To Bernard Berenson: On His Ninetieth Birthday

On a recent trip to Florence, FRANCIS HENRY TAYLOR,at the urging of the Atlantic, blocked out this birthday letter expressing his affection and admiration for Bernard Berenson. During his fifteen years as Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mr. Taylor rose to be one of the most influential figures in the world of art. As Director Emeritus of the Metropolitan and Director of the Worcester Art Museum. to which he returns this summer, he gives us his evaluation of the foremost connoisseur of art in our time.


DEAR BIBI: Titian lived to be ninety-nine and Michelangelo ninety-four. The occasion of your ninetieth birthday on June 26 is, therefore, merely another indication of the Company you keep. Since I personally owe you my eternal thanks for your influence upon my own philosophical development, I write you this open letter as a means of expressing my gratitude. It is not my purpose to recite here the countless services to art history which have set you apart from the professorate and the cognoscenti of public institutions. They are, indeed, legion and the testimony of their unending usefulness is carefully footnoted in many catalogues and critical essays. The methods of connoisseurship which you instituted have assured the identity and authenticity of the Italian masterpieces of the galleries of the whole world. The salesrooms and brocanteurs could never have survived without you and your celebrated lists—a circumstance which has made venality such an easy and undeserved reproach on the lips of your natural enemies, the purveyors of the spurious. But, after all, it is no surprise to you that only the bravest of men can afford to enjoy at the same time the fruits of both spiritual and material success.
Though I have been trained to value these services for their own sake, it is the broader humanism, which after so many years of dedication you have achieved, I find so stimulating. For half a century you have immured yourself in the gardens and library of your villa at Settignano and have allowed the eye and mind to wander. Since you have always been a free man, in that you have followed the inclinations of the intellect without accountability to any state or local ministry or even to a board of trustees, the quality of your thought has been subject only to the dictates of your own conscience and to the judgments and standards which you yourself imposed. To the uninitiated it sounds easy — a form of irresponsible hedonism, freed from the ordinary limitations which the professor and the curator tend to exalt as virtues simply because they are obliged by economic pressures to suffer fools gladly. But it is not so easy as all that; for there is no discipline so rigorous as self-communion, particularly if every thought, every waking moment, is challenged by the books and works of art surrounding one. You have been willing to run the gantlet of this humanistic company against which you have had the courage to pit yourself.
The library at “I Tatti” is therefore — and I believe from what you yourself have confessed to me in private that you too believe it to be — almost the greatest achievement of your long career. I do not speak of the wealth of data it contains upon the Italian Renaissance or the endless archive of photographs. That is, after all, merely the spécialité de la maison and is to be expected. But it is the long avenues of inquiry opened up in philosophy and comparative religion, the offshoots of all the archaeologies, and the continuous living with biography and belles-lettres which make it an almost unique center for speculative pleasure. For you it has been the mirror of your belief that the history of art is a means to an end rather than an end in itself—the very quality that has enabled you to see beyond the object into the life and impulse of the time in which it was created. It is the instrument which has given the fullest satisfaction to your insatiable curiosity and appetites and which in the war and post-war years has changed the direction of your thinking from the particular to the general. That you have willed the library, together with the house and gardens and their fabulous art collections, to Harvard University is proof not only of your generosity but also of your perception.
You are unwilling to have it said of you, as it was said of Duns Scotus and the Schoolmen at the Sorbonne in the thirteenth century, that you are so concerned with the humanities that you forget humanity. Probably it has never even occurred to those who have busied themselves erecting a new discipline from the framework of what you have left behind you that art in the final analysis is qualitative and never measurable, and that the singing is not as important as the song. Herein, of course, lies the very root of that peculiar intellectual irresponsibility and naïveté which finds its ultimate expression in the doctoral dissertation, doggedly placing the emphasis upon the interpretation of the text rather than upon the fascination of the image. It seems remarkable to me that in a life as long as yours you have been able to resist the fads of modern scholarship and have remained faithful to the precepts of Charles Eliot Norton and of those who had been steeped in Ruskin and the tradition of English Victorian connoisseurship.
These men were the products of a happier day before art tried to become a science, and recognized — however limited the exact and factual knowledge of the nineteenth century at their command — the relationship of the new historical methods to the tradition of biography and belles-lettres. “Research,” you pointed out so clearly in Aesthetics and History, “does not write history.”It only furnishes material for history. It is valuable to the degree that it helps to reconstruct the elements and fragments of a style in the way that classical archaeology has done. “The fruits rather than the roots” should be the object of our admiration and attention, and it is not what exists or what happens or what is done in things human that counts, but what is believed about them. But, alas, today intellectual fashion has led us to have faith only in the recording of statistics, of surveying those caverns of the mind which have become precisely measurable to man struck down in his sunless sea of technical irrelevaneies. Just the other evening, in fact, you said to me, “No ugly thing occurred in America until art began to be talked about.”
