The Great Gaon of Italian Art
In memory of Ezra Mendelsohn, historian and humanist
"It is only by a study of Jewish institutions and literature that we shall begin to understand the puzzling character of the Jews.” These words appear early in an 1888 essay on “Contemporary Jewish Fiction” by the former Jew and recent Harvard graduate Bernhard Berenson (he soon dropped the Germanic “h”) in The Andover Review. The essay’s precocious author, who had arrived with his family from Lithuania only 13 years before, studiously avoided any suggestion that he himself had been born and raised among those “puzzling” people. Their “character and interests,” he wrote, “are too vitally opposed to our own to permit the existence of that intelligent sympathy between us and them which is necessary for comprehension.” Berenson (né Valvrojenski) had, in fact, converted to Christianity just three years earlier, in the fall of his second year at Harvard. In the essay, composed in Italy shortly after his graduation, he gave his place of residence as Florence. During the 1890s, he would return to Italy with his mistress (and future wife) Mary Costelloe, convert again—from Protestantism to Catholicism—and establish his legendary home of the next six decades outside of Florence, Villa I Tatti.
Although Berenson had failed to win Harvard’s prestigious Parker Traveling Fellowship, he had set out for Europe in June of 1887 nonetheless, with the same $700 awarded to Parker fellows, provided, in this case, by a group of Boston benefactors, one of whom was his future friend and client Isabella Stewart Gardner. It was in his second year in Europe that Berenson developed the expertise in Renaissance art that eventually gained him enormous wealth as one of the world’s leading experts in the attribution of paintings. His technique was derived largely from that of the Italian scholar Giovanni Morelli, whom Berenson met late in the latter’s life. As Rachel Cohen notes in her new book on Berenson’s “life in the picture trade,” Morelli’s method was based on the belief “that every artist has signature ways of doing small details—drapery, hands, ears—and that distinguishing these traits made a firmer basis for authentication.” Berenson’s teacher Charles Eliot Norton dismissively dubbed this the “ear and toenail school,” but Berenson employed the technique in his first book, Venetian Painters of the Renaissance, to great effect. (Later, in his essay on “The Moses of Michelangelo,” Freud would remark that this method of focusing on seemingly incidental details was “closely related to . . . psycho-analysis.”)