Dinner with Bernard Berenson

Sunset_and_Twilight_02Published by Harcourt, Brace & World

If I were to be asked the rhetorical question of with whom, living or dead, I would want to have dinner, the late art scholar Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) would have to be on my shortlist.

Born in Lithuania, Berenson emigrated with his family to Boston, earned a Harvard degree, and went on to a career of connoisseurship of Italian art history. For this he relied on friends for financial support. In early adulthood he was befriended and underwritten by Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner who relied on him for building a world-class European art collection in her museum-home. Later, as a full-time resident of Italy, he was employed by the Duveen art gallery to authenticate European paintings for sale to American millionaires, receiving rich commissions or annual retainer salaries, which led some to doubt his credibility.

To me, what made Berenson so fascinating is that he visited most every out-of-the-way museum, chapel and gallery in Europe to examine centuries-old artworks to determine who did the painting and when it was done. He developed an “eye” for identifying each artist’s style through individualized brushstroke, composition and subject. He and his wife Mary then prepared detailed lists which he published in a variety of books, among them The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance, Venetian Painters of the Renaissance, Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance and Lorenzo Lotto.

He and his wife purchased a country home in Florence known as i Tatti. There, they compiled a research library of 50,000 volumes of books and an estimate 170,000 photographs, of major and minor importance, all of which to intended to be used as resource material for future scholars. At his death, Berenson donated his estate to Harvard University as a Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, a place of leisurely scholarship for advanced research in the humanities.

Over the past two summers, I’ve read a number of books about Berenson and his home. They include Ernest Samuels’ two-part biography, Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur and Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Legend. Others are Forty Years with Berenson by Nicky Mariano – Being Bernard Berenson by Meryle Secrest – A Legacy of Excellence: The Story of Villa I Tatti by William Weaver – as well as Berenson’s own Sketch for a Self-Portrait, Rumor and Reflection and Sunset and Twilight.

Berenson’s focus on developing, revising and re-revising his lists has a direct parallel with work I’m doing on Minerd.com to track the extensive genealogical branches, from the 1700s to today, of the early Pennsylvania German families of Minerd-Minard-Miner-Minor and Younkin-Younken-Youngkin-Yonkin.

I first learned of Berenson when reading a biography of Belle de Costa Greene. She was the research librarian for J.P. Morgan in Manhattan; she and Berenson had a torrid affair at one point even as she was based in New York and he in Italy. Greene would be another candidate for my short list of dinner-with-anyone-living-or-dead companions.

More about Berenson and Greene in future Minerd.com Blog posts.

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