About forty years ago, a Cambridge art history student in his twenties was in Cortona for an extended period doing research. At that time, the lovely Central Italian hill-town had not yet become the mecca for Anglo-German “agro-tourism” that it is today, and a visitor on an extended stay might still be viewed by the Cortonesi with some curiosity and benevolence. In time, that student—the young and perceptive Robert Cumming—was introduced to a few of the local gentry but was received with particular warmth by Count Umberto Morra, who was then in his mid-seventies. Known to the locals also as the Conte Rosso (“Red Count”) for his anti-fascist past, Morra lived alone in one of those grand, yet comfortably rustic, country houses in Italy that occupy their surroundings, unlike French châteaux that dominate them. The Count was an astringent, highly cultured bachelor who also spoke impeccable English and for decades past had enjoyed the friendship and hospitality of Bernard Berenson (1865–1959), in addition to many of the “great and good” of his generation. Not surprisingly, Cumming was drawn into the story of the Count’s life and enchanted by his reminiscences of a European society that was rapidly receding from memory. Morra’s withdrawn persona, never publicly prominent in his own time, was fertile material, Cumming thought, for a biographical study.

It was only some fifteen years after the Count’s death in 1981, that the now-married Cumming got around to his project. Knowing of Morra and Berenson’s close friendship, he imagined that “I Tatti,” the Berenson villa and now Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies, would yield copious epistolary material between the two. What emerged from the archive was only a disappointingly thin packet of letters. What appeared instead were several thick folders containing correspondence among Berenson, his wife, others of the “I Tatti” household, and Kenneth Clark (1903–1983), a close contemporary of Morra’s but a far more public and influential figure. These letters, literally hundreds of them, spanned more than thirty years, from 1925—the year Clark, then a twenty-two-year-old Oxford graduate, was offered an internship at “I Tatti”—to 1959, the year of the nonagenerian Berenson’s death. It is interesting to note that the age differences between Berenson and Clark and between Morra and Cumming were almost identical and that in each case the friendships developed similarly—as teacher/pupil relationships.

Another fifteen years would pass until Cumming and his wife Carolyn could set to the task of editing and arranging the vast trove of correspondence between “BB” and “K” (as they invariably signed themselves, after a brief initial period of reserved formality).1 The dialogue is interrupted only by the cataclysm of World War II, at the outbreak of which Berenson chose to remain in Italy, close to his works of art, his books, and his ailing wife, Mary. The letters resume almost immediately upon the liberation of Florence by Allied troops in August 1944. The Cummings have arranged the huge archive in chronological order and in several distinct chapters, each of which is preceded by a lengthy essay describing the personal circumstances, motives, and preoccupations of the two writers set against the social and historical context of the period. The texts are carefully annotated so that persons, places, and works of art mentioned (often by only a single enigmatic word) are adequately identified. The massive volume is completed by fascinating additions, such as Berenson’s testamentary intentions for his donation of “I Tatti” to Harvard and Clark’s memorial oration delivered in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio after Berenson’s death. More interesting still is an appendix appropriately entitled “Dramatis Personae,” where the reader can consult multiple capsule biographies of the illustrious, notorious, and obscure who inhabited Berenson’s and Clark’s universe for more than a century.

Daunting as the task of consulting My Dear BB may appear considering its sheer size, the book is sure to survive beyond purely “topical” interest; it will, instead, retain great value as a precious future reference for the events, people, and ideas that mark—so densely and dramatically—the decades between the two world wars. It is also, and primarily, a record of two extraordinary intellects—Berenson and Clark—whom we hear, conversing in their own “voices.” One is grateful not only for the richness of the writers’ broad culture and specific art-historical expertise, but also for the ample humor, political insight, worldly gossip, and philosophical reflection with which they enriched their letters. As we progress in this self- and sex-obsessed twenty-first century, we realize that Berenson and Clark’s was a world that now seems ever more distant and rapidly receding. Difficult, today, to imagine a brilliant and innovative connoisseur (BB) advancing from an impoverished immigrant childhood in Boston to the pinnacle of social prominence as the master of a sprawling Tuscan villa filled with books and works of art—and ascending to that prominence based not on financial derring-do, but on a knowledge of Italian Renaissance art; or the scion of a wealthy upper-crust British mercantile family (K. Clark) becoming a revered and world-famous oracle on Western art—the two not only sharing an intimate friendship, but also hob-nobbing with royalty and the fashionable while still finding the time to research, write, and publish ground-breaking works of historical criticism and scholarship. For them and their friends, it was also a world of seemingly incessant travel: of “motoring” to exotic destinations (probably in elegant landaus with chauffeur at the wheel); of enjoying each other’s homes as house-guests for days at a time; of stopping at what were truly “grand” hotels; and of “crossings” in sleek ocean liners. It was still a world of three classes where only “First” truly mattered. It was also a time when civilized people still wrote in longhand with fountain pens and apologized profusely in the rare occasions when a typewriter was needed.

