Bernard Berenson
Bernard Berenson; drawing by David Levine

“Few are the survivors to whom I can say, ‘Can you remember?”‘ Berenson was only eighty when he remarked on that particular sadness of old age. He lived thirteen years more, and up to the last eighteen months, with what he deplores in these final diaries as a more and more desperate loss of mind and energy, he kept up his lucid and voluminous output of written words. It is not his fault that any scribble from a famous figure nowadays gets into print. The present volume of letters is a case in point; except for two exchanges of interest at least to special students, one involving Santayana and the other dispelling some nasty notions that got around for a time about Berenson’s role during the last war, the collection is unfortunate. It would have been better to wait until more of the correspondence was available, most people’s letters in the last century or so being of doubtful general interest at best and usually appearing with a smell of cult about them, as these do. But that is happily not true of the diaries, so far. There must be roomfuls of Berenson’s papers still unpublished, and it would be painful to think they were going to go on dribbling into print indefinitely, especially as Sunset and Twilight (the title doesn’t sound like him at all) is too good, even grand, a finale. The selection must have been difficult. It has been made with tact and good sense so far as one can judge, and is introduced in a remarkable piece of prose that could serve as a model in such matters, blending friendship with clarity, by Iris Origo.

The grandeur of the volume is as a document of extreme old age, not only in the aspect of rumination and appraisal of a life but in the daily report of mental and physical decomposition, at an age when the will or capacity to give evidence is generally lost, so that the rest of us who are not there yet can only guess, when we don’t turn away, as in former times with the question of life after death. In this respect the book is unique; there has never been anything like it that I know of; it is as startling as if a baby were to come out with a full account of its thoughts, feelings, and states of body from one hour to the next. One thinks of Tolstoy’s last journals, the anguish in them, and his ending each night’s entry with the next day’s date and the notation, “If I am alive.” But that is not a comparable record; from the great creators in literature there could never be one, the whole drive and habit of mind being antithetical to it. In Berenson’s case there was no such distraction. He occasionally suffered, as he reports, from his own lack of creativity; it made him feel “constipated,” since he was abnormally responsive to the natural world and in certain other spheres, but on the whole he seems to have been content in his stated aim of being himself “a work of art, not an artist.” Given sufficient intellect, an enduring itch to write, a large, in his case enormous, range of acquaintance as well as interests, and candor, this makes for very good qualifications as diarist. Not at all in Boswell fashion. Berenson, for all his uncanny knack of vision for pictures, seems to have been singularly lacking in any keen observation of other people, and rarely describes either a person or a scene except in terms of his own feelings and relation to them. “My case is well described with the words ‘self-curious.”‘

He is speaking of the “case” at the end, age eighty-two to ninety-two, up to the last year of silence which was to bear out all the heartbreaking dread that haunts this book. The case would not be of much interest if he had not had an overriding curiosity outside himself, and discipline to go with it, earlier, regardless of how his work as connoisseur and art critic comes finally to be valued. But what is most ironic, considering his battle with the modern world in general and modern art in particular, his viewing himself as of the nineteenth century and being viewed by some people, because of the place of ancient Greece in the aesthetics, as of the nineteenth, in its crucial bearing this record of his old age makes him quite violently contemporary. It is also a peculiarly American document, in its relevance and perhaps, rather strangely, in itself. Did Berenson, certainly one of the most fanciful of all expatriates in his unflagging notion of himself as American and Bostonian to boot, really become more American in his long Italian death? It would be strange indeed, when dying is so much better done in Italy. In any case, the book strikes at a point neuralgique that is most dramatically ours, since as a people (a “young” people, as the mythology went) we have never arrived at a profound accommodation to death, and now suddenly we seem to have missed the chance. Such accommodation comes from facing and outfacing the fear of death, and thanks to modern medicine etc. that is not what most people are afraid of any more. With nursing homes for the aged all around us, probably responsible for more of the national income than Texas oil, all wired to the same soundtrack of chronic pain and wandering wits, the dread is of not dying in time. “He nothing common did or mean/upon that memorable scene…” Marvell on the execution of King Charles could stand for Socrates or a general concept of the Mort de Quelqu’un almost anywhere in Western civilization through all its course until lately, only in this country it was bad taste to mention it so we are now laughing hysterically over a piece of journalism debunking funeral parlors. So much for taste.


