Berenson and Islamic Culture: “Thought and Temperament”


Mario Casari




Berenson and Islamic Culture:
“Thought and Temperament”*


Mario Casari

Preliminary note

Bernard Berenson’s long and complex encounter with Islamic culture had already begun in his student days, and from the earliest period at I Tatti until his death he actively acquired the major books in Islamic history and arts. In 1910, he bought the first Persian miniatures that would constitute the heart of his small collection of Islamic art. By 1913 the Islamic phase of his collecting was over, and thereafter it did not compete with the central fields of his connoisseurship and scholarship. Nevertheless, Berenson’s engagement with the Islamic world constitutes a strand, sometimes thin and at other times robust, that entwines with other interests throughout his long career.

This essay uses a broad definition of “Islamic culture” that includes the religious aspect implied by the adjective, but refers also to a system of civic life, a complex of socio-cultural relations across a wide geographical area involving three continents and spanning fifteen centuries. Despite its extremely complex and diverse nature, Islam can be associated with certain cultural forms that have given rise to a flourishing of art, literature, philosophy, and science in numerous languages, styles, and techniques. The “Islamic world” should be understood as the web of societies in which Islam is recognized as socially dominant, but where non-Muslims have played an integral part, manifesting their own cultural, social, and political mores, though often expressed in the same languages and techniques as the dominant Muslim populations.[1] Berenson often viewed the Islamic world and its culture as intrinsically linked to the other cultures of Asia, especially the Indian subcontinent, China and Japan, under the all-embracing labels of “Orient” and “Oriental.” Such terms will be maintained in this essay when they correspond to Berenson’s view.

To trace Berenson’s relationship with this broader concept of Islamic culture requires exploration across a wide range of sources, from his travel diaries and correspondence to his autobiographical works and his essays on aesthetics. The formation of his Islamic art collection and of his Oriental Library, today the Asian and Islamic Collection of the Biblioteca Berenson, are also included in this research, as is the accumulation of material relevant to Islamic art in the Biblioteca Berenson and Fototeca at I Tatti. I have attempted to compose a mosaic in which Berenson’s curiosity and his passionate pursuit of objects play a role, but so do his eventual diffidence and aloofness towards this exotic world, which exerted a strong fascination but also evoked a deep-seated and reciprocal hostility with the West—a sentiment that was particularly clear in the colonial era of which Berenson was a part.

The thread that I will weave out of occasional material from this wide and heterogeneous range of sources may offer us insights not only into this sector of Berenson’s activities but also into his entire life’s work. The phrase in my title, “thought and temperament,” derives from a poem by the young Berenson. I have adopted it here to encapsulate the duality of his approach towards the world that is the object of this study, an approach constantly torn between reflection and impulse, curiosity and diffidence, fascination and repulsion. I have organized the material into three parts, which reflect chronology but also embody coherent themes that recur over his entire lifetime, ebbing and flowing as his attitudes to Islamic culture developed.[2]


Learning überhaupt


In one of his most intimate writings, composed late in life, Berenson speaks of feeling at times like “a typical ‘Talmud Jew.’ ‘Talmud’ means ‘learning’ überhaupt and that has been my chief pursuit.” [3] An encyclopedic curiosity similar to Talmudic learning was indeed the basis of Berenson’s formation as a young orientalist. After entering Harvard in the autumn of 1884, Berenson dedicated particular care to the study of languages: Latin and Greek, but also Hebrew, a subject in which he excelled thanks to his childhood education and to the tutelage of Professor David Gordon Lyon. He went on to study Sanskrit with Professor Charles Rockwell Lanman and Arabic with Professor Crawford Howell Toy.[4] It was Arabic that he preferred: “he felt that only Arabic was really profitable, because it led him into belles lettres and art, whereas Sanskrit and Hebrew were like ‘biting on the trunks of trees’ whose fruit he ‘had already enjoyed.’”[5] The vast and variegated list of Berenson’s youthful reading matter, recorded by Mary Berenson in a diary entry of 1890, includes the following: “Sacred Books of the East (some in the original), Arabian Nights (in the original, and Burton and Payne), Persian (followed orientalism and philosophy),” and shortly after, “craving for oriental languages, histories, literature, for philology as a method.”[6] Much later, in his Sketch for a Self-Portrait, when he surveyed his own youthful trajectory, Berenson affirmed the value of acquiring a language in order to comprehend the thought categories of a people and to enjoy direct contact with its art and literature:


The person of general culture has no idea how much he is misguided by fanatical propagandists and sheer fakers who claim or pretend to inform him about things of the Moslim or Hindu world. An acquaintance with the grammar of their languages opens an insight into their categories of thought, an even slight familiarity with their literatures in the originals, with their modes of feeling, and of course a direct contact with their arts, of the world as they desire it and want to see it.”[7]


Berenson’s linguistic education was never completed, however. In 1910, at the height of his interest in Oriental art, Berenson complained in a letter to Isabella Gardner that he could remember none of his Sanskrit and Arabic.[8]

In his student days, Berenson was first a collaborator and then editor-in-chief of the Harvard Monthly. He produced nineteen essays, reviews, poems, and short stories, including one piece on an Islamic subject.[9] Published in the spring of 1887, it bore the title, “Was Mohammed at all an Impostor?”, which though it sounds provocative does not intend to be denigrating.[10] Rather, the piece is an attempt at a psychological interpretation of a figure from the distant past following the theories of William James, which Berenson would later apply, in quite different fashion, to his Italian painters.[11] His at times severe assessment of what he saw as the lustful and ecstatic personality of Muhammad derives from classic authors such as Gibbon, Weil, Nöldeke, Muir, and Sprenger,[12] interspersed with an initial meditation on some passages from the Koran, which he was reading in the original under the guidance of Professor Toy. His conclusion has both an emotional and an aesthetic component:


We gain little by adjudging Mohammed this, or by adjudging him that. We gain a great deal, however, if through the study of Mohammed we come to the conviction, that he, in common with such men as Savonarola and Luther possesses a certain virtue, each of his own,—a virtue which we lack; which they can supply to us: a certain grandeur, a certain transcendency, a certain sincerity withal, that has a potent tonic effect upon us.[13]


Here we have an echo of Thomas Carlyle[14] and a fascination with romantic orientalism more than the embryo of specialized research on Islam and the Arab world.

