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…

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