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur (1979) and Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Legend (1987), which together comprise one of the greatest American biographies of the twentieth century. For those who may be daunted by Samuels’s thousand pages, however, and want a less detailed portrait, I would enthusiastically recommend three short essays, one by John Pope-Hennessy and the other two by Iris Origo. Pope-Hennessy’s biography in the Dizionario biografico degli Italiani (1988), now reprinted in its original English,7 is concise, accurate, and superbly informative. What is more, it provides a judicious appraisal of Berenson’s enduring contributions to the history of Italian painting.

Iris Origo, who knew him since she was a child, her mother having been one of his amours, and who called him “the last true humanist, perhaps, of Western Europe,” contributed a luminous introduction to Berenson’s last diaries, Sunset and Twilight, which often seem to echo the language of Marius the Epicurean’s diary and are deeply moving, not least because of the lucidly precise descriptions he gives of the depredations of old age.8 Just after his death, she published in The Atlantic another beautiful essay entitled “The Insatiable Traveler: Bernard Berenson’s Quest.”9 Her empathetic reminiscences provide the most insightful portrayal we have of the man himself. Taken together, these three essays provide an incomparable portrait of the man, his achievements, and his world.

In view of this wealth of material and the definitive nature of the Samuels biography, one may wonder why we need another, all the more so as almost the only important new information to become available since Samuels wrote is the Duveen archive, now at the Getty, which turns out not to contain the incriminating matter on Berenson some had feared or hoped for.

Rachel Cohen’s informative book is inevitably much dependent on previous work. On the whole, it is written with intelligence and understanding and often with impressive psychological insight, and it is largely accurate. Even if it contains little that cannot already be found elsewhere, Cohen has read the available sources with care, and her book provides a thoughtful, short biography.10

Cohen’s book is part of the series “Jewish Lives” financed by Leon Black at Yale University Press, and as such it contains much on Berenson’s complex thoughts about his own Jewishness and about other Jews. Cohen has made excellent use of the Berenson family papers in Harvard’s Houghton Library, which were acquired only after Samuels had published his first volume. One of the most informative parts of Cohen’s book is its first chapter, “Jews of Boston,” about Berenson’s family, which emigrated in 1875 from the Pale of Settlement in Lithuania when he was ten. His father, Cohen writes, was so radical an enthusiast of Jewish Enlightenment that “he mocked Jews who attended synagogue” and “Berenson did not have a bar mitzvah.” In 1885, while he was at Harvard, Berenson was baptized as an Episcopalian.

The entire subject of Berenson’s thought on this matter is complicated, nuanced, seemingly contradictory at times, and clouded with allegations of anti-Semitism. Essentially, what he regretted was Jewish parochialism, or what he termed “Fremdheit” (foreignness) or “Entfremdung” (estrangement), whether inflicted or self-imposed—the isolated, estranged mentality of the ghetto that deprived many Jews of full participation in the mainstream of European life and culture. When Peter Viereck asked him to define a Jew, Berenson’s compassionate response was:

David Seymour/Magnum Photos
Bernard Berenson looking at Antonio Canova’s statue of Pauline Borghese, the Borghese Gallery, Rome, 1955
A Jew is the product of being cooped up in ghettos for over twelve hundred years. His conditioning from within and without, the outer pressure driving more and more to defensive extremes, the inner clutching to rites, to practices, to values making for union and for safety, the struggle for food and survival, the lust for pre-eminence and power, all have ended in producing the Jew.

Berenson’s goal of assimilation initially made him an anti-Zionist, but with the rise of Hitler he changed his mind, hoping statehood might give Jews not so much the new form of ghetto he feared as a new sense of dignity. So far as I know, he never denied or tried to hide that he was a Jew, and I am aware of nothing in his writing that could justly be called anti-Semitic. Meyer Schapiro, who wrote an article highly critical of him,11 felt Berenson had renounced his Jewish heritage, but no one who has read Rumor and Reflection and Sunset and Twilight could possibly agree with that accusation.

Art historians have been impressed by Berenson’s discriminating connoisseurship, one of them, Sydney Freedberg, calling it “the most substantial part of his wide accomplishment, and the most influential.”12 The best and most concise definition of connoisseurship I know was made by Freedberg, himself one of the great connoisseurs of painting in the decades after World War II; he defined it as “the use of expert knowledge of a field (in this case, the history of art) to identify objects in it, determine their quality, and assess their character.”13 Twenty-five years ago, Michael Thomas pointed out that “over four fifths of [Berenson’s] attributions still stand, have weathered every wave of scholarly revision, every attempt—and there have been many—to show the old boy up.”14 Two years later, Freedberg made a detailed survey of the attributions given by Berenson to works he sold to Gardner and came up with an identical statistic: “More than eighty percent of Berenson’s opinions are still valid.” If that is so, Berenson’s connoisseurship of paintings seems to me, although I’m not an art historian, a truly impressive accomplishment. What is more, his most influential work of connoisseurship, the monumental Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903), revolutionized the study and use of drawings.