Many wealthy, accomplished, and stylish ladies also make their appearances, occasionally in their own distinctive voices. Berenson’s “court” at “I Tatti” was composed almost exclusively of women. His wife, Mary, a prickly and often difficult presence, was essential in financial matters but not always a compliant and perceptive listener—a prerequisite for BB, the consummate conversationalist. “Nicky” Mariano came to “I Tatti” in 1920 as a librarian, but, in fact, soon became the household’s factotum and remained at BB’s side as a trusted confidante and companion until his death in 1959. With her German ancestry and fluency, Nicky also played a capital role in saving “I Tatti” from Nazi depredations during the dark days of 1943–44. In this period of German occupation, Berenson, who was not only an American citizen but also ethnically Jewish, had found convenient, and probably life-saving, refuge in the nearby villa of a friend, the Marchese Serlupi, who happened to enjoy diplomatic immunity. Many other women, near and far, populated Berenson’s universe; some were English or American expatriates in Italy. The older, and formidable, Janet Ross welcomed the Berensons when they first settled in Settignano at “I Tatti,” and it was she who introduced them to the young Kenneth Clark. Others—Iris Origo, Freya Stark, Sylvia Sprigge, and Sybil Colfax—appear and reappear constantly throughout the correspondence. BB probably found in Edith Wharton his lifelong and closest female soulmate. Clark’s wife Jane is remembered as a beautiful, elegant, and, judging by her own letters, articulate woman to whom Kenneth remained married—though not necessarily faithfully—his whole life.

Delving into the BB–K. Clark correspondence can seem, at times, like watching Edward Everett Horton or Adolphe Menjou in a Noël Coward film. The tone is ever debonair and the style ever gracious in a courtly, slightly self-deprecating way. Even as the first crisis loomed over their relationship, the letters remain exquisitely polite. Early on, Berenson had offered Clark the plum opportunity of revising and updating his magisterial Drawings of the Florentine Painters of 1908, still regarded today as a milestone of connoisseurship and scholarship. In 1929, after about four years of being tightly tethered to “I Tatti” and his allotted project, Clark was clearly itching to move on. He had been asked to collaborate on the prestigious selection committee for the planned Exhibition of Italian Art to be mounted in London. Berenson happened to take a very dim view of the show, considering it a propaganda exploit of the Fascist Italian government just beginning to affirm its prestige on the international stage. Despite his disappointment in Clark’s decision, Berenson wrote, “I am eager that our friendship should in no way suffer.” Somewhat later, still the mentor, he warned the young scholar to avoid “the temptation to snuffle about the gutters of Bond Street and the Burlington Club” (i.e., the art trade). After some delay, a contrite Clark answered: “as usual, I have to begin a letter by asking for forgiveness—which will have soon reached the biblical limit of seventy times seven. . . . the truth is that I am completely taken up with the Italian exhibition, & as I know you disapprove of it, there is very little I can write about it without shame.”

The Exhibition of Italian Art opened at the Royal Academy in January 1930. It was an unprecedented success and proved to be the first step in Clark’s meteoric rise—a career that eventually led to the directorship of the National Gallery, the curatorship of the Queen’s Pictures, the post-war chairmanship of the Arts Council, and subsequently an appointment as Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford. By the time Clark died in 1983, he had authored several monographs, among them The Nude and Landscape into Art, that comfortably straddled the divide between substantive art history and popular reading. His work during the Blitz, evacuating the National Gallery of its most prized treasures while keeping it accessible, alive, and vibrant, earned him an OBE. In the 1970s, he became a world television celebrity by way of his series Civilization and, finally, was named a life peer. No doubt: Berenson could recognize talent and ambition when he saw it in a young man.