A disciple of Henry Adams, and a contemporary of George Santayana and Learned Hand, you were schooled at Harvard by men who saw man whole and believed in asserting their own convictions. This was a profoundly American characteristic of the time and one that we are, alas, ceding to the Neo-McCarthys whose utter ignorance of the continuing wisdom of humanity bodes ill for the future of our country. Conformity, as you have so often pointed out in your writings, must not be confused with a respect for the classical past. “Art,” you once told a journalist, “can offer the purest escape from the threatening tedium of totalitarianism.” You have, in brief, always been clear in your own mind in distinguishing the art from the artifact. Thus you have remained a sentinel of civilization, and in doing so have given the art historians whom you fathered the coup de grace.
It is this gift of seeing the significance as quickly as the fact which has made you so much at home in Italy and for which the Signoria conferred upon you two years ago Honorary Citizenship in the City of Florence. It was not because you had sat like a Buddha on the mountaintop of Fiesole, bringing the art world of Florence to your feet, but because they recognized in you the continuing spirit of rinascimento, the will to preserve and at the same time create anew a quality of mind which has been one of the greatest, of the Tuscan heritages ever since the fourteenth century. “Every work of art,”you also wisely said, “has to be first and foremost a permanent joy and inspiration, and cannot be degraded to serve as document in the history of technique and taste or of civilization in general.”
How few of our colleagues are willing to face the transcendental quality of art or are willing to conserve the Hellenism which you have elsewhere described as that “attitude towards the universe, the approach to life, the cherished values and aims of the thinkers, artists and men of action of those ten centuries in the Greek speaking world. Hellenism,” you added, “is not a fixed state of things but a path, a way, a reaching out towards a humanity that is as remote from chaos as it can succeed in soaring above and beyond ‘nature.’ It will never rebel against ‘nature’ through nihilism and despair, as ascetic religions have preached, setting up unrealizable ideals and impractical standards. Hellenism does not deny or even decry the animal in man. It would humanize him. Art, in the widest sense of the word, is the instrument Hellenism has used and would use for that purpose. All the arts, poetry, music, ritual, the visual arts, the theatre, must singly and together create the most comprehensive art of all, a humanized society, and its masterpiece, the free man.”
I take pleasure in throwing your words back in your teeth, for in the reputation you have gained as a specialist in the knowledge of less and less — that is to say, the refinements of a Morellian system of connoisseurship — many people have forgotten, if indeed they have ever known it, that your value to art history lies not in the higher criticism of the infinitesimal but in the Platonic philosophy of the generic and the Ideal. You have not only blazed trails for others to follow but have set in order the chips that have fallen in the process. You have always known whither you were going and what it was that you wanted at the end of the rainbow. And it has enabled you to remain consistently the servant of the classical tradition. “It is,” you have affirmed, “the standard art towards which we Europeans in the course of history have always turned back after no matter what occultations, declines, aberrations and rebellions.”
The volumes on the Painters of the Italian Renaissance, which you published nearly sixty years ago, and on which you established your reputation, have become the indispensable tools of the profession and the basic introduction for the lay reader to an understanding of the period. So too have the corpus of Florentine drawings and the many monographs on individual painters. They are so well known that they need no further comment. It is rather to the more philosophical writings of the past ten years that more attention should be given, because they are deeply personal and whimsical and are more apt to be passed by. The Sketch for a Self-Portrait is frankly looking backward into the mirror of a lifetime. Here is the real Bibi, nostalgic, wistful, and almost nakedly candid and unashamed. Rumor and Reflection covers with equal candor the period of internment under the protection of the Vatican and the Republic of San Marino, when your library, except for the Vatican, was virtually the sole oasis in the desert of a war-torn Italy. Here I think your personal philosophy reached its full maturity and stature. The comments in Aesthetics and History, to which I have already referred, take their place in the exposition of a concept of the relation of the visual image to human life and history. Finally you have given us in an all too slender essay, The Arch of Constantine, a penetration into the decline of Roman civilization and have brought us up short in the consideration of our own times. You have shown irrefutably how deeply we deceive ourselves in our capitulation to the Siren call of a dehumanized and so-called abstract art. It would be difficult to overestimate the service you have done both to art and humanity.
I wish I could be with you on your birthday, but my little glimpse of you this week in Florence was rewarding and fills me with courage for the future. I find it paradoxical that not having set foot in the United States for thirty years, you have become more American than I believe you ever were as a young man. You are one of the last survivors of a day when Harvard still took pride in being a liberal arts college. Perhaps the possession and responsibility of “I Tatti” may help the faculty to recapture the very thing which you and your contemporaries so enjoyed. The face of America has changed in the last half century and you have left your mark upon it, in every library, museum, and college in the land. For this we applaud you and give you thanks, firm in the knowledge that this twenty-sixth of June is no more than another milestone in your determined immortality.
Affectionately yours,
F. H. T.