Bernard Berenson once began a will with the phrase: ‘If I die …’ Such a prudential approach to immortality is understandable coming from someone who had been transmogrified into a sacred relic during his lifetime. In his octogenarian splendour, looking like some pixillated Nestor, venerated from far and near as the oracular source of wisdom on Italian art, ‘II Bibi’ took on an iconic quality. In the public mind, he became the incarnation of Renaissance man, sustaining an exquisite humanism amidst the detritus of European cultural collapse.
This must have been gratifying, for Berenson had long yearned to be identified with the ‘enduring’ and ‘universal’ qualities he believed fine art to nourish. His own disquiet – confessed in the Sketch for a Self-Portrait (1941) – at having betrayed his early potential was thus assuaged by the much greater burden of guilt carried by the barbarian novicento, terrified of losing its cultural birthright, and grateful to Berenson for having carried the torch at midnight. The most celebrated (and photographed) visitors to I Tatti in the post-war period included such marginal representatives of the Civilised Life as Harry S. Truman, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (whose presence was, BB felt, ‘life-enhancing’), and, most improbable of all, Ernest Hemingway. Meryle Secrest discloses that Hemingway was desperate in his suit for Berenson’s favours, and would have prostrated himself for a petal from the Great Man’s boutonnière. He clambered out of plane wrecks and gutted hotels, eager to make the pilgrimage to Settignano, If only the manicured finger would so much as beckon. But the more wanton Hemingway became in his flattery, the more Berenson resolved to hold his meaty embrace at bay. ‘He may turn out too animal, too overwhelmingly masculine, too Bohemian,’ he fretted: ‘he may expect me to drink and guzzle with him.’ Even at his most decorous and ingratiating, Hemingway gave off too much of the whiff of raw flesh for Berenson’s notoriously delicate stomach to manage. He was not the sort who went down well at tea time in the limonaia.
In the twenty years since Berenson’s death, I Tatti has been put to work (as the Harvard Centre for Renaissance Studies) in ways its presiding genius might not have appreciated. The weight of scholarship and professional research – that twin progeny of German High Seriousness he found so depressing – has descended on the court of civilità. Students sleuth in his library for iconographic arcana, while computers churn out data oh such low matters as Florentine tax records and bequests. What Berenson insisted was extraneous and peripheral to the direct contemplation, of a painting – historical documentation concerning patronage and changes of taste, the decipherment of meaning enclosed in symbol and allusion – has now firmly taken up the central ground in art history. Connoisseurship is itself suspect in some quarters as a dilettante activity, part of a milieu of silk cravats and magnifying-glasses rather than the sombre integrity of classical scholarship. Sophomores traipse round the Washington National Gallery, its rooms stocked with Berenson’s acquisitions, carrying Ferguson’s Guide to Christian Signs and Symbols rather than the once ubiquitous Italian Painters of the Renaissance. Similarly, Berenson’s canvas-tapping, idiom-hunting methods of attribution and authentication have been superseded by the less intuitive but more scientific business of chemical pigment analysis and. X-radiography.
For all this, Berenson’s eminence remains formidable. His Florentine Drawings (1903) still commands respect, and his single-minded ‘rediscoveries’ of Lorenzo Lotto and Piero della Francesca were, in their time, genuinely audacious. His influence on the great American collections was spectacular and decisive. Fenway Court, the patrician fantasy of a Renaissance palazzo in darkest Boston, is as much an expression of his taste and enthusiasm as of those of its doyenne, Isabella Stewart Gardner. He was not exaggerating when he told his 50th Harvard class reunion that most of the Italian pictures of any merit that had come to America between 1895 and 1940 had had his ‘visa stamped on their passport’. His protégés and epigones remain installed in the splendid museums housing the fruit of those rich harvests. And if Berenson felt disinclined to return the compliment, it should nonetheless be remembered that exemplars of iconography like Erwin Panofsky have been at pains to stress the interdependence of connoisseurship and art history. The former, wrote Panofsky in Meaning and the Visual Arts, was only a more laconic form of the latter, just as art history was a ‘more loquacious form of connoisseurship’.