One wonders what words Marvell could have found for, what dignity he could have cast over ten or twelve years of loss of memory and bladder and bowel control, among other failings. This, the common prospect now, is by no means all or even the main part of Berenson’s concern in these last years of daily jottings; obviously if it were, the interest would be merely clinical. It is only a strand among many, and only part of what distinguishes this self-portrait from all the other “B.B.”s that have been so much documented, debated, admired, and denounced. Not that all is new either. The incredible vitality that enabled him to write of his lack of it, of his aches and pains and fatigues, kept him going in the other ways too, reading, thinking, entertaining what must have added up to several thousand guests a year at the beautiful villa I Tatti, at lunch, tea, and dinner; above all, although he complains of slipping there, talking, the accomplishment he was evidently most pleased with in himself. But that handsomely surviving character seems to have been taken in hand by another one of the same name and appearance, representative of what Iris Origo calls the “spiritual isolation” of the last years, self-doubting, wishing to pierce all vain assumptions and arrive at some small set of truths in lieu of a Truth, not always looking in the right places for the vanities to pierce but trying nevertheless.

Until thirty I lived in a magic world…. After thirty I began to want not only to be informed, but to understand. It is the problem with which I have been increasingly occupied ever since. The more I try, the less I succeed, and even knowledge is dissolved and doubt prevails over everything. I now feel that I know little (except the quantitative matters universally accepted) and understand nothing—positively nothing.

One imagines the two Berensons, the perennial one and the other born of old age, walking the hills and the garden paths more and more slowly, and at last confined indoors, handling the throngs of guests while at the same time carrying on their own dialogue, both of them dismayed by what their hand had had to record in the morning.

“At eighty-five, Keeping Alive is now my main career, and it is a whole-time job. It scarcely allows leisure for any other occupation, and of course no vacation. Even the reduced animal delights are submitted or subordinated to its purpose…And it is all worth while? This career for the old and those who care for them?” At eighty-six: “My earthly tabernacle is too uncomfortable to live in. It leaks, it crumbles, it breaks away, now part of the roof and now a bit of the wall. The air blows through and yet it smokes and smells. It is no longer habitable…Another year whirled away, leaving little but a blur in memory. Curious how dim and even veiled my remembrance of the past, no matter how recent. I seem to consume life as I live it, without much to recollect.”

At eighty-nine: “Weakening of every physiological organ, digestion, intestines, waterworks, difficulty of making it, and dripping, tired all the time and sudden all but collapses. Urticaria, bed sores, increasing deafness—and toute la lyre of symptoms of decline. ‘Pleasant or unpleasant?’ Decidedly unpleasant: Yet would I not go through with it, even if it leads to a second infancy, provided awareness, unknown to infancy, remains?” “Every day something happens to remind me that the continent of Memory is crumbling into the ocean of Forgetting. The other morning in reading I came across the name Knossus. For a few seconds I had a teasing feeling that I ought to know what it was, but could not place it…feeling sick, with disturbed intestines, smarting bladder.”


At ninety: “There is a danger of my gliding into the blissful state of the senile invalid. I am so comfy and feel so cozy in my bed, and except in moments of misbehavior on the part of nose and throat, belly and bladder, am content to doze, to think not at all, to want nothing. Time passes swiftly…I have hated the idea of existing as a vegetable, or less, but it now looks as if I could end by not minding it at all.” “Memory of names sunk so deep that I cannot conjure them up…I dread being imprisoned almost in the solitary confinement of a body worn out with age.”

