Walter Kaiser was formerly Director of Villa I Tatti, the ­Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence. (October 2015)

A Conspiratorial Theory of the Renaissance

Benozzo Gozzoli: The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem; detail of the fresco on the east wall of the chapel of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence, circa 1460
Shortly before his death last year, the eminent French medievalist Jacques Le Goff published a small book that may be considered his scholarly testament and that has now been translated into English by Malcolm DeBevoise with the title Must We Divide History into Periods? The answer Le Goff ultimately gives …

A Hero of Translation

In July 1903, when he was thirteen, Charles Scott Moncrieff took the entrance exams for Winchester, traditionally the most scholarly of the English public schools. One of the things he was asked to do during the three days of the examination was to translate the following eight lines from the …

Shakespeare: A Brilliant Night in New York

Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfth Night
The production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by the English theatrical company Shakespeare’s Globe, currently at the Belasco Theatre, brings this play to life in a way I have only very rarely seen equaled in a Shakespearean production. The performances are so uniformly skillful, the interpretation of the play so intelligent …

A ‘Twelfth Night’ Epiphany

Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the presentation of the Christ child to the three kings, was one of the major feasts of the medieval and Tudor church. By Elizabeth’s time, it had long since become an occasion for merrymaking, bringing the Christmas holiday to a close. The comic spirit of the occasion was that of the Lord of Misrule deposing whoever was in authority and actions being performed in some sort of topsy-turvy reversal, creating carnival disorder. In Shakespeare’s play, a man plays a girl pretending to be a man, identical twins are confused, a servant imagines he is worthy of being made a noble, cakes and ale triumph over virtue.

The Passions of Bernard Berenson

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, …

‘A Well-Known Terrifier’

Janet Ross painted by G.F. Watts when she was sixteen years old
In the autumn of 1892, Mark Twain, having fled to Europe in serious financial difficulty and with his wife Olivia increasingly ill, moved into Villa Viviani on the slopes of the village of Settignano, then some five miles to the east of Florence. Shortly after he arrived, he wrote to …

The Noble Dreams of Piero

Piero della Francesca: Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, 1460–1470
Why is Piero della Francesca so different from other quattrocento artists? The longer one contemplates his work, the more imperative that question becomes. It haunts the viewer of the current exhibition at the Frick Collection, where more paintings by Piero are brought together in one room than anywhere except in Arezzo. The seven paintings in this exhibition, four of which belong to the Frick, are not the very greatest of Piero’s works, but they exemplify much of his achievement. Four of them are masterpieces, and this exceptional opportunity to see so many panel paintings of Piero at once is instructive.

An Astonishing Record of a Vast Collection

Giovanni di Paolo: The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, 1445
One evening in June 1914, Osbert Sitwell attended a concert in London at which Richard Strauss performed his Sonata in E-flat for piano and violin, Strauss playing the piano and Lady Speyer the violin—much as John Singer Sargent depicts her with her Stradivarius in the portrait he painted in 1907.


Caravaggio: The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1608
In 1996, the huge altarpiece Caravaggio painted in 1608 for the Oratorio di San Giovanni in Malta was brought to Florence for restoration at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, because five years before it had suffered two slashes from the knife of a demented attacker. For someone who had never …

Cooking Up a Storm

Paul and Julia Child on their wedding day, September 1, 1946
Jennet Conant, granddaughter of the former president of Harvard, has made a specialty of the World War II period. Her first book, Tuxedo Park (2002), gives an engrossing account of the brilliant amateur scientist and millionaire Alfred Lee Loomis, who was one of the inventors of radar, helped found the …

Inside the Fortress

Maisie Houghton with her father, Francis Parker Kinnicutt, at her graduation from St. Timothy’s School, Stevenson, Maryland, 1958
Instead of the characteristically self-deprecating title she has given the account of her youth in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with idyllic summers spent on an island off the coast of Maine, Maisie Houghton might well have entitled her beautifully written autobiography What Maisie Knew. For her penetrating account of growing up in …

Searching for a Lost World

Shoki the demon catcher; Edo-period netsuke by Gyokuyosai, from Edmund de Waal’s family’s collection
Visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London who go in by the main Cromwell Road entrance and look up will see, suspended from the dome high overhead, a recently installed circular shelf of red lacquer, which holds 425 carefully arranged pieces of contemporary porcelain—plates, jars, bowls, cups, teapots—in …

Not So Grand Illusion

In 1929, Hilaire Belloc published, both in England and in America, a novel entitled The Missing Masterpiece, with illustrations by G.K. Chesterton. This forgotten potboiler concerns a highly successful, pompous, unprincipled art dealer in London named Sir Henry Bessington, who is confronted with two versions of a “Symbolist” painting called …

Saving the Magic City

The view of Ponte Vecchio, from the Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence
“Italiam petimus!”—We’re off to Italy!—exclaimed John Addington Symonds in his travel journal, enthusiastically repeating it over and over again as he set forth on horseback one October morning in 1883, riding out of the Swiss Alps, through the Majola Pass, down to Chiavenna, a town he praises as “a worthy …