It was no surprise, then, that the 20th anniversary of Berenson’s death last year was marked by an exhibition in the National Gallery in Washington entitled ‘Berenson and the Connoisseurship of Italian Painting’, and devoted to his techniques and theories. This had the effect of making connoisseurship itself a museum study, as paintings with which Berenson had been concerned yielded pride of place to photographs of him looking at photographs. Last year also saw the publication of Ernest Samuels’s painstakingly researched and beautifully written biography of the young Berenson, subtitled The Making of a Connoisseur. By no means a hagiography, Samuels’s book offered a view of Berenson in the full flower of his blooming egotism, as well as a penetrating insight into his Paterian idealism, and his adaptation of the identification techniques of Giovanni Morelli (unkindly called, by one German critic, the ‘ear, nose and toe-nail man’). The book was, however, an authorised biography which somewhat delicately halted its narrative in 1903-4, with Berenson and his wife Mary returned from a head-hunting trip to the United States, where the big-game of major-league millionaires – Peter Widener, James G. Johnson, Samuel Kress – had leapt to profit from his publicised expertise. This was sometimes prompted by motives of undisguised envy and covetousness amongst themselves. On learning of BB’s descent on Widener’s optimistically attributed collection J.P. Morgan gloated: ‘I hear Berenson’s gone to Philadelphia to bust up Widener’s collection.’ And to promote their services, the Berensons had to suppress their refined nausea at plutocratic vulgarity. At one house they sat through a concert of organ-grinders (accompanied by monkeys) drafted in from New York. The Havermeyers, they groaned, had ‘an awful Tiffany house – Rembrandts, Monets, Degases ad infinitum – no real taste’.
Insofar as Samuels’ book was indeed concerned with the making of the connoisseur, 1904 seems a legitimate caesura in BB’s irresistible rise to fame and fortune. He had published most of the work on which his reputation was to be based: the embarrasingly elementary Venetian Painters, the famous Florentine Painters, in which ‘tactile values’ received their definition, two lesser known but more rewarding essays on Central Italian and North Italian art, as well as the major work on Florentine drawings. It had been his 40-page pamphlet on an exhibition of Venetian paintings held in London in 1895, mowing down their grandiose attributions (especially the multiplying Giorgiones) with a critical scythe of glinting perspicacity, which had turned him overnight into the enfant terrible of the art world, the maker or breaker of dealers’ reputations. The first of the doctrinal ‘Lists’ sorting sheep from goats duly followed. And Berenson then embarked on his dramatic apprenticeship in buying and advising ‘Mrs Jack’ Gardner, resolved to stock Fenway Court ‘with only the greatest paintings in the world’. They were supplied forthwith: Titian’s ‘Rape of Europa’; Rembrandt’s 1636 self-portrait; a Philip IV by Velazquez; Rubens’s Earl of Arundel – all for what seemed at the time phenomenal, that is to Say, ‘American’ prices. The proceeds from this stupendous bonanza enabled Berenson and his wife to instal themselves in I Tatti, already dreaming dreams of ‘Altamura’, the select community of the civilised few, committed to cultural self-fulfilment and acting out Pater’s epicurean fantasies amidst the Tuscan cypresses.
What really burned with a hard, gem-like flame, though, was BB’s bank account. And it is precisely at the point when loot-creaming became a major, if not overwhelming preoccupation that Ernest Samuels discreetly ends his book. It closes with perfunctory references to Berenson in his Methuselah phase, full of years and wistful self-knowledge. And indeed if one were to add to the period before 1904 the mellow and generous years following 1945, and call it a life, the verdict would be wholly flattering.