As for the enduring value of his writings on art, the haunting disappointment in Berenson’s life was that he was never able to formulate the theoretical works about art he always hoped to. Yet at least some of his essays on art and artists such as Lorenzo Lotto, Sassetta, and Piero della Francesca, to name but three, seem to me of lasting significance; and even those that may have been more or less discredited surely retain a historical importance. His diaries and his Sketch for a Self-Portrait are in another category and seem to me to be of indisputable value for understanding both him and the epochs through which he lived. I hope that the Library of America will devote a volume to a selection of his most important writing.

Three other major achievements of Berenson seem to me beyond question. The first, derived from his connoisseurship, is the Herculean accomplishment of his famous lists. When in the 1890s Berenson began to compile his lists of who painted what, the field of Renaissance art was, despite the initial trail-blazing efforts of the art historian Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, a largely impenetrable, unexplored jungle of confused, overgrown vegetation, prodigally fertilized with wishful thinking. Berenson’s successive lists gradually trimmed that chaotic jungle into a disciplined, rationally ordered formal garden. This was largely achieved through a brilliant use of Giovanni Morelli’s new technique of studying and comparing how artists depicted tiny, usually unnoticed physiological details like ears and fingernails, a technique that has often been described in works on Berenson.

By now, what Berenson achieved is so taken for granted, as if the facts he established had always been there, that people often fail to realize the extent to which it was he who gave the study of Italian Renaissance art its indispensable foundation. The broad patterns that make the study of these paintings and of the personalities of individual artists possible are those established by him, and they are not only informing but indelible.15

A second great achievement is the distinguished collections of Italian Renaissance art in museums in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. He said that his goal was to bring as many good Italian pictures to America as he could, and outside of Italy, London, Paris, and Berlin, there are no collections of Italian Renaissance paintings to equal those in this country. None of the major American collections would have existed without Berenson’s contributions; for it was he who created the vogue for Italian pictures, he who found them, and he who, sometimes with exaggerated enthusiasm, persuaded rich Americans to buy them.

The incomparable collections of Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston, of John Johnson in Philadelphia, of Henry Walters in Baltimore, as well as the enormous collection of Samuel Kress now munificently scattered in more than twenty museums across the country are all essentially the creation of Berenson, and both the National Gallery in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum in New York are filled with paintings he brought to the attention of various millionaires. Public knowledge and enjoyment of Renaissance painting in this country are, in large part, the result of his efforts.

His third enduring achievement is I Tatti. The institution Harvard created out of his gift has become, little more than half a century later, the premier place in the world for advanced research in all aspects of the Italian Renaissance. From very early on, Berenson had a vision of what he wanted his home and library to become after his death, and although that vision was conceived in a quite different world (he wanted fellowships to last for six or eight years), the essence of it has been sustained.

Fifteen fellows from throughout the world are now awarded one-year postdoctoral fellowships to study any aspect of the Italian Renaissance—not only art, but literature, history, music, economics, sociology, philosophy, or science. The magnificent library of 50,000 volumes that Berenson left has by now swelled to almost four times that size, and includes probably the finest research library in Europe on early Italian music, a subject about which he knew and collected almost nothing. The house with its works of art and the beautiful gardens and surrounding farmlands have all been maintained much as they were, but the library has of course had to be expanded, and one handsome new building has been added to provide studies for each of the fellows and a lecture hall. Berenson, who in his old age had nagging fears that I Tatti would degenerate into an impersonalized office building, would be delighted if he could see it now, looking very much as it always did; but he would be above all gratified by its acknowledged eminence in the world of scholarship.

After a lifetime of inner as well as outer conflicts, toward the end—to borrow Auden’s words about Melville—he sailed into an extraordinary mildness. That was when I knew him and visited him in the summers during his last six years. Those visits began when I was an undergraduate studying history and literature at Harvard and he invited me, at the suggestion of the art historian Agnes Mongan, to come and spend a few days at Casa al Dono, Nicky’s summer house near Vallombrosa. We took long walks in the hills, he nimble as a mountain goat, I clumsily stumbling alongside, and as we walked he asked me about my studies, what I had read, what I had seen, where I had traveled, what languages I knew. He quizzed me about Greek, French, Italian, German, and English literature, and I told him about the senior thesis I intended to write in the autumn.

But mostly, he talked to me about what he hoped I Tatti would become after his death, describing in detail the utopian vision he had of a locus amoenus of learning, leisure, and beauty. It was all pretty heady for a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate, and I was, not surprisingly, inarticulate with awed shyness; yet he couldn’t have been kinder, more solicitous, or more encouraging. I retain a resonant memory of the rapture with which, every evening, he would stand transfixed on the lawn in front of the house, gazing at the splendor of the sunsets beyond Monte Morello, whispering “flammantia moenia mundi.”16

Almost until the end, Berenson continued his daily walks, if considerably less ambitiously than before, and he still devoted much of his mornings to perusing the journals and books newly arrived for his library. At lunch, at tea, at dinner, and after dinner, he initiated conversations on a prodigious array of subjects. Once, when one of the guests was a friend of the art historian Erwin Panofsky, he felt obliged to fulminate a bit against what he called “icononsense,” but it was clearly a sort of reflex action; he no longer had much heart for art-historical controversy.