Indeed, Berenson’s study of Arabic and Islamic culture grew fainter as he progressed. Among his papers one finds a pair of short manuscript translations of two poems by Imru’l Qays and Labidh from the Mu?allaqat (a collection of seven celebrated Arab poems from the pre-Islamic period), together with their respective commentaries.[15] These translations, which cite the original Arabic in good calligraphy, were done by John Orne Jr. in Cambridge in June 1885 and August 1886. Orne, who later became curator of the Arabic manuscripts of the Harvard Semitic Museum (1899–1911), must have given them to Berenson as a personal gift in those years, although it has not been possible to discover how Berenson used them himself. Later notes refer to his reading of the ghazals (love poems) by the Persian poet Hafez, and his amazement at the fact that they celebrate men.[16] He also used a disquisition on Arabic verse to beguile Vernon Lee during their first Florentine meeting when he was still young.[17] Together, these fading traces of engagement with the literatures of the Muslim world represent a small corpus of references that seem to be an extract of a book he appreciated, Goethe’s West-?stlicher Diwan, rather than the product of independent reading.[18]

Berenson’s education in Oriental studies would therefore remain a potential that was never realized. It is perhaps a sign of fate that Berenson’s application for a traveling fellowship was rejected. On 30 March 1887 he applied for one of the four Parker Traveling Fellowships for study in Europe, including courses in Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian, buttressed by strong recommendations from his language professors. On the application, he wrote:


The Arabic which I am reading with Prof. Toy is interesting me more, and more, and it is my intention to devote a good portion of my time in the future to the literary study of Arabic literature. I feel what few have realized: that Arabic literature has a tangibility, a virility, and a sanity of passion not only to inspire the student, but also to be a revelation to the Occident, where Arabic literature has been very little appreciated.

It is not my intention, however, to hunt for new treasures, or to edit new editions. I mean to learn to appreciate the Arabic classics so well, that my appreciation may tempt others, - a temptation I hope to foster by my writings. All this, and much more I owe to Prof. C. H. Toy, who understands me, and to him I appeal.


The application was rejected, however, and it soon became clear that Berenson’s destiny lay elsewhere. He still managed to depart for Europe, thanks to the support of admiring friends like Isabella Stewart Gardner, but his new directions did not include the study of Oriental languages.[20]

On another level, however, the legacy of those early studies was considerable, and not only because the Thousand and One Nights became one of his most beloved books, cited on numerous occasions in his memoirs and reflections. (He began reading the work in the original Arabic, then the English versions by Burton and Payne, and especially the French translation by Mardrus.[21]) More importantly, the competence he had acquired in the field helped him give shape to the Asian and Islamic section of his great library, which also covers India and the Far East. The Islamic section contains a more or less exhaustive collection of the principal publications up to his death, covering history, anthropology, philosophy, religion, literature, and art, as well as a number of geographical and ethnographical reportages and travel diaries. These cover a great variety of regions, from the west of North Africa to Northern India and Central Asia. Some texts of particular value were the fruit of suggestions and generous exchanges with experts in the field of Islamic art and archaeology whom Berenson met later, such as Friedrich Sarre, Rudolf Meyer-Riefstahl, Mehmet Aga-Oglu, and Archibald Creswell: these contacts were made through mutual friends, or by chance, or through specific interests. Some of the volumes acquired by Berenson during this period remain a unicum among Italian libraries.

There has been some growth in the Oriental Library in the five decades since Berenson’s death. It currently contains approximately 3,400 books; 1,000 periodical volumes, including thirty titles in complete runs and nineteen currently received; and 1,000 auction catalogues of Islamic and Oriental art objects, miniatures, and carpets.[22] The material on the Islamic world constitutes more than a third of the total. In a more comprehensive overview, one would add the considerable number of books in the house that deal with North Africa and the Middle East, which reflect Berenson’s dream of embracing in his mind all human endeavor. Berenson’s personal vision of the Mediterranean world thus led the research center that followed in his wake to be the prototype of a universalist approach to the study of the Renaissance. [23]

Berenson’s reading and his association with figures such as Sarre, Meyer-Riefstahl, Aga-Oglu, and Creswell stimulated his curiosity about Islamic architecture, which he discovered during his first visit to Egypt in 1921–22. It made a strong though not unalloyed impression: “Such a treat as Arab architecture,” wrote Mary to her mother from Cairo, “for two hardened sight-seers was never invented, for not only is it as grand and beautiful & varied & important as our own Northern Gothic, but it is almost unknown!… Bernard says ‘It has ruined me as a European,’ but he is so intoxicated with it that he doesn’t care.”[24] The I Tatti Fototeca still holds a copy of Creswell’s photographic archive that is almost the equivalent of the originals in the Ashmolean Museum.[25] In addition, Berenson and Nicky Mariano continued to add cuttings and leaflets on this subject from various sources over the years.[26] Some scholars continued to see in Berenson a reliable source of advice on aspects of Islamic decorative arts as reflected in European art and on scholarly publications.[27] Berenson always responded with interest, providing moral support (such as for the appointment of Aga-Oglu as curator at the Institute of Arts in Detroit[28]) but occasionally also material support, as in the case of Creswell, whom he met in Cairo in 1922[29] and whose photographic campaigns he partly financed.[30] Creswell reciprocated by sending Berenson all of his publications as they came out. More valuable still, in 1954, Berenson asked Creswell to send him the draft of Creswell’s vast bibliography on Islamic art, published only in 1961,[31] a sign of Berenson’s indefatigable efforts to establish a complete library, even in a collateral field.[32]

Berenson remained focused on the idea of the Mediterranean as the cradle of the great civilization of which he felt himself son and bard. He drove himself to explore the Greco-Roman Mediterranean with all of its neighboring and superimposed cultures, wherein he found material for his long-term project on the decline and recovery of the arts.[33] This Mediterranean was the object of many journeys with Mary, or Nicky, or both, which included countries that we would consider part of the Islamic world but which were, for Berenson, witnesses especially to Hellenic and Byzantine culture.[34]

From Berenson’s scattered annotations, from Nicky Mariano’s descriptions (in Forty Years with Berenson), and above all, from Mary’s three accounts, cast in the style of the aristocratic travel diary in vogue at the time,[35] we can form an impression of these intense journeys. The terrain could be wild and inhospitable, but the exotic context—with its sketches of veils, turbans, caravansaries, bazaars, and evocative sounds, as in classic orientalist literature—provided only the framework for Berenson’s conception of the Mediterranean, which was centered elsewhere.[36] Although Arabic architecture had made a strong impression on Berenson during his visit of 1922, the Egypt of the pharaohs, with its sequence of dynasties and styles, attracted his attention more.[37] At Constantinople (he preferred the older appellation to the “corrupt” form of Istanbul) he fell in love with Hagia Sophia, which he judged to be the model for the succession of Ottoman mosques.[38] The pilgrimage to the Holy Land offered him the opportunity to visit the holy places of Judaism and early Christianity, while in Syria he visited the majestic ruins of Palmyra.[39] In Tunisia and Algeria, accompanied by readings of Flaubert’s Salammbô, he principally explored the classical world at the site of such places as Djemila, Tozeur, and Sbeitla.[40] His two visits to Libya, spaced twenty years apart, centered on the archeological sites of Cyrene, Gadames, and Leptis Magna.[41] With the evaporation of his youthful linguistic interests and competence in the field, it might be thought that Berenson came to consider Islamic civilization as merely a folkloristic veneer on the ancient essence of Mediterranean culture. This would be an error, however. His encyclopedic curiosity flowered in a brief but intense season of love for Islamic art.