Meryle Secrest has committed the unpardonable lapse of taste of examining the period in between, when Berenson, as Lord Clark pointed out some years ago, did nothing but authenticate. Not only does she presume to scrutinise his dealings with the unsavoury Joseph Duveen – a partnership which began in 1907 and continued for thirty years – but she also attempts (a little clumsily) to check the durability of his attributions and to relate them to his interest in sales. This is to go trampling blithely over rows of painful corns, and predictably, the result has been to provoke howls of anguish and mortification from strategically-placed BB men. Indeed, as soon as the unsereiner had an inkling of what one of them what calls ‘that woman’ was up to, they closed ranks, the current custodians of the Berenson papers ensuring that she was denied access. Happily, as her six pages of effusive acknowledgement testify, Berenson was a prolific enough correspondent for her to use letters and oral recollections to document the biography.
Once the book appeared, it was given short shrift in eminent quarters. Sir John Pope-Hennessy, writing in the life-enhancing Now!, described it as ‘tawdry’, while working up a tremendous lather of indignation at the impertinence of the whole enterprise. Professor Sidney Freedberg availed himself of the Boston Globe to lay about the author for her ignorance of art history. Lord Clark, one of the earliest of BB’s protégés at I Tatti, who has himself generously acknowledged the formative influence Berenson had on his own work, but who has insisted on the difference between the arrogant, abrasive pre-war Berenson and the chastened, generous post-war Berenson, has come in for a severe wigging from the Pope-H for not only encouraging Meryle Secrest but having the gall to commend her book on the dust-jacket. Both he and she, it seems, have spat on the raiment of the Almighty.
Now that the quacking has abated somewhat, and the feathers have settled back on the ducks, it may be timely to ask whether the book is really that awful. Or, dare one say, if it matters a jot or tittle if it is? Ms Secrest’s prose style, it must be conceded, wants something in the way of crispness. At times it drips with a liberal coating of golden syrup. Like Ernest Samuels, she begins with a description of I Tatti but, alas, as though one were confronting a Giorgione landscape. Wrong painter, wrong region, the BB men mutter. But there is worse to follow: ‘This tapestry’ – tapestry? – ‘of cypresses and palms is steeped in a sheen of golden light, suffusing the limbs of statuesque Muses with warmth powdering the opalescent shadows and dappling the wings of swallows wheeling in the luminous air.’ As a parody of Pater this is good rollicking stuff, but aside from the problem of the powdery shadow, one may be permitted to wonder when Meryle Secrest last saw a dappled swallow, much less a dappled wing. Then there is her weird and wonderful way of turning nouns into verbs. ‘Enisled’ is a favourite and ‘freighted with regret’ turns out to be a doleful countenance rather than an apology from the GPO. There are signs of lavish use of scissors and paste. She also commits the occasional howler in her own lists. Giotto would be surprised to find himself classed among ‘the best of 15th-century painters’, and Cardinal Bembo (as in the portrait by Titian) turns up as Bimbo (as in the clown by Walt Disney).
However, let him who is without typos cast the first stone. Even the honourable and impeccable Samuels perpetrated the occasional stinker, and lest the above be taken for a pasting, let it be said that Meryle Secrest has written an entertaining, readable, often very perceptive biography which by no stretch of the imagination could be called vindictive or sensational. And although her style and temper differ sharply from Samuels’s, the early chapters of her book traverse much the same terrain: from the childhood in a Lithuanian shtetl, the wunderkind years in immigrant Boston, the salad days in Harvard and the successive discoveries of Arnold, Pater and William James which were to steer Berenson towards his aesthetic passion. Charles Eliot Norton, Harvard’s first Professor of Fine Arts, assessed him as having ‘more ambition than talent’, a verdict which Berenson, reasonably, never forgave him, but it was his appeal to Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the entrée into Back Bay society, which launched him on the travels to Europe that were to end in his famous vow at a Bergamo café. He would, he swore, dedicate his life, with ‘no idea, no ambition, no expectation, no thought of reward’, to ‘learning to distinguish between the authentic works of an Italian painter of the 15th and 16th century, and those commonly ascribed to him. We must not stop until we are sure that every Lotto is a Lotto, every Cariani a Cariani ...’