On ninety-second birthday: “…dread of getting blinder and deafer…I fear that sort of survival, or even worse being reduced, to a mere vegetative condition, feeling nothing, let alone thinking anything, just remaining alive because heart and arteries still function—in short, no bright prospect—neither alive nor dead, tiring out ever and particularly those who have loved me most…”

That last entry was written at Assisi, on the return lap of a trip to Naples and Rome that would have tired a normal tourist of fifty. And on his eighty-eighth birthday, on another strenuous trip and along with comments on pictures, people, the world he had written: “I want another, and another, although every year, every month, even, my body gets more unfit for habitation as a dwelling, and rebellious as slave of my mind. There is so much I still want to and could write, so much in nature and art and people I still could enjoy.” His most poignant fear, expressed more than once, is of falling prey to the grudge of old age, including grudges against himself; he is distressed to find that his memory turns less to the generosities of others than to his own gaffe and errors. Equally poignant for the reader, although he puts it quite calmly, with not a touch of the panic that finally comes into his thoughts of de composition, is his questioning of his own attributions of paintings in years past. One would have thought the panic would enter there, where so much of his life work and reputation hung, but no, that is not what is bothering him any more, although he shared the common concern of the old, rich or poor, over leaving something that would last, and worried constantly over his bequest of I Tatti to Harvard and what of himself would remain there once it had become institutional. “Perhaps if I had heirs of my flesh…” Yet he had not wanted children, speaking of himself as “fin de race.”

How humanizing, and from such a princeling, democratizing, this descent into the common lot. What kept him, even so, essentially above it was not wealth but motivation, and one comes to feel with horror that the single great ailment in our nursing homes is the lack of it. It is Berenson’s triumph that he cared to keep going. The adjective for all he most favors remains to the end “life-enhancing”; to the end he rejects “metafussics” as he somewhat childishly calls it, and desires, as he always had, that people should be “works of art,” but the term was broader than it might seem; Harry Truman was one of the latterday guests whom he most enjoyed. As for the writing of these diaries, he did it, he says, every day the way he dressed for dinner, “as a personal discipline.”

That he was protected and coddled in every way possible, by money and servants and friends and a devoted companion, editor of this volume, and by living in the country of the West most merciful to old age, he knew perfectly well. He knew too that he was much hated by certain abstract artists and their admirers, and felt as most old people do that he had outlived his time; he remarked that young people were seldom natural with him, he was not quite sure why. I myself met him only once, at a small dinner in Rome, felt oddly benumbed by the conversational pyrotechnics he carried on with another brilliant old man, the statesman Carlo Sforza, and although I knew for years many people who were fairly close to him and chatted about him a great deal, I never took in until now how almost universally it was the thing to do to seek him out at I Tatti. The whole phenomenon simply didn’t have the wherewithal to get into my ken, which is not necessarily to anyone’s discredit. I believe I would not have liked him very much, or disliked him either. His literary judgments were commonplace when not worse, and creative people in any art seem to have been conspicuously if not quite totally missing in his guest lists. Among poets and novelists, as distinguished from critics, the best made out least well at his table. The wave lengths must have been for many what I felt them to be; it just wouldn’t have worked. Too much art without heart, perhaps, although that would be unfair to some aspects of his life, apparently; too much London-type gossip, playing brainy; or what I heard a young man say of his one visit, “You felt you were being watched all the time, to see if you would be coarse.” His written comments on assorted subjects, the Old Testament, Jews, current politics, his reading in general, are as good in his eighties and nineties as they were earlier and therefore at that stage dazzling, by the fact of his being able to make them, but outside his professional corner he had always been a second-rate brain-power, made impressive by large curiosities and the will to act on them. Iris Origo calls him “the last true humanist,” and on that one point I would take issue with her; there has been no such animal for quite a while; there is no context for it that doesn’t inject some slight hyposrisy or other mortal taint into the word. He may have been, if all goes badly, one of the last true personalities, on a scale worth considering.

But that he gained in stature, as she writes, by putting down what is in this book, by its candor and anguish and the fortitude of his writing it, is certainly correct, so much so that one’s little reservations in his lifetime, even if valid, seem now quite wide of the mark. “He nothing common did or mean…” He did plenty probably, in his twelve years or more of gradual execution, yet one turns away from the long scene as from a moment of majesty.

This Issue

March 5, 1964