B. B. and Company

Mary Berenson: A Self-Portrait from Her Letters and Diaries

edited by Barbara Strachey, edited by Jayne Samuels
Norton, 319 pp., $18.95

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…

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