It would be wrong to sneer at this youthful profession of faith. Berenson initially made it good by dashing tirelessly around Italy in hot pursuit of the Genuine Article. He subsisted on soda bread, onions and anchovies in remote villages for the sake of winkling out a plausible Lotto or a possible Fra Angelico. He communed with the monks of Monte Oliveto Maggiore in the Sienese crete while contemplating the virtues of Sodoma, and peered behind the stacked furniture in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo to examine Piero della Francesca’s frescoes of the Finding of the True Cross. Before long, he had his London conquest, Mary Costelloe, in tow. Ample of form and enthusiastic of temperament, the ‘modern’ wife of an evangelical Member of Parliament, she deserted both him and her two daughters to follow the bright light of BB’s star. ‘I must have been especially scintillating that weekend,’ he crowed after their first meeting, for ‘she followed me and for two years I put her off.’ Both Meryle Secrest and Ernest Samuels restore to the ungainly figure of Mary Berenson her major role in sustaining, even reinforcing (were that conceivable), Berenson’s waxing self-belief. She also did much to repair his fractured prose, and lectured eloquently in Britain and America to museum audiences, when he fled in tongue-tied horror from the prospect of public performance.
Nor was there any necessary incompatibility between his calling as a connoisseur and what he described as his ‘mission’ to act as advisor to American buyers. To be sure, he took 5 per cent of the purchase price to Mrs Gardner, and the till rang into five or even six figures with gratifying regularity in the later 1890s. But, as Meryle Secrest emphasises, as long as he was counselling a buyer, he remained the adversary of dealers, and applied the strictest canons of scrutiny to their offerings. Even his strikingly exclusive partiality for Colnaghi’s and his close relationship with the sublimely named Otto Gutekunst of that firm, did nothing to sway him from a stringently purist approach towards any picture suggesting inflated attribution.
All this changed in 1907 when Berenson needed funds to buy I Tatti outright. The prodigious appetite and resources of Mrs Gardner had undergone some restraint following her spree, and Berenson was hungry for a larger slice of the cake than her measly 5 per cent. Enter Duveen, and enter 10 per cent (later 25), together with a handsome retainer. Without suggesting that Berenson then flung to the winds his hitherto severe standards of authentication for the uninterrupted pursuit of gain, it is certainly the case that once he switched from servicing buyers to obliging dealers, his judgments became more expansive. Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Feast of the Gods’, which he had once dismissed as by the relatively minor Marco Basaiti, was described at the time of its sale as ‘one of the greatest imaginative conceptions of the Renaissance’ (it is). Another painting which he could not bring himself to attribute to Titian, and listed instead as by Polidoro Lanzani, miraculously transformed itself into a Giorgione when sold to Benjamin Altman in 1913 – the year in which Italian painting prices took off, never again to touch ground. Colin Simpson’s privileged glimpses into the Duveen papers (not to be made available until 2002) and reported in the Sunday Times on 3 February of this year, make it plain beyond a shadow of a doubt that ‘Doris’, as he was wickedly code-named by Duveen, not only knew when a painting had undergone heavy restoration but pretended to at least one client (Henry Goldman in 1914) that it was in pristine condition. ‘The bloom of the ages remains as in a fresh flower,’ he said of that particular Fra Angelico.
Nor was Berenson altogether the corrupted Faust to Duveen’s Mephistopheles. There were occasions when he actually complained, as to René Gimpel, that the dealer was not taking advantage of his expertise – at the usual rates of 25 per cent irrespective of whether or not he or Berenson proposed a painting for sale. When, in a fit of hubris, Duveen had organised an exhibition in 1929 of major items bought through, and authenticated by, Berenson, the latter sent panic-stricken cables to the dealer warning of the impending DISASTER were the show to go ahead, and the items were hurriedly withdrawn. When Richard Offner ventured some mildly incredulous notices of an exhibition in 1924, Berenson’s fury knew no bounds, and he severed relations with the erring disciple.
