Friday, November 6, 2009

Devoted to great art

‘So much in my past that I hate to evoke. Short of violence, I have been capable of every sin, every misdemeanour, every crime. With horror I think what I should have become if I lived the life of an ill-paid professor, or struggling writer, how rebellious, if I had not lived a life devoted to great art . . .’ So wrote, Bernard Berenson, in his very last diary entry. He was one of the 20th century’s most important historians, and he died 50 years ago today.

Berenson was born Bernhard Valvrojenski in 1865 into a Jewish family in Lithuania. Ten years later the family emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts - and became the Berensons. Bernard attended Boston University College of Liberal Arts and then Harvard University. He moved to Oxford, UK, where he met many influential people in the art world, and where he first got involved with Mary, then married to a barrister called Frank Costelloe (with whom she had two children). In time, she divorced and married Berenson, and became an art historian in her own right (see the Dictionary of Art Historians for more biographical information). Also, she had some of her diary writing published in A Self-Portrait from her Letters & Diaries, edited by Barbara Strachey and Jayne Samuels, published by W W Norton in 1983.

In Oxford, Berenson not only developed his reputation as an art historian but began associations with various art dealers. His first book, The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance, became one in a series of four studies on Italian schools mostly published in the 1890s. So famous were these books, that English historians sometimes referred to them as the four gospels. In 1900, Berenson bought a house - Villa I Tatti - in the Tuscan hills of Settignano, outside Florence, which he and Mary transformed into a centre for renaissance studies. During the First World War, he worked as a translator and negotiator in Italy, thanks to a reccommenation by his friend, the author and art writer Edith Wharton.

Between the wars, some of Berenson’s earlier writings were collected and published as The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, a book which was considered a definitive authority on the subject for much of the 20th century. For 30 years or so, he enjoyed a close relationship with Joseph Duveen, the period’s most influential art dealer. Through a secretive deal, Berenson was paid 25% of whatever price Duveen achieved for the paintings, often from the wealthiest of collectors in the US who had been attracted by Berenson’s accreditations.

During the Second World War, Berenson found himself a virtual prisoner in I Tatti, despised as an American by the Mussolini government, but also fearful that his Jewish heritage would make him a target. Mary died in 1945, by which time Berenson had become intimately involved with Nicky Mariano, his long-term assistant. Berenson himself died, aged 94, half a century ago today on 6 October 2009.

The Dictionary of Art Historians gives the best online biography of Berenson. Here is one paragraph from that biography: ‘As an historian dedicated to the object (as opposed to documentary art history, iconography, social art history, etc.), he centered the emerging discipline. Berenson’s approach focused on determining the authenticity of art works rather than constructing histories in which art was created. His thrust proved particularly useful to art dealers and collectors, with whom Berenson has been criticized for having too close a relationship. Berenson’s major books are essentially lists of authenticated paintings by Berenson with introductory essays. He never altered the text in the numerous editions of his books, confident his analysis was comprehensive, despite embarrassments such as his low assessment of Sassetta. Instead, subsequent editions featured his corrections and supplements to his lists of attributions. Haughty and extremely class-conscious, perhaps because of his modest upbringings and American heritage in a European-dominated field, Berenson cultivated feuds; his personal correspondence shows that he viewed contemporary art historians as either ‘friend’ or ‘enemies’.

There are three collections of Berenson’s diary material. The first to be published, by Simon and Schuster in 1952, was Rumor and Reflection: The Wartime Diary of the Most Celebrated Humanist and Art Historian of Our Times. Next came The Passionate Sightseer: From the Diaries 1947-1956, also published by Simon and Schuster, in 1960; and then Sunset and Twilight: From the Diaries 1947-1958, published by Harcourt, Brace & World in 1963. There’s very little information about any of these books available on the internet - I can’t, for example, find a single review.

However, there are several quotes in Ernest Samuels’ two volume biography: Bernard Berenson, The Making of a Connoisseur (1979) and Bernard Berenson, The Making of a Legend (1987) both published by Harvard University Press. Parts of both books are available to view on Googlebooks. The promotional material for the second says this: ‘Controversy swirls around Bernard Berenson today as it did in his middle years, before and between two world wars. Who was this man, this supreme connoisseur of Italian Renaissance painting? How did he support his elegant estate near Florence, his Villa I Tatti? What exactly were his relations with the art dealer Joseph Duveen? What part did his wife, Mary, play in his scholarly work and professional career? The answers are to be found in the day-to-day record of his life as he lived it - as reported at first hand in his and Mary’s letters and diaries and reflected in the countless personal and business letters they received. His is one of the most fully documented lives of this century. Ernest Samuels, having spent twenty years studying the thousands of letters and other manuscripts, presents his story in absorbing detail.’

Here is Samuels writing in The Making of a Legend about Berenson’s attraction to women in old age, with various quotations from the diaries:

‘The diary of his old age showed no slackening of his devotion to women. . . Time and again Berenson returned to the tantalizing subject. It was the charm of women that they remained ‘adolescent-minded through all ages.’ At 83, he remarked, ‘Give me an aspiring and admiring woman to crank me up for talk.’ What sentient male - of any age - would not feel the force of his admission at 85, ‘My mind when vacuous dwells a good deal on women and always with a faint erotic tinge’? He still dreamt of ‘fair women’ as the ‘wolf dreams of the lamb.’ It was only ‘in the very last few years,’ he wrote at 88, that he had ‘gradually become more and more aware of how sex dominates us . . . no matter how tucked away . . . Do we ever meet a [woman] for the first time without asking ourselves whether we would want to go to bed with her?’ . . . As a nonagenarian, Berenson recorded, ‘I still would like to caress all the young women who attract me.’

And here are a couple more quotes from Berenson’s diaries, as reproduced in The Making of a Legend, including Berenson final entry.

1919
‘[Spain was] the only place in the world to study French art. Your thirteenth century stonecutters had all the grace of Watteau; all your churches are restored, but down there they’re pure.’

1945
‘I am a convert not to Zionism but to the necessity of finding a place for the Jew, not only safe from the heritage of Hitler but from his own gnawing frustration and inferiority complex.

February 1958
‘I end as a myth whose saga I can hardly recognise.’

April 1958
‘So much in my past that I hate to evoke. Short of violence, I have been capable of every sin, every misdemeanour, every crime. With horror I think what I should have become if I lived the life of an ill-paid professor, or struggling writer, how rebellious, if I had not lived a life devoted to great art and the aristocratically pyramidal structure of society that it serves, or worse still if I had remained in the all but proletarian condition I lived as a Jewish immigrant lad in Boston. So I remain skeptical about my personality. It really seems to have reached its present integration in the last twenty years, with the wide and far vision I now enjoy, with tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, expecting little and trying to be grateful for that, the serenity for which I am now admired But I keep hearing the Furies, and never forget them.’

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