On Berenson

A Review of Joseph Connors and Louis A. Waldman (eds.) Bernard Berenson. Formation and Heritage and Robert Cumming (ed.) My Dear BB. The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925-1959

/ by Henk Tromp

The connoisseur Bernard Berenson still commands considerable respect and attention. From his death in 1959 at the age of 94 onwards, almost every year there have been publications with him in the spotlight or as a significant other. It is not only or mainly due to his studies, at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, of the Italian painters of the Renaissance, although they had been groundbreaking at the time. They are obsolete by today’s standards, but they are still referred to in the literature, and his book on the drawings of the Florentine masters is still worthwhile reading. Neither is the constant attention due to his being a once-esteemed connoisseur, a man who made a living attributing works of art to their maker or makers. During his lifetime, many of his attributions had already been questioned, but this is the consequence of any piece of research and scholarship, for all human knowledge is fallible and open to criticism.


His scholarship itself therefore doesn’t explain the permanent attention he has received. It has to with the way his scholarship had been interwoven with his fascinating personal life, and the lives of those around him, and also with the rich corpus of documents and objects at his home, I Tatti, near Florence, that he bequeathed to Harvard University as a center for Italian Renaissance studies. In this way, Berenson has become an institution himself. Berenson still owns respect for his efforts to cleanse the corpus of Italian Renaissance drawings and paintings from mistaken attributions, but he is also the prototype of a scholar who consorted with traders and was not open about his alliances. The literature about Berenson has evolved beyond mere admiration or debunking. It is not possible anymore - as had been the case with earlier memoirs and biographies, like the one by Sprigge (1960) - to see Berenson only or mainly as a passionate lover of art and a connoisseur of Italian Renaissance paintings and drawings, as a brilliant raconteur and as the host at I Tatti to the rich, bright and beautiful.  Those who tried to preserve this elevated image of Berenson were very much under his spell. Neither is Berenson seen any more as a schemer who only had an eye for his own commercial interests. We now know that Berenson was a conflict-ridden person who tried to reconcile the demands of the world of art, scholarship and commerce.


Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri
Little Red Riding Hood

In your bowels swallow my mutiny.

My sin abdicates to obey your cruelty

No one must see, hidden

through the modest redness of my hood

My desire of evil.

No one must understand

Your enchantment  upsetting my senses

Your wicked soul that will give me my womanhood

I yearn for punishment

I want to be a victim

I am your longing for evil.

I knew it all! About the woods… about the wolf…

And now I am meeting you:

You cannot disappoint me.

Be what you’re not

There is no hope for you

Seduce me slashing through my body with the frenzy of your claws

Scratch me by the sweetness of your lies

Swallow me…do not spew me!

Swallow me.

Swallow my misunderstood loneliness

Swallow my inept nonentity.

Hurt me, really hurt me badly

So badly as to be understood,

So badly as not to be hurt anymore.

So badly as to become someone

In the dark wood of hypocrisy

To be someone

At last.

There is much to Berenson’s life and accomplishments that deserves attention and the contributions to Berenson. Formation and Heritage are a testimony to that. They cover a wide range of topics. Most contributions start with a particular person who, one way or another, belonged to Berenson’s professional and social circle. They highlight the many aspects of his personality, because the visitors to I Tatti, that is the friends, artists, writers, connoisseurs, art historians, collectors and dealers triggered different responses from him. By taking them as a focal point of attention, Berenson’s complexities come to life. The essays by Bernd Roeck and Robert Colby show how the elevated Italian Renaissance world of Berenson and his contemporaries rested upon a worldview that had been molded by the philosophy and aesthetics of the 19th century, at the expense of historiography. Bernd Roeck explores the tainted view of 15th century Florentine life, and shows how it colored the perceptions of the Anglo-Saxon expatriates who, at the end of the 19th century, visited and inhabited the Tuscan country houses surrounding the city. They had developed a blind spot for the grim realities of late-19th century Tuscan life, and also for what life must have meant for those who had lived there many centuries before. Novelists like Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann and Henry James were instrumental in creating a Renaissance Florence that mainly seemed to radiate beauty. Historians like Jacob Burckhardt and critics like John Ruskin had turned Florence into the birthplace of a blooming modernity but they were, as Roeck writes, in fact creating a myth. Berenson must somehow have been aware of the discrepancies, but his enthusiasm stimulated his patron, Isabella Stewart Gardner, to build a house (Fenway Court) in Boston with a now lost wall, annex portal (‘the carriage house’) based on an aesthetic vision of 15th century Venice and Florence. She had turned a world into stone which they had invented with words. Indeed, life imitates art.