There were instances, admittedly (though none too many), when he stubbornly refused to gratify Duveen with an excessively ambitious attribution. A pair of portraits by Ereolc Roberti, which Duveen’s agent, Edward Fowles, wanted transformed into Gabriele Cossas to appease a Cossa-fixated client, were denied their authentication. And there were contentious attributions to which Berenson remained committed long alter he had any financial interest in them. The magnificent ‘Portrait of a Man’ by Andrea del Castagno (now in the Washington National Gallery) was thought by Berenson (not unreasonably) to be an Antonio Pollaiuolo, and remains so described even in the 1952 edition of the Italian Painters. In 1937, his refusal to accept an ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ (the ‘Allendale Nativity’) as a Giorgione, rather than a Titian, led to the terminal break with Duveen. Ironically, the picture is now hung in the Washington Gallery as a Giorgione, and BB finally accepted the attribution in 1957. By 1937, though, Berenson could well afford to be severe. For a period of over thirty years, his partnership with Duveen had brought him not less than £20,000 a year, a retainer after 1927 of $75,000, and an aggregate sum estimated at £1,647,000. He had come a long way from breaking bread with the Abbot of Monte Oliveto Maggiore.
His record should perhaps be judged by the standards of the time rather than monastic criteria of moral propriety. In the 18th century the connoisseur Jonathan Richardson had believed that ‘an understanding in a science is the possessor’s property which every man sells at as good a rate as he can for value received. Why connoisseurs should be expected to distinguish themselves by their generosity and prodigality is unaccountable.’ Berenson, moreover, was by no means the most ravenous predator in the shark-infested art market of the 1920s. Ellis Waterhouse has hair-raising stories to tell of shenanigans in the English market of the same period. Authentication was not, it seems, a profession which much encouraged heroic feats of self-denial among its practitioners. Offner’s exemplary austerity was more the exception than the rule.
But if Berenson was no more a scoundrel than the rest of the pack, neither was he less of one. He never really recovered from the exhilarating discovery, well before the First World War, that his scribbled attribution on the back of a photograph could make or mar reputations and fortunes. Even more alluring, perhaps, than the prospect of profit was the euphoria of power. By exercising his incomparably gifted eye, his remarkable visual memory and his promethean self-confidence, he could attain a god-like authority, creating or obliterating entire artistic identities with a stroke of the pencil. Thus his Lists took on the sanctity of Holy Scripture in which figures from the obscurer corners of the Renaissance might be rescued from oblivion, supplied with refreshed curricula vitae and re-equipped for the attention of posterity. To be banished from the Lists or stripped of works was rather like dropping a rosette in the Guide Michelin. It was tantamount to being blotted out of sight. The indulgence of what might be called a Frankenstein syndrome was at its most extreme when Berenson claimed to deduce coherent artistic personalities merely from common stylistic traits. In this way, the phantom painters ‘Alunno di Domenico’ (pupil of Domenico Ghirlandaijo) and ‘Amico di Sandro’ (friend of Botticelli) were born fully armed from Berenson’s ingenious brain. Amico di Sandro’s works later turned out, for the most part, to be by Filippino Lippi, and he was quietly dissolved again into inchoate matter in 1932.
Inevitably, a large number of Berenson’s attributions have suffered attrition, not only from the effects of disinterested scepticism, but from the tendency of art-historians and curators, armed with their omniscient electronic hardware, to err on the side of caution. Have his aesthetic theories proved any more durable? As with his attribution techniques, Berenson carried into the 20th century (and then perpetuated through the longevity of his authority) assumptions derived from the late 19th. Few if any were original to him, but, as Sir Ernst Gombrich has pointed out in Art and Illusion, he was adept at reformulating and simplifying the knotty issues rehearsed in Adolf von Hilde-brand’s Problem of Form, and rendering them accessible to the average gallery visitor. William James’s preoccupation with psycho-physiology, and with sense-data, made a profound impression, and Berenson came to regard his aesthetics as a kind of perceptual calisthenics without which a viewer would be incapacitated from responding adequately to a picture.