He retained undiminished, however, the passionate attraction he felt for beautiful women. Rachel Cohen says that “attractive young women who visited I Tatti were regularly surprised by his physical attentions”—something I can confirm; for when, the second summer, I took a girlfriend up to I Tatti to have tea with him a few days before his eighty-ninth birthday, it was immediately apparent how entranced by her he was. Directing me to sit on the far side of the tea table, he invited her to sit next to him on the couch, and the visit became—to use a Berensonian adjective—a tactile event.

In his noble Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico della Mirandola famously claims that God created Adam free to become whoever he wished, that man has been given the freedom and capability to be the “plastes et fictor” (molder and maker) of himself. Three hundred and eighty-five years later, Walter Pater, whose influence on Berenson was unending,17 urged man to make himself into someone who experienced “great passions,” someone for whom art gives “nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass,” someone who focused on the intensest aesthetic experiences of existence.18 Meditating retrospectively thirty months before his death, Berenson wrote:

As I attempt to look back on life and try to recall what influenced me in my formative years of boyhood and youth, I recall at the very start Emerson’s insistence on becoming, on being, rather than doing. I discovered my adolescent feeling toward women in Dante’s Vita Nuova. It has played a great part in my life and still does. Here, however, I want to note how much through the whole of life I have thought of becoming, of being, rather than of doing. In the vocabulary I use today, I wanted to become and be a work of art myself, not an artist.

However one may assess his achievements and failings, whatever reputation history will finally bestow on him, he was surely one of the most remarkable Americans of his time; and it is William Butler Yeats, born only a fortnight before him, who has written the words that can best serve as Bernard Berenson’s epitaph:

I have prepared my peace
With learned Italian things
And the proud stones of Greece,
Poet’s imaginings
And memories of love,
Memories of the words of women,
All those things whereof
Man makes a superhuman
Mirror-resembling dream.

B.B. in Baltimore December 5, 2013

  1. 1

    Bernard Berenson, Sunset and Twilight: From the Diaries of 1947–1958 (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), p. 338. 

  2. 2

    Ernest Samuels, Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur (Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 25. 

  3. 3

    David Alan Brown, Berenson and the Connoisseurship of Italian Painting (National Gallery of Art, 1979), p. 26. 

  4. 4

    John Pope-Hennessy, On Artists and Art Historians: Selected Book Reviews of John Pope-Hennessy, edited by Walter Kaiser and Michael Mallon (Leo. S. Olschki, Villa I Tatti, 1994), p. 284. Pope-Hennessy’s nine reviews of books by and about Berenson in this volume comprise one of the most thorough treatments we have of Berenson’s achievement. 

  5. 5

    One Year’s Reading for Fun (1942) (Knopf, 1960); Rumor and Reflection (Simon and Schuster, 1952); The Passionate Sightseer: From the Diaries 1947 to 1956 (Simon and Schuster, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1960); Sunset and Twilight: From the Diaries of 1947–1958

  6. 6

    The Selected Letters of Bernard Berenson, edited by A. K. McComb (Houghton Mifflin, 1963). 

  7. 7

    Berenson’s Certificate,” The New York Review, March 12, 1987; reprinted in Pope-Hennessy, On Artists and Art Historians

  8. 8

    Compare, for example, this passage: “How little I myself really need, when people leave me alone, with the intellectual powers at work serenely. The drops of falling water, a few wild flowers with their priceless fragrance, even a few tufts of half-dead leaves, changing colour in the quiet of a room that has but light and shadow in it; these, for a susceptible mind, might well do duty for all the glory of Augustus.” Marius’s diary is in chapter 25 of Marius the Epicurean; this passage is on p. 178 of the second edition of 1885 published by Macmillan in London. 

  9. 9

    The Atlantic, April 1960. 

  10. 10

    There are occasional problems with idiom (e.g., “They advocated strongly against Mary’s marriage,” p. 73) and with geography: inexplicably, she mislocates I Tatti (p. 138), Poggio Gherardo (p. 196), and the Casa al Dono (p. 267). 

  11. 11

    Meyer Schapiro, “Mr. Berenson’s Values,” Encounter 16, January 1961. Lev Mendez has kindly drawn my attention to the very interesting interchange between Schapiro and Isaiah Berlin concerning this article published in The Brooklyn Rail, September 1, 2004. 

  12. 12

    See the important essay by S. J. Freedberg, “Berenson, Connoisseurship, and the History of Art,” The New Criterion, February, 1989. 

  13. 13

    Freedberg, “Berenson, Connoisseurship, and the History of Art.” 

  14. 14

    Michael M. Thomas, “Indi(c)ting Bernard Berenson,” The New Criterion, March 1987. 

  15. 15

    See the article by Michael Rinehart on Berenson in The Early Years of Art History in the United States, edited by Craig Hugh Smyth and Peter M. Lukehart (Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 89–96. 

  16. 16

    “The flaming ramparts of the world”; Lucretius I.73. 

  17. 17

    See the essay by Paul Barolsky, “Walter Pater and Bernard Berenson,” The New Criterion, April 1984. 

  18. 18

    See his famous conclusion to The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873).