It doesn’t mean that Berenson was out of touch with reality. He took a keen interest in politics and sided with those who resisted the totalitarian movements in Europe. In conversations, Berenson loathed the rise of Mussolini and shared his concerns with his friend, Count Umberto Morra di Lavriano, a writer who either had to put down his pencil or take the risk of being persecuted by fascists. Eventually, he had chosen to remain silent, but meanwhile had introduced Berenson to a network of antifascists who would become visitors to I Tatti. Robert and Carolyn Cumming have devoted an essay to this upright man who had been a close friend from the early 1920s until Berenson’s death in 1959. Berenson’s relationship with the black American anthropologist and dancer Katherine Dunham also bears testimony to his political and social views. They hadn’t been frequently in each other’s company, but they admired each other, and Berenson had been smitten with her in a Platonic way, he 85 years old and she 40, when they first met in 1949, and their story makes fascinating reading. She had created a ballet, Southland, about a lynching in the American South. It was a controversial work of art, but the audiences were not yet used to protest dances depicting racial oppression. She performed the ballet with her group during a tour in South America and Europe, but it had met with resistance on the part of the US State Department, because in the words of a diplomat, it “might upset the American position in the rest of the world.” She expected some kind of support from Berenson, but he had advised her against staging it in Europe, because it would fuel anti-Americanism and damage her career. At first sight, Berenson’s critique of Durham’s brave act seemed to support the US government’s interests. His attitude shocked her deeply. However, Joseph Connors, in his essay on their relationship, writes that their letters “tell a nuanced story in which a close friendship is tried but survives and grows deeper than before.”


Robert Cumming’s comprehensive edition of the correspondence between Berenson and his erstwhile pupil, Kenneth Clark, is a welcome addition to the literature on both men. Cummings writes that the correspondence has the immediacy and continuity that neither biography nor autobiography can ever have. One may sympathize with this statement, but one also knows from the outset that not that many people confide all their thoughts and feelings to paper. In general, letters by scholars and literati are exercises in confidentiality and constraint, even when they are not intended for publication. Cummings has divided the correspondence into ten episodes from 1925 till 1959, and has preceded each episode with information about Berenson’s and Clark’s activities and thoughts. Cummings quotes John Updike’s succinct observation: “It is easy to love people in memory; the hard thing is to love them when they are there in front of you” to elucidate on the complexity of the relationship between Berenson and Clark. They were kindred spirits, with their passionate love for the Italian art of the Renaissance, and their preference for high-spirited conversations. The ambivalence, however, in feelings and attitudes of both Berenson and Clark towards each other isn’t apparent from the letters they wrote to each other. This ambivalence stems from their different backgrounds and their position vis à vis the world of art and trade. Berenson, who wanted to become a real Bostonian and, in order to do so, had to suppress his poor Lithuanian Jewish identity and who, subsequently with much effort, had to find his way into a society that was actually alien to his background, versus Clark who had been born into a wealthy family and could freely develop his innate intelligence. Berenson considered himself a self-made man. Clark, on the other hand, simply had to do what was expected from someone born in the higher classes.


Here Cummings himself has filled this gap between life and letters with admirable skill. Clark considered himself in debt to Berenson - in writing, he persisted that their relationship was not an equal one, but that of a master and his pupil - and there is no reason to assume that this statement only reflects Clark’s politeness. On the other hand, Clark has written in his autobiography, Another Part of the Wood (1974), that Berenson was actually “on the pinnacle of a mountain of corruption.” In Clark’s letters to Berenson, there isn’t a single hint of his aversion of this aspect of Berenson’s activities. There are also other signs of the strains in their relationship, but that is not always clear while reading the letters themselves. I am not sure whether the correspondence would make fascinating reading by itself, but the extensive comments and notes give them the necessary flavor. The correspondence is a canvas that really needs Cumming’s frame to be fully appreciated. 


Nevertheless, one wonders whether, after the monumental biographies by Ernest Samuels (1979 and 1987) and Meryle Secrest (1979), and after slimmer volumes, like the ones by Mary Ann Calo (1994) and Rachel Cohen (2013), the books contain new material that necessitates another biography of the “Sage of I Tatti.” I am inclined to write no, but that doesn’t make the books less interesting. On the contrary, both books make fascinating reading about Berenson, Clark and the worlds of art, commerce and culture they found themselves in and helped to shape. Berenson, in his lifelong effort to promote interest in Italian Renaissance art, and Clark, in his books and pioneering use of television to reach out to a public that hitherto had hardly been in touch with high culture. Both books show involvement and detachment with their subjects and are highly recommended.


This essay also appears in The Journal of Art Crime, the first peer-reviewed academic journal in the field. For more information or to subscribe, visit www.artcrimeresearch.org

Henk Tromp