Thus were coined the key epithets by which Berenson is still remembered: ‘tactile values’, ‘space composition’ (not to be confused with mere or ordinary composition), and the ‘life-enhancing’ properties said to distinguish the work of major artists from those of mediocrities. In adhering to these majestically sweeping criteria (and they were never elaborated in any significantly more sophisticated way in his essays on aesthetics), Berenson was isolating qualities appropriate to specific artists and asserting them to be characteristic of a whole school. Thus the ‘tactile values’ he detected in Giotto and Masaccio became the hallmark of the whole Florentine school, and the norm by which its exponents might be evaluated. Botticelli (Mr Tactile himself) was a paradigm: but Uccello was inclined to the aridly geometric, and Filippino Lippi could degenerate into the limp and insipid. Similarity, the ‘space composition’ of Pietro Perugino was deemed to characterise the whole Umbrian school, and to connect him somewhat implausibly to Raphael.
The trouble with all this, apart from its exasperating imprecision, is that it presupposes a kind of aesthetic immanence: the ITness (to use one of Berenson’s pet coinages) of the painting. This irreducible aesthetic core has nothing to do with subject-matter, whether literal or symbolic, and even less with the mundane stuff of commissions and patronage. Rather it is the mysterious essence of a work of art transmitted via ‘ideated sensations’ (like tactile values) to a correctly attuned sensibility. It may be objected that one man’s tactile values are set quivering by Titian’s Venus rather than Botticelli’s. But since, according to Berenson, it is axiomatic that the ITness of Titian (as of all Venetian art) consists in the sensual exploitation of tone and colour, rather than the rendering of form, it follows that the man’s receiving antennae suffer from operational malfunction.
How can one tell if one’s receiving equipment is tuning in to ITness? Here, Berenson describes the physical symptoms in the totally immersed viewer which make a response to ‘ideated sensations’ unmistakable. These sound remarkably like the effects of a drug: the quickening pulse; the feeling as if ‘the elixir of life, not our own sluggish blood were coursing through our veins’; what Berenson called hyper-aesthesia’. In the case of ‘space composition’, the relief from constriction: ‘a change in circulation and breathing’, the dissolution into infinite space, and so on. And it is Berenson’s equation of ‘life-enhancing’ properties of great art with corporeal revitalisation – his notion that it acts as a tonic replenishing élan vital against its depletion by mundane experience – that supplies the connection between his life and his ideas. For it was only through art that he was capable of coming to terms with physical self-awareness. ‘A good rough test of a masterpiece,’ he wrote, ‘is whether we feel it is reconciling us with life.’
Meryle Secrest’s anecdotal accounts of Berenson’s personal idiosyncrasies are of the utmost relevance to understanding his aesthetic sensibility. His food fads, his inability to stomach any but the daintiest morsels, his tirades against the plumpening Mary for serving gross and inedible meals, his horror of bodily functions (‘I have never got over my disgust with everything that comes out of the body, whether it is from nose, mouth, bladder or bowels), his sartorial fastidiousness, which went well beyond the realms of dandyism, his amorous interest in beauty, rather than sex – all testify to a determination to experience the sensual at arm’s length, and best of all through the surrogate refinement of ‘life-enhancing’ art.
Art for Berenson was spiritual medicine – an antidote to life’s pollution. It was nature cleansed of mess. And perhaps we should look, not just to William James, but to the more bizarre areas of late 19th-century faddism, to mental hygiene theory and vitalism, to discover the psychic roots of his aesthetics. It is a surprise that he remained interested in Mary Costello after being first received by her with an infant at the breast; it is no surprise at all to learn of his fainting when confronted by a mural painted at I Tatti which depicted dionysiac couples in varying states of sexual excitement. Nor that he found the pullulating swarm of Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter the most repellent spectacle he had ever beheld, combining, as it did, chaos, dirt and vice. Had he been a connoisseur of Dutch, rather than Italian art, it seems safe to speculate he would have preferred Vermeer and De Hooch over Steen and Hals.
