Berenson’s Elixir

Simon Schama

  • Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur by Ernest Samuels
    Harvard, 477 pp, £9.50, June 1979, ISBN 0 674 06775 4
  • Being Bernard Berenson by Meryle Secrest
    Weidenfeld, 473 pp, £8.50, January 1980, ISBN 0 297 77564 2

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’.

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