A matter of passion

After his youthful linguistic and literary studies and then his shift towards the fine arts, Berenson’s passion for the art of Asia was sparked by a visit in 1894 to the collection of Chinese and Japanese painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.[42] Italian Renaissance art would soon become his central interest, but his horizons were opened by a visit to the great Islamic art exhibition in Munich in 1910, organized by Friedrich Sarre and Fredrik Robert Martin. This extravaganza aimed to replace the older ethnic and national categories of Arab, Persian, and Turkish art with a more comprehensive view grounded in the total region and culture.[43]

Berenson’s interests were shifting at the time of the exhibition. He wrote to Edith Wharton: “the tide of my interests is flowing fast and strong to eastward. Strange what transmutations are taking place unbeknownst to oneself under one’s jacket. Softly and silently it has happened, and I suddenly find that the Renaissance is no longer my north star.”[44] The notes that he sent from Munich to Mary Berenson and Isabella Stewart Gardner reveal even greater enthusiasm than he had expected: “We spent the entire p.m. at the Muslim show, and thus far have seen only half of it. Overwhelming is the word. The quantity is immense, the quality very high or very interesting, and the arrangement a revelation of order, taste, and distinction”;[45] and again: “I have been here some days studying the marvellous Muslim, chiefly Persian things here. There never was such a thing, and there scarcely will be again in my lifetime.”[46]

Berenson’s new and seemingly spontaneous passion was in fact part of a wider vogue among intellectuals, collectors, and dealers. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the discipline of Islamic art history began to emerge from under the shadow of history in European academic circles. It was a concomitant development with colonial expansion and the consequent rise of travel by artists and scholars. The period witnessed the first specialist publications and journals as well as the first important collections of Islamic art in the West, first of coins and manuscripts and later of artifacts like glass, pottery, metalwork, woodwork, lacquer, textiles, and carpets. At the end of the nineteenth century, many collectors and curators traveled back and forth between the Middle East and North Africa, Egypt in particular, in search of acquisitions. The great exhibitions of Islamic art in Europe, of which the Munich exhibition was only one, represent the opening of the field to a larger public. The haphazard arrival in commercial galleries of dispersed materials, from fragments of monumental size to smaller ceramics, metalwork, miniatures, and carpets, was the final step in this rapid process.[47] One of the main consequences of this process was the widespread vandalism and dismembering of a rich cultural patrimony. When Berenson decided that Islamic pieces would have a place in his own collection, like his friend Isabella Stewart Gardner he knew a range of specialist dealers in Europe and America, such as Claude Anet, Georges Demotte, Charles Vignier, Léonce Alexandre Rosenberg, Meyer-Riefstahl himself, and Dikran Kelekian. All of them were responding to the fashion with varied offerings and steadily rising prices that were only capped at the outset of the First World War.[48]

These figures offered Berenson, perhaps at discounted prices, all the objects in his Islamic collection in the brief period between 1910 and 1913. After a considerable amount of reselling, which can be partly traced in the Biblioteca Berenson, the collection now consists of three Persian manuscripts, a fragmentary manuscript of the Koran in Arabic, two Arabic and four Persian detached miniatures, two Kashan ceramics, a Persian silver lobed cup, a Mamluk brass bowl, and a number of carpets.[49] The heart of the collection is certainly the manuscripts and miniatures. They center on the art of the book, sacred and secular, which Islamic civilization raised to the highest degree.[50] Despite its small scale, in Richard Ettinghausen’s words, “the Berenson collection is of high quality and comprises examples of nearly all the schools known and available at that time.”[51] However, the more interesting issue is the way in which an interpretive model then current among scholars and collectors guided the acquisition of these books, precariously imposing the value scale of Renaissance art on the Islamic world. There was a preference for works produced during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The focus was on connoisseurship and the role of the individual artist was exalted, so that the few miniature painters named in the documents were disproportionately celebrated—this was especially true of Behzad (died ca. 1535), the Timurid painter working at the court of Herat, to whom only a handful of paintings can be assigned with any certainty. Finally, noble families were glorified for their patronage and a recurrent parallel tended to equate the Timurid dynasty (1370–1507)—which governed eastern Iran for more than a century—with the Medici.[52]

Berenson’s Islamic manuscript collection was shaped by this Renaissance-oriented approach. It includes, in chronological order: a problematic fragment of the Koran, apparently from the eleventh century; a folio from the Great Mongol Šahname (Book of the Kings), the Persian epic by Ferdowsi (Tabriz, Iran, Ilkhanid period, ca. 1335), which Berenson bought from the Belgian dealer Georges Demotte, who was responsible for the destruction of the manuscript and the scattering of its beautiful miniatures; and two Arabic miniatures from a manuscript of the Arabic treatise on engineering Kitab fi ma?rifat al ?iyal al-handasiyya (Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices) by al-Jazari (Egypt, Bahri Mamluk period, 1354), which now ornament the Berenson Reading Room at I Tatti. The dealer who sold them to Berenson misrepresented them as works from the reign of Saladin, while they actually date to the later Mamluk period.[53] Continuing the list, we have the Persian Al-Rasa’il (“Treatises,” known as Anthology) of Prince Baysunghur (Herat, Afghanistan, Timurid period, 1427); a folio from the Persian ?afarname (Book of Victory) by Sharaf al-din Yazdi (probably made in Shiraz, Iran, Timurid period, 1436); two Persian miniatures from uncertain books, attributable to the periods and areas of the Turkman and the Uzbek dynasties respectively (end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries); a complete manuscript of Ferdowsi’s Šahname from the Safavid period, enriched by thirty-three fine miniatures (Shiraz, Iran, Safavid period, 1524–76); and finally, a Safavid manuscript of the Persian narrative poem Farhad va Širin (Farhad and Shirin) by Mulla Vahshi (Isfahan, Iran, Safavid period, beginning of the seventeenth century).