For all Berenson’s addiction to communing with nature on long walks, I Tatti as ‘Altamura’ was conceived as a defence against the brutality and banality of the outside world. In its prime, which coincided with Berenson’s most feverishly booty-hunting years, it may aptly be described as a court, for it exactly replicated the traditional function of courts by prescribing a strict ritual of etiquette, rank and protocol (the ceremonial teas in the limonaia, the excruciating dinners), all of which were expressly designed to celebrate and exalt the monarch at its centre, Il Bibi. Formality and ceremony were not incidental to I Tatti: they were the point of its existence. Hence the stilted nature of the conversations which the captive Kenneth Clark found so unbearable. And while the more deferential accounts of Berenson reiterate the wisdom that he was a ‘brilliant conversationalist’, no trace of it, no bon mot or even hint of repartee, survives to bear this out. What ‘conversation’ meant at I Tatti was an uninterruptable stream of remarks by Berenson himself, many of them reviling colleagues and upstart rivals; obiter dicta (‘the Americans can’t think; the English can’t draw’) received in awestruck silence; political discussion of absurd ingenuousness; and, above all, an avoidance of anything approaching the ‘shop talk’ of art and art history. BB’s interminable and usually unfunny anecdotes were greeted with compulsory applause, and he would in any case laugh at his own stories. Not the least unpleasant of these gruesome rites was the proprietorial interference in the private lives of courtiers, acolytes and indentured artificers. Compared with I Tatti, Versailles looks like a playground of spontaneous and breezy informality.
Thanks to Duveen’s loot and to the heroic efforts of Nicky Mariano, Berenson’s assistant and companion, whom all sources describe as a lovable woman of saintly forbearance, Altamura did somehow manage to keep the more distressing aspects of the Twenties and Thirties at bay. BB’s sacred aura was such that for a long time the Fascists treated him as inviolate, Jew, American and champion of undesirable liberals like Salvemini though he was. To his great credit, BB made no effort whatsoever to disguise his abomination of the Duce. On the contrary, he would embark on jeremiads of magnificent vehemence at the least prompting. Eventually, though, the high walls were scaled by the hosts of darkness, and the squadri stuck their jackboots straight through Berenson’s dome of many-coloured glass. He took refuge in Florence, where his confinement produced one of his more likeable occasional writings, the sardonically titled One Year’s Reading for Fun.
Traumatic as the events of the war undoubtedly were, they had the effect of producing a new and altogether improved Berenson. In his Sketch for a Self-Portrait, written in 1941, there is for the first time a glimmer of honesty and a great swell of rueful self-criticism. If for nothing else, it deserves to be remembered for an opening phrase of startling physicality: ‘Often I feel like a cow with sagging udders, lowing for relief.’ He did not go so far as to admit that his early ideals had been betrayed by cupidity rather than dilettantism. But in his chastened mood he was capable of diagnosing a whole repertoire of fatal flaws. Restored to I Tatti, he became mellow, magnanimous, sensitive, and, most remarkable of all, interested in other people. Occasionally he was known to twitch his tactile values in the direction of elegant women, but more for bravura than performance. Most of his nagging insecurities had been laid to rest. His status was unassailable, and Harvard (albeit somewhat reluctantly) agreed to take, on I Tatti after his death. Ultimately, he was even able to reconcile himself with the Jewish identity from which he had fled, at his father’s bidding, seventy and more years before. His last self-image was not that of some latter-day Montefeltro surrounded by the flatterers of courtly humanism. It was that of ‘some old Rabbi by Rembrandt’.
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