Clark’s age and greater mobility afforded Berenson the continuing services of a perceptive gatherer of information and, most importantly, of photographs. He diligently sought out these precious tools of connoisseurship and kept them streaming in, feeding the insatiable appetite of the Tatti fototeca. Each of the thousands of images that arrived from every quarter were then carefully evaluated, annotated, and filed according to attribution. This was the raw material for Berenson’s celebrated Lists that appeared in several editions and contributed greatly to their author’s fame and wealth—the latter thanks to the yearly apanage he received, first from Joseph Duveen and, after 1937, from Georges Wildenstein. The comments about the photographs and other works of art that Berenson and Clark exchanged throughout their long correspondence are like precious nuggets of art history that the reader finds scattered, almost casually, among a welter of trivial “news” about the weather, their friends’ health, travel plans, and domestic issues. Not surprisingly, they are by far the most interesting and intriguing information shared by the two scholars. One discovers, for instance, that a Botticelli Madonna purchased in 1931 by the collector (and eventual benefactor of the Courtauld Institute) Lord Lee of Fareham, got short shrift from Clark. Presuming that BB had already received a photo of it, he writes: “It is one of those pictures about which it is best to keep silent.” In fact, he correctly sniffed out the outrageous fake that (notwithstanding the huge price paid for it) the work later proved to be. Berenson, of course, wasn’t fooled either, although his perception famously abandoned him when judging seventeenth-century art. As late as 1947 he wrote to Clark: “I have done my best for the greater part of my life to like or at least do justice to Caravaggio, the Carracci etc., etc., & now I have to confess failure . . . . Give me what is called the Classical & the great Florentines.” A decade later, it was all too clear that the taste for Baroque art had entered the mainstream. In 1957, BB wrote to Clark: “I foresee the National Gallery buying nothing but seicento for years to come. You know that they gave a stiff price for the enormous Guido [Reni] from Liechtenstein, which a few years ago one could have paid a firm of contractors to take away.”

Spanish painting seems also to have been a problem: the portraits of the King and Queen of Spain in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples were judged “the two finest Goyas in existence,” whereas they had long since been recognized as copies by that artist’s slightly later contemporary Agustín Esteve. With “the Classical & great Florentines,” on the other hand, Berenson rarely missed. For instance, in his early-1920s Lists he correctly catalogued as a “copy after a lost original” a Madonna and Child and Angels by Piero di Cosimo. For decades the painting had been prominently exhibited in the Uffizi gallery as an autograph work. It was only in the 1950s that the original finally re-emerged from an obscure Roman private collection (that painting is now in the “Casa Giorgio Cini” Foundation in Venice). In 1933, the Boston Museum of Art purchased an Andrea Mantegna Madonna for the then very considerable sum of $80,000. Berenson rightly observed to Clark that “in the reproduction it is hard to accept.” The work is now listed at the MFA as “follower of,” confirming yet again Berenson’s remarkable “eye” for Italian Renaissance and earlier paintings. In light of these and countless other examples, it is legitimate to address the vexed question of Berenson’s profiting handsomely from his matchless expertise. It is essential, in this regard, to understand that BB never considered himself—nor was considered by others—as an “art professional”; he was beholden to neither a museum nor an educational institution. Indeed, an unpardonable faux pas would have been to address him as “Doctor” or “Professor.” It was through his tireless independent research and unique visual prowess that he was able to distinguish, as almost no one else could at the time, the difference between a master’s work and one by a nameless follower. This ability perforce became a financially significant factor—in terms of the added, or diminished, value—at which an art object might change hands. Quite understandably, Berenson saw no moral issue with his benefiting in the event a dealer increased his profit (or perhaps a collector diminished his loss) as the result of the more accurate attribution that he, and only he, was able to provide.