Each of these pieces has its place in the history of the Islamic art of the book.[54] When acquiring them, Berenson furnished reproductions to interested people and institutions, often receiving equivalent material in exchange.[55] Thus, these works, partially buried in a predominantly Renaissance collection, gradually attracted the attention of scholars from Meyer Riefstahl to Aga-Oglu, from Blochet to Kühnel, and finally Richard Ettinghausen, who contacted Berenson after he found reproductions of Berenson’s miniatures at the Fogg Museum.[56] In Berenson’s last years, Ettinghausen visited I Tatti to work on these pieces, although his selective survey of the Persian miniatures would not be published until 1962.[57] Ettinghausen realized that the miniatures which Berenson had acquired as being by Behzad were not in fact by the hand of that master, but had a value in their own right apart from the outdated attribution. The reattributions show in some measure how the trade routes in Islamic art, along which Berenson moved in the early years of the twentieth century, were peopled with sirens and swindlers.

Berenson’s masterstroke was one of his early acquisitions, Baysunghur’s Anthology, purchased in October 1910 from the French dealer Claude Anet.[58] This is a group of seven Persian treatises on courtly themes by various authors, which include seven fine miniatures. It was commissioned by the Timurid Prince Baysunghur (d. 1433), one of the greatest art patrons of the Islamic world. Sumptuously symbolizing Berenson’s journey towards Islamic art, the main figure in them may be an ideal representation of Prince Baysunghur himself, the true hero of the manuscript, but also the incarnation of the orientalist-Renaissance ideal.

Despite Berenson’s successful creation of this small but solid collection, the sudden, intense passion that marked its beginning endured only briefly. Even before the outbreak of the First World War, Berenson had already stopped acquiring. After 1917, he acquired little or nothing in any field of art, since his house was full and his resources strained. His passion for Islamic art was beginning to wane, and he increasingly distanced himself from it. [59]

Berenson’s penchant for the latest bibliography and the best photography led him to continue collecting cuttings pertaining to Islamic art and reproductions, especially of monumental architecture and miniatures, though these were shifting to the margins of his interests.[60] The Fototeca Berenson at I Tatti holds a small but complete section devoted to the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. The discovery of the glorious eighth-century mosaics within the mosque had profoundly touched the scientific community, and Berenson had had the chance to admire them during his “pilgrimage” of 1929.[61] His interest in this remarkable monument, however, stems from another source. In an exchange with Creswell in 1958, Berenson, by this time quite aged but still lucid and curious, wanted to know if it was true, as some scholars had maintained, that the Great Mosque of Damascus was in fact the reconsecrated former Christian basilica of St. John the Baptist. This view was upheld for some time, on the basis of the contradictory information provided by the sources, and of the mosque’s unusual plan, similar to that of a basilica. From the tone of Creswell’s response, we can understand that Berenson was disappointed. Creswell, along with other scholars, had determined that the Umayyad caliph al-Walid had torn down the earlier building in its entirety in order to construct a completely new edifice. In this view, the result, one of the most beautiful monuments of the Mediterranean, was therefore to be considered wholly Islamic.[62]


Sunset and Twilight

This minor exchange was in some ways representative of Berenson’s guiding ideas about Mediterranean civilization and art. In correspondence and in personal reflection he often posed a crucial “what if” question—namely, what might have happened if the Hellenic culture and the Roman Empire had been able to consolidate their hold on the eastern Mediterranean and stopped the incursions of the “Mohammedan.”[63] The question was based on an assumed superiority of the Greek legacy and its ramifications: “Hellenism 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.’”[64] After having studied Islamic art as part of his reconstruction of the artistic journey of mankind, Berenson found himself perceiving the extraneousness of that tradition.

Berenson found a paradoxical comfort in correspondence with leading scholars concerned with the cultures of Islam, some of them resistant to the nascent discipline that appeared to them as already succumbing to conformity. Revealing in this sense is his correspondence with René Grousset and later Louis Massignon,[65] and above all with Edgar Blochet, a prolific scholar and curator of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and author of many relevant publications in the field of Islamic painting. In a postcard of thanks for an article sent in 1931, Blochet complains to Berenson: “Le sujet que vous traitez a infiniment plus d’attrait pour moi que la peinture orientale; l’art orientale, dans tous les domaines, est une manifestation secondaire de l’ésprit humain, comme d’ailleurs les litteratures orientales, sauf la Bible, pour l’Asie Anterieure, qui est un livre unique, et quelques ouvrages chinois.” Blochet reaffirmed these sentiments in a postcard of 1932: “Je vous remercie vivement de l’amabilité avec laquelle vous m’avez envoyé votre excellent article sur la peinture florentine; ces oeuvres sont toute autre chose que les enluminures des livres musulmans, persans et arabes, devant les quels des gens sans aucune culture artistique tombent en admiration pour snobisme.”[66] Comforted by such authority when he undertook his general work on aesthetics, Berenson was to have no more doubts: “Little more can be said of Islamitic Persian and all ‘Arab’ arts, despite the exaggerated importance given recently to both. They must eventually find their place. But it will not be at the centre of the stage.”[67]

Behind this aesthetic disillusionment, Berenson was brooding over a vague but increasingly rigid conception of the “Orient.” Even during the period of his infatuation, Berenson always perceived it as a unified culture, joining the Islamic world with India and the Far East. Berenson’s reading of Renan and de Gobineau may have conveyed to him a specific current of European Orientalism, although their more or less open anti-Semitism could not but hurt his feelings—especially after the Second World War—since he remained tied to his Jewish roots, even if in a conflicted and contradictory way.[68] Berenson’s notes on this theme were occasional and unstructured, though a clear guiding idea of Asia emerges as a mass civilization in contrast with the Europe of the individual: “When I say ‘East’ I have in mind civilizations where the horde, the tribe (as in Japan), the mass (as in China) prevails, and individuality exists only negatively, not positively; by what the single person fails to do, not by what he could do if he were encouraged.”[69]

Theoretical elements in the history of civilization mixed in Berenson’s mind with the accumulated experiences and impressions, some not edifying, of his Mediterranean explorations. Already evident in his travels in 1922, an increasingly tenacious diffidence emerges in which aesthetic reactions cross with cultural and social ones, reaching peaks of contempt for the feudal impression made on him by the fellah and the Egyptian bureaucrat.[70] In 1928, in the course of his preparations for his trip to Constantinople, the (missing) letters he wrote to Rudolf Meyer-Riefstahl, his principal contact there, must have shown serious concern, since his archeologist friend responded warmly and ironically, but also quite severely: “Your otherwise pure mind must have been corrupted by some vile Greek or Armenian propaganda. What you describe may have happened in the blackest days of Hamidian ignorance and suspicion, but not in the modern and democratic republic of Turkey.”[71] In another letter written shortly after, Meyer-Riefstahl permits himself once more to tease Berenson affectionately about his slightly archaic orientalism, sending him a humorous vignette on what awaited him in Istanbul.[72]

