BB's brill beneficiaries

A Legacy of Excellence
January 2, 1998

It is a rare distinction indeed when a house, as opposed to its illustrious occupant, is accorded a biography, but then I Tatti is no ordinary house. Architecturally, it is of only modest interest, and its charming gardens hardly transform it into a Tuscan Sissinghurst either, but it is accorded entry into some great Pantheon of memorable dwellings as the villa of Bernard Berenson, American art critic and connoisseur. Even its name seems contaminated by that wretched doctrine of "tactile values".

Conversation is of its nature evanescent, and it is impossible to reconstruct the wit and breadth of learning of BB (whose priapic propensities suggest he would have enjoyed the company of that other great BB, Brigitte Bardot). His prose is flat as a pancake, and his fantasy of himself as a Goethe manque a doleful illusion, but there is ample testimony to the magical charisma of his presence. Even the likes of Kenneth Clark, who knew everyone who was anyone, wrote like an angel, and whose relationship with Berenson was at best equivocal, was impressed.

Berenson was no philosopher, and it may reasonably be doubted whether he had much to offer as an art historian or as an art critic. The broad picture was beyond him, and his judgements on individual artists often have the clever-clever perversity of the brilliant undergraduate essay. Where he excelled was as one of the greatest attribution machines the world has ever known, and it was inevitable that someone possessed of his gifts would end up involved with the art market. In the event, Berenson's activities in that quarter were pretty innocuous, even by today's standards, but especially compared with the heroic lies of so many of his contemporaries, whose disgraceful obiter dicta survive in the form of old certificates cherished by their unfortunate owners to this day.

What Berenson's detractors in the groves of academe cannot abide is the fact that he made so much money. The irony is that - in the best traditions of medieval usurers who commissioned great works of art to make amends - he ploughed all the loot back into academe by making over the villa, library, fototeca and the rest to create the Harvard Centre for Renaissance Studies (there is no mention here of the story - or is it a myth? - that Berenson wanted to give I Tatti to Oxford, and that Oxford turned it down like a bedspread).

This now seems like the biggest joke of all, not because its new function must necessarily kill off its old domesticity, but because BB's beneficiaries are so rarely sympathetic to his approach to art. Whether one is in favour of the so-called new art history or not, there can be no denying the fact that connoisseurship is wildly out of fashion, and that the value of fine distinctions concerning who did what has never been more under attack. At the other extreme, vaporous speculations about art and civilisation, of which Berenson purported to be fond, are equally despised.

One can only assume that the exquisitely dressed shade of BB would be horrified by the modern denizens of I Tatti, posily photographed amid his treasures in this beautifully illustrated book. But he would surely have enjoyed the elegance and panache with which William Weaver maintains respect and affection throughout without quite tipping into hagiography.

David Ekserdjian is editor, Apollo.

A Legacy of Excellence: The Story of Villa I Tatti

Author - William Weaver
ISBN - 0 8109 3587 2
Publisher - Harry N. Abrams
Price - £37.95
Pages - 152

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