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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:

  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). 

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