Yet in general, Berenson’s political attitude was multifaceted and animated by a critical spirit. He condemned in no uncertain terms the Italian campaign in Libya,[73] even if he later partly changed his mind, offering a positive assessment of certain aspects of the occupation and maintaining cordial epistolary relations with the governor, Italo Balbo, whom he met in 1935.[74] He also welcomed Massignon’s mournful defense of the Algerian revolt against the French.[75] In the 1940s and 1950s, he continued to interrogate actively his correspondent friends, such as Charles Henry Coster, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Stewart Perowne, and George Huntington.[76] His diaries show notes on the major issues in the politics of North Africa and the Near and Middle East: the ascent of Nasser in Egypt and the Suez crisis; the reforms in Morocco; the discussion on the role of Turkey during the Second World War; the fall of Mosaddeq in Iran; and the Palestinian question and the birth of Israel. In these notes and in the responses from friends, we have the impression of a man with a profoundly skeptical perspective: Eurocentric, but also critical of the imperialistic attitudes of the English and French; afraid of communism, but uncertain about how to evaluate the growing power of America; sympathetic in the abstract for some nationalist causes, but doubtful about the capacity of formerly colonized peoples to make progress.[77]

The question of Israel is a theme around which Berenson’s hardening anti-Arab sentiment developed. On the one hand, Berenson, the great opponent of theology, lamented the absurdity of the growing enmity between the two peoples: “No difference in blood, yet the bitterest of enemies—frères ennemis. What but material interests wrapped in dogma separates them?”[78] On the other hand, as a Jew, even if nominally converted to Christianity and previously unsympathetic to Zionism, Berenson had been sorely tried by fascism and the war and had begun to understand the reasons why Jewish men and women desperately sought a homeland in Palestine. He shared their hopes and appreciated their zeal.[79] The ordeal of Nazism was incommensurable, and to the blindness of that totalitarian project, Berenson attached his view of mass societies. The Second World War appeared to him as the definitive failure of the German attempt, lasting a full seven centuries, to push the Greco-Roman-German civilization eastwards. “Nazism is an attempt on the part of Germany to Asiatize itself completely, destroying and eradicating everything in itself that spells Europe, which Europe is equivalent to Mediterranean. It began with the easiest to accomplish, the wholesale massacre of the Jews, always the spearhead of Mediterranean civilization.”[80]

Perhaps the image of the Islamic world that Berenson formed during his travels as one of social backwardness, [81] deprived of any sense of individuality, was overlaid by a painful association with Nazism and with what he saw as Germany’s orientalization. The question of Israel, immediately following the Holocaust, then hardened some of his assertions:


I question whether for the last thirty centuries any people have contributed more than the Jews. They have inspired and started the great religion of the White Race.… Compared with the Arab-speaking world, their output of work promoting civilization, culture, high living is overwhelming. In comparison, the Arab world has nothing for centuries, not since ibn-Khaldun has a Muslim written anything, or done anything else of a creative and constructive contribution to the City of Man.… In comparison with what Jews for three thousand years have contributed that is still operative, still fermenting, still creative, ‘the Arab’ is nowhere.[82]


In fact, in the annotations Berenson wrote on his readings throughout the year of 1942, in hiding during the war, we find a quite dry note: “Began also the Nazi Koran [italics in original], Mein Kampf, for Hitler, besides much else in common with Mohammed, has given his adherents a book.”[83]

It is very difficult to recognize here the young student from Harvard who ventured into reading the Koran in Arabic. Time had passed, however, and other things had taken place than simply the loss of an aesthetic passion. Berenson never ceased to be curious or to exult at the pearls he found in the darkness, and he savored subtlety to the end. It allowed him, after his harsh rejection of Islamic art, to draw nuanced distinctions between the roles of the Persians and Arabs,[84] and to declare an ardent love of Seljuk architecture as the offspring of the free nomadic culture of the Turk.[85] The same might be said for his positive evaluation of Mohammad as an eloquent and poetic communicator.[86] There remained for Berenson a nostalgic vein of orientalist fascination with a world suffused with the images of the Thousand and One Nights, though overlaid with skepticism.[87] He was growing tired, [88] however, and in this fluctuating course backwards and forwards the framework of his thought had profoundly and definitively changed.


“Thought and Temperament”: A provisory conclusion

It is difficult to try to draw conclusions from the fragmentary and often random nature of the material cited in this essay, which is marginal compared with Berenson’s primary field of study. There would be some value in integrating these reflections into a larger study of Berenson’s complex political trajectory. Nevertheless, the thread I have followed here runs through the entire fabric of his life, and perhaps it is possible to highlight some points.  

Berenson was a child of his time. He was an intellectual of Euro-American formation who viewed the Islamic cultural world through the lens of the developments taking place in Oriental studies during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[89] He also witnessed the contradictory effects of European colonization, and, through the tragic experience of two world wars, he observed the beginning of decolonization and the geopolitical realignment of the Middle East brought about in part by the question of Palestine and the birth of Israel. Coming from the periphery of Europe and from a minority, which he never forgot, he nevertheless became an ardent advocate of the leading role played by Greco-Roman civilization, and subsequently Europe, in the human journey. As a secular intellectual, throughout his life he remained instinctively and profoundly diffident towards a civilization that appeared to him as predominantly imbued by religion and by faith.

At the same time, Berenson appears to us as an independent thinker, free from political and academic conformity, infinitely curious and decisively selective, who did not hesitate to give voice, in amiable conversation or in letter, to his most intimate thoughts and instincts. His reflections were subtle, but he also allowed himself to express quite openly feelings of profound attraction or crude repulsion.[90] He formed a section of Arabic and Islamic scholarship in his library almost at a specialist level, but then he denied that culture any recent contribution to civilization. During a few years of passionate collecting, he was capable of assembling a precious legacy of Islamic art, only to reject the essence of this art a few years later. The phrase “Thought and Temperament” seemed to me to encapsulate this process. It did not come to me by chance—rather, it is the title of a short poem that Berenson published as a student in the Harvard Monthly. The complete title is “Ghazel: Thought and Temperament.” Ghazel, or better ghazal, is the name of a traditional Arabic and Persian poetic form, roughly equivalent to a love sonnet, which was practiced by the celebrated Hafez, whom Berenson liked to mention in conversation. In light of the small number of Berenson’s references to the themes related to our inquiry, I quote it here.[91]


Ghazel: Thought and Temperament”

Ringing silence is hissing around me.