Interestingly enough, references to the art trade are conspicuously rare throughout the Berenson/Clark correspondence. Clark, the quintessential establishment and professional insider, no doubt discreetly avoided the subject knowing full well that, even during his friend’s life, questions of ethics were being raised all about. These questions turned into a full-blown campaign of often scurrilous calumny after Berenson’s death. To his credit, Clark never wavered in BB’s defense, as did a number of other distinguished and fair-minded younger scholars, chief among them the late Sir John Pope-Hennessy. Clark himself, during his tenure as Director of London’s National Gallery, barely avoided an art-trade scandal after the Über-dealer Joseph Duveen was elected as one of that institution’s trustees. The fact caused the fastidious Clark considerable unease and one can only imagine the unbearable dismay the Director would have suffered had he known that the five—very expensive—panels by the rare Sienese painter Sassetta, the purchase of which he had enthusiastically promoted, actually belonged to his trustee, Duveen! (The five exquisite panels depicted episodes of the Life of Saint Francis. They originally had been part of an altarpiece, the main element of which, with a life-size depiction of the Saint, was in the Berenson collection at “I Tatti.” The panels were sold by Duveen in 1927 to the New York collector Clarence Mackay. Mackay suffered disastrous reverses in the crash of 1929 and never paid Duveen. The dealer offered the Sassettas to the National Gallery in 1933 as if they belonged to Mackay when, in fact, they actually still belonged to him.) The intriguing little plot is only partially revealed in the correspondence, and one wonders whether BB might actually have been privy to Duveen’s secret, but avoided saying a word to Clark to spare him untold suffering and embarrassment.

A genuine affection cemented their long friendship. Nowhere is that more evident than in a letter that BB addressed to Clark in the fall of 1937. He had just received the photographs of four small panels that the National Gallery purchased after very strenuous lobbying by Clark, then the museum’s director. He had assured his trustees and the National Art Collections Fund that the works were by Giorgione, the black pearl of Venetian Renaissance painting. Well imagining the anguish that the news would cause his friend, Berenson had no choice but to inform Clark that “I fear I see nothing in them that is more than Giorgionesque, nothing in the drawing and everything that a photo renders, which comes into my definitely circumscribed concept of Giorgione himself”—a death sentence to the paintings’ attribution and perhaps even fatal to Clark’s position as Director. What makes the letter so touching and such a testament to BB’s kindred devotion are the phrases with which he precedes the bitter verdict: “If there is anything I now crave for it is your affection. You may say I have it, and far would it be from me to doubt it. I want affection with perfect confidence, perfect ease. Without timidity or holding back of any sort. What I crave for is a brotherly comradeship.” It took Clark almost three months to answer, but, when he did, he used words that poignantly mirrored Berenson’s in their sincerity: “I find it very hard to answer. I come from an undemonstrative family and my feelings are as stiff as an unused limb. You must never doubt that my admiration for you is combined with great affection—more than my way of writing will allow me to show. . . . our relations must always be those of master and pupil.”

An embarrassing public brouhaha followed Clark’s imprudent purchase (BB was not the only doubter), but he managed to retain his directorship as well as the warm intimacy with his “master.” (The four panels are now hung in the downstairs “reference” section of the National Gallery and catalogued as Andrea Previtali.) What the episode illustrates, beyond the wonderfully civilized—now very dated—ring of the exchanges, is the absolutely central role that issues of authorship and chronology played in art-historical discipline up until the early 1940s. It was all about defining an object’s physical and historical identity as a way, ultimately, to unlock its aesthetic value. But the wind was changing and the correspondence, early on, is replete with instances that reveal the antipathy both writers felt for the emerging interest in iconography—what BB humorously referred to as “the Talmudic Hegelian writings . . . by the Germano phonies of Central Europe.” Mercifully, they were spared the later flowering of the “gender” and “socio-economic” cant that now dominates academic art history.

Robert and Carolyn Cumming clearly felt they owed a debt of gratitude to Umberto Morra, who eventually led them to discover and later publish the Berenson/Clark correspondence. They amply absolved this debt by masterfully gathering, organizing, and annotating this “raw material” into a fascinating account of a remarkable friendship. The Cummings then skillfully amplified what they found, almost by chance, at “I Tatti” with significant related essays. The result is nothing less than a social, historical, and intellectual panorama of a century; the years spanning from the 1880s to 1980s. Also included in the volume is a touching tribute to Morra by Robert Cumming: a paper delivered at the symposium “Berenson at Fifty” held at “I Tatti” in 2009 on the fiftieth anniversary of BB’s death. In a sense, the contribution fulfills their initial intention of writing a biography of the reclusive nobleman whom they had met in Cortona during their studies so many years before.

1 My Dear BB: The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, edited and annotated by Robert Cumming; Yale University Press, 584 pages, $45.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 4, on page 19
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