Numbing thought to the rock fast hath bound me

From which I gaze at a bare and bleak world.

Here, resistless, all sorrows have found me

From which I ever had made myself free.

Blank and bleak are the sights that surround me.

Chill and gray, overhead, are flat uncurled

Frozen mists from wan seas that had drowned me

With gloom, were my heart not blithe within me,

Glad to war with the griefs that would ground me

On slimy shallows of shoreless sorrow.

Living sunshine is teeming around me,

Madly carolling songs of mad gladness,

To the ripe wheat ears waving around me.


It is a mannered and gloomy poem, and it would not be appropriate to read his future thoughts in it. Yet, the intimate, almost solipsistic form of this reflection in verse seems analogous to the kind of material I have been dealing with in my research. Berenson loved travel, but from the small paradise of I Tatti he would also travel in the mind, and he was capable of both love and repulsion for objects that he knew only through his insatiable reading. I Tatti increasingly became a protected refuge from which to observe and assess the infinite contradictions of the outside world. In his ninetieth year, after a climb to the hilltop town of Settignano near I Tatti, he wrote: “What are the views from the heights above Damascus compared with those I was enjoying of Florence and its beyonds in every direction!”[92]



Arnold, Franz August, ed. Septem Mo?alla?ât, carmina antiquissima Arabum. Leipzig, 1850.


Bailey, Gauvin A. “The Bernard Berenson Collection of Islamic Painting at Villa I Tatti: Mamluk, Ilkhanid, and Early Timurid Miniatures. Part I.” Oriental Art 47, no. 4 (2001): 53–62.


———. “The Bernard Berenson Collection of Islamic Painting at Villa I Tatti: Turkman, Uzbek, and Safavid Miniatures. Part II.” Oriental Art 48, no. 1 (2002): 2–16.


Berenson, Bernard. “Ghazel: Thought And Temperament.” Harvard Monthly 4 (March–July 1887a): 33.


———. “Was Mohammed at all an Impostor?Harvard Monthly 4 (March–July 1887b): 48–63.


———. Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts. New York, 1948. Reprinted as Aesthetics and History, London, 1950.


———. Sketch for a Self-Portrait. London, 1949.


———. Rumour and Reflection, 1941–1944. London 1952.


———. “Colonizzazione.” Corriere della Sera, 26 January 1956.


———. Pagine di Diario: Letteratura, Storia, Politica, 1942–1956. Milan, 1959.


———. One Year’s Reading for Fun (1942). London, 1960a.


———. The Passionate Sightseer. London, 1960b.


———. The Bernard Berenson Treasury. Edited by Hanna Kiel. New York, 1962.


———. Sunset and Twilight: From the Diaries of 1947–1958. Edited by Nicky Mariano. London, 1963.


Berenson, Mary. A Modern Pilgrimage. New York and London, 1933.


———. Across the Mediterranean. Prato, 1935.


———. A Vicarious Trip to the Barbary Coast. London, 1938.


Bernabò, Massimo. Ossessioni bizantine e cultura artistica in Italia: Tra D’Annunzio, fascismo e dopoguerra. Naples, 2003.


Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan M. Bloom. “The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field.” Art Bulletin 85, no. 1 (2003): 152–184.


Capecchi, Gabriella. “In margine alle collezioni fiorentine: Bernard Berenson e le suggestioni dell’antico.” In In memoria di Enrico Paribeni, edited by Gabriella Capecchi et al., 107–125. Rome, 1998.


Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. New York, 1866.


Constable, Giles, ed., in collaboration with Elizabeth H. Beatson and Luca Dainelli. The Letters between Bernard Berenson and Charles Henry Coster. Florence, 1993.


Creswell, Archibald C. A Bibliography of the Architecture, Arts, and Crafts of Islam to 1st Jan. 1960. Cairo, 1961.


Curatola, Giovanni, ed. Eredità dell’Islam, Arte islamica in Italia. Exhibition catalog, Venice, Palazzo Ducale, 1993–94. Milan, 1993.


Davenport-Hines, Richard. Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson. London, 2006.


Ettinghausen, Richard. Persian Miniatures in the Bernard Berenson Collection. Milan, 1962.


Fixler, Michael. “Bernard Berenson of Butremanz.” Commentary, August 1963, 135–143.


Gaddo, Irene. Il piacere della controversia: Hugh R. Trevor-Roper storico e uomo politico. Naples, 2007.


Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 5. Philadelphia, 1845.


Grabar, Oleg, and Sheila Blair. Epic Images and Contemporary History: The Illustrations of the Great Mongol Shahnama. Chicago and London, 1980.


Gray, Basil. Persian Painting. Geneva, 1961.


Grube, Ernst J., and Eleanor Sims. “The School of Herat from 1400 to 1450.” In The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, edited by Basil Gray. Paris and London, 1979.


Hadley, Rollin Van N., ed. and annotations. The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1887–1924, with Correspondence by Mary Berenson. Boston, 1987.


Hill, Derek. Islamic Architecture and Its Decorations: A.D. 800–1500. London, 1964.


Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. Shahnama: The Visual Language of the Persian Book of the Kings. Aldershot, 2004.


Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, 3 vols. Chicago and London, 1974.


Irwin, Robert. For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies. London, 2006.


Komaroff, Linda, ed. “Exhibiting the Middle East: Collections and Perceptions of Islamic Art.” Ars Orientalis 30 (2000), special issue.



Kröger, Jens. “Friedrich Sarre und die islamische Archäologie.” In Das Grosse Spiel: Archäologie und Politik (1860–1940), edited by Charlotte Trümpler, 274–285. Essen and Köln, 2008.


Lentz, Thomas W. “Painting at Herat under Baysunghur ibn Shahrukh.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 1985.


Lentz, Thomas W., and Glenn D. Lowry, eds. Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century. Exhibition catalog, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Washington, 1989.


Mahdi, Muhsin. “Orientalism and the Study of Islamic Philosophy” Journal of Islamic Studies 1 (1990): 73–98.


Mariano, Nicky, ed. The Berenson Archive: An Inventory of Correspondence. Florence, 1965.


———. Forty Years with Berenson. New York, 1966.


Martin, Fredrik Robert. “Two Portraits by Behzad, the Greatest Painter of Persia.” Burlington Magazine 15, no. 73 (April 1909): 4–8.


Mazaroff, Stanley. Henry Walters & Bernard Berenson: Collector and Connoisseur. Baltimore, 2010.


McComb, Arthur Kilgore, ed. The Selected Letters of Bernard Berenson. London, 1963. Reprinted Boston, 1964.


Morra, Umberto. Conversations with Berenson. Translated by Florence Hammond. Boston, 1965.


Mostyn-Owen, William , ed. Bibliografia di Bernard Berenson. Milan, 1955.


Muir, William. The Life of Mahomet. 5 vols. London, 1858.


Nöldeke, Theodor. Das Leben Mohammeds. Hannover, 1863.


Okumura Sumiyo. The Influence of Turkic Culture on Mamluk Carpets. Istanbul, 2007.


Origo, Iris. “The Long Pilgrimage. One aspect of Bernard Berenson.” The Cornhill Magazine 1023 (Spring 1960): 139–155.


Piemontese, Angelo Michele. “I manoscritti persiani della collezione Berenson.” In Studi in onore di Francesco Gabrieli nel suo ottantesimo compleanno, edited by Renato Traini, 631–639. Rome, 1984.


Roberts, Laurence. The Bernard Berenson Collection of Oriental Art at Villa I Tatti. New York, 1991.


Robinson, Basil W. Persian Drawings (Drawings of the Masters). New York, 1965.


Rocke, Michael. “‘Una sorta di sogno d’estasi’: Bernard Berenson, l’Oriente e il patrimonio orientale di Villa I Tatti.” In Firenze, il Giappone e l’Asia Orientale, edited by Adriana Boscaro and Maurizio Bossi, 367–384. Florence, 2001.


Roxburgh, David J. Kamal al-Din Bihzad and Authorship in Persianate Painting.” Muqarnas 17 (2000): 119–146.


Rubin, Patricia. “Bernard Berenson, Villa I Tatti, and the Visualization of the Italian Renaissance.” In Gli Anglo-Americani a Firenze: Idee e costruzione del Rinascimento, edited by Marcello Fantoni, 207–221. Rome, 2000.


Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York, 1978.


Samuels, Ernest. Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur. Cambridge MA, 1979.


———. Berenson: The Making of a Legend. Cambridge MA and London, 1987.


Sarre, Friedrich Paul Theodor. Meisterwerke muhammedanischer Kunst auf der Ausstellung München 1910 . . . Photographische original-aufnahmen . . . die in dem grossen Ausstellungswerk von Sarre-Martin nicht veröffentlicht sind. Munich, 1912.


Secrest, Meryle. Being Bernard Berenson: A Biography. New York, 1979.


Soucek, Priscilla. “Walter Pater, Bernard Berenson, and the Reception of Persian Manuscript Illustration.” Res. Anthropology and Aesthetics 40 (autumn 2001): 113–128.


Spallanzani, Marco. Oriental Rugs in Renaissance Florence. Florence, 2007.


Sprenger, Aloys. Das Leben und die Lehre des Mo?ammad. 3 vols. Berlin, 1861.


Sprigge, Sylvia. Berenson: A Biography. London, 1960.


Tibawi, Abdul Latif. “A Second Critique of English-Speaking Orientalists and their Approach to Islam and the Arabs.” Islamic Quarterly 23 (1979): 3–43.


Uluç, Lale. Turkman Governors, Shiraz Artisans and Ottoman Collectors: Sixteenth Century Shiraz Manuscripts. Istanbul, 2006.


Varisco, Daniel Martin. Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid. Seattle, 2008.


Vernoit, Stephen. “Islamic Art and Architecture: An Overview of Scholarship and Collecting, c. 1850–c. 1950.” In Discovering Islamic Art: Scholars, Collectors and Collections, 1850–1950, edited by Stephen Vernoit, 1–61. London and New York, 2000.


Vertova, Luisa. “La raccolta Berenson di pagine e codici miniati.” Antichità Viva: Rassegna d’Arte 8, no. 6 (1969): 37–44. Monographic issue devoted to Berenson.


Weil, Gustav. Muhammad der Prophet, sein Leben und seine Lehre. Stuttgart, 1843.


Yasuko Horioka, Marylin Rhie, and Walter B. Denny. Oriental and Islamic Art in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Boston, 1975.



[*] An illustrated and slightly revised version of this essay will appear in a forthcoming publication by Villa I Tatti, based on the conference Bernard Berenson at Fifty, and edited by Joseph Connors and Louis A. Waldman. I would like to thank the editors and conference organizers, as well as the library staff at I Tatti.


[1] Terminological issues are still strongly debated, and the reader should be aware of the intentionally broad sense given here to the adjective “Islamic.” Additionally, in recent decades some scholars have questioned the term “Islamic art.” The term reflects a modern notion, developed by European and American art historians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in order to schematize a still unfamiliar visual world, which seemed to contain common features from regions as diverse as Andalusia and Iran, and whose producers were Arabs as well as Persians, Turks, or others. However, “Islamic art” remains widely used in scholarly and general texts, and the term will be used in this essay, in part because it accurately reflects how Berenson and his contemporaries looked at this broad area of human artistic production. On these issues see Hodgson 1974, esp. 1:3–69, the two collective volumes Komaroff 2000 and Vernoit 2000, and Blair and Bloom 2003.


[2] The fundamental tools that have provided the basis for this research include the two published inventories, Bibliografia di Bernard Berenson (Mostyn-Owen 1955) and The Berenson Archive: An Inventory of Correspondence (Mariano 1965), as well as the large electronic Finding Aid of the Biblioteca Berenson at Villa I Tatti. Central to the research, in addition, are Bernard Berenson’s biographies: Berenson: A Biography (Sprigge 1960), Being Bernard Berenson: A Biography (Secrest 1979), and above all Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur (Samuels 1979) and Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Legend (Samuels 1987). The transcription of Arabic and Persian terms and names is given in the most simplified and common way, except for book titles, which have been transcribed, for the sake of precision, according to the scholarly system.


[3] Note dated 26 February 1953: see Berenson 1963, 302.


[4] Samuels 1979, 28–33.


[5] Ibid., 31; Berenson’s quotations are from his petition letter for the Parker Travelling Fellowship in 1887 (on which see below), reported in Sprigge 1960, 58–60 (quotations on 59).


[6] Samuels 1979, 25. I could not find the original diary in the Biblioteca Berenson.


[7] Berenson 1949, 101–102.


[8] “I am plunged deep in Egyptian and Babylonian history and art, and primitive, and Oriental things in general. I now wish I remembered my Sanscrit and Arabic”: Berenson to Gardner, 17 April 1910; see Hadley 1987, 470. And again in Berenson 1949, 101: “I have forgotten the very alphabet of Sanskrit and it occurs to me to regret the youthful energies spent on trying to learn it as well as other marginal or exotic languages equally forgotten. They did discipline me, not only as an undergraduate but for years afterwards, rousing curiosities eager to be satisfied, curiosities which are not yet spent. But in the human lot there is no more gain without loss than loss without gain. What I have gained is not only the possibility of keeping up, to the extent of my leisure, with results of research in various fields; but immunization against humbug.”


[9] See Mostyn-Owen 1955, 33–35.


[10] Berenson 1887b.


[11] See Samuels 1979, 44–45; see also Rubin 2000, esp. 207–209, and Alison Brown’s contribution to this exhibition.


[12] See Gibbon 1845, chap. L, Weil 1843, Nöldeke 1863, Muir 1858, and Sprenger 1861.


[13] Berenson 1887b, 63.


[14] See Carlyle 1866, 38–69 (“The Hero as Prophet”). Carlyle also appeared on the list of Berenson’s important readings cited by Mary Berenson (see above), and in 1900 Berenson declared himself “Carlyle mad” (Berenson to Senda, 3 October 1900; see Samuels 1979, 345).


[15] The translations are based on Arnold’s edition (Arnold 1850), which is still in Berenson’s book collection, while the two commentaries are by an unidentified writer and the celebrated al-Zawzani.


[16] “When I was young, at Harvard—I must have been seventeen or eighteen—one day I sat down to read a quantity of Arab poetry by Hafiz, and with amazement saw that love was being addressed to boys. So I asked my professor what this meant, and he—and I don’t believe he was being hypocritical—explained to me that in those times it was not permissible to dedicate verses of love to women, so the poets changed the names of their loved ones and pretended to have masculine lovers”: 3 February 1931; see Morra 1965, 8. The gross mistake of Arabizing the famous Persian poet Hafez should be ascribed to Morra’s mistranscription of the conversation rather than to Berenson’s unlikely confusion.


[17] “When I first knew her, she ascertains, I was only interested in Arabic poetry. Actually the story goes as follows: I was in Florence for the first time—very young (very handsome, according to her, and I am convinced; also very seductive, but this I have no way of knowing) and I had a letter for her which she told me to deliver at her house at about ten o’clock some evening when I had nothing else to do. I went one evening and found a flock of women around her (she was uglier than she is today) all striking more or less Botticellian poses, all breathing an aura of acute Renaissance. What was I going to do in the midst of them? I had to interest them and stupefy them with some thing which they would never have thought of. I knew a little bit about Arab poetry, and I spoke about Arab poetry, and I brought her a volume of translations which furthermore I didn’t believe she would ever give back”: 2 November 1931; see Morra 1965, 93.


[18] Goethe was of course in Mary Berenson’s list of 1890, mentioned above, but an explicit acknowledgment of his West-?stlicher Diwan is in a later diary in the Biblioteca Berenson (23 August 1946): “Greatly enjoying Goethe’s appendix to his ‘West-?stlicher Divan’. He never wrote better expository prose. Amazing how he assimilated and grasped the essence of the recently discovered Orient. He has a better sense of what it was in character and as achievement than is the case with most scholars and historical pundits of today. To think Goethe achieving this as an elderly man in the midst of so much else.” (Compare also with Berenson 1959, 196–197, a slightly varied transcription of the observations contained in the original diary, 30 August 1946, Bernard and Mary Berenson Papers, Biblioteca Berenson, Villa I Tatti—The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies [hereafter BMBP].)


[19] Berenson’s plans were vast and ambitious: “From the middle of July to the opening of the university at Berlin I should make Paris my head-quarters . . . . The winter semester I should spend in the study of practical art problems, and of Arabic at Berlin. Then I should go [to] Italy where I should spend the rest of the year in the study of art, and Italian literature. Art prevails in this programme, because it is there where I feel myself weakest.. . . In a sojourn abroad of three years I should much extend my plans. I should devote a good part of the time to the study of the literature which had its origin in the places in which I happened to sojourn. I also should avail myself as much as possible of opportunities for literary study of Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian.” Professor Toy expressed himself with particular enthusiasm: “His natural gifts and his attainments appear to me to be uncommonly excellent . . . His reading is enormous without being superficial. He combines in a very unusual way acquaintance with Eastern and Western literatures.” Perhaps the commission did not appreciate Berenson’s strongly self-eulogistic tone. For the whole matter, see Samuels 1979, 49–51, with related references. The almost complete document is reported also in Sprigge 1960, 58–60.


[20] Anxious to depart, he left with a friend the task of receiving his diploma: honorable mention in Semitic languages and English composition. Then, “Education went on apace in Berlin.… Professor Toy’s influence had clearly waned, for one reads nothing further about Arabic studies”: Samuels 1979, 73. Toy remained in contact with Berenson and they met again in Cambridge, in Paris, and also in Florence: ibid., 216.


[21] Only the versions of Payne and Mardrus are now present in the Biblioteca Berenson. “She [Hortense Serristori] was in ecstasy yesterday hearing Nicky read the story of Sharkan and Abriza in Mardrus’ version of the Thousand and One Nights. Then we recalled with what enjoyment we read these volumes as they kept appearing, one after the other, and how once she exclaimed, ‘What shall we do without further volumes of Mardrus!’”: 8 November 1957; see Berenson 1963, 503. See also Berenson 1960a, 59, and Morra 1965, 13.


[22] One can refer here to the Bernard Berenson Library website; see also Rocke 2001.


[23] My thanks to Scott Palmer, responsible for the periodicals collection at Villa I Tatti, with whom I discussed various issues concerning the actual form of the Asian and Islamic Collection.


[24] Mary Berenson to Judith Berenson, 17 December 1921, Houghton Library, Harvard. Thanks toIlaria Della Monicafor pointing out this passage and transcribing it for me.


[25] They are grouped into thirteen different folders; thanks to Martina Rugiadi for her careful comparative work on this.


[26] Five boxes in the Fototeca contain various materials on “Indian Islamic Miniatures,” “Islamic Architecture and Sculpture,” “Persian & Islamic Decorative Arts. Textiles, Pottery, Frescoes,” “Persian Miniatures,” and “Damascus.”


[27] For instance, see Berenson’s correspondence (BMBP) with Ernest Kühnel, curator of the Islamic collections of the State Museum (Kaiser Friedrich) in Berlin; Louis Massignon, the French Catholic theologian and scholar of Islamic studies; Teodor Macridy Bey, vice director of the Ottoman Museum in Istanbul; and Leo Avy Mayer, from the Government Museum of Antiquities in Jerusalem.


[28] See Berenson’s correspondence with both Rudolf Meyer-Riefstahl and Mehmet Aga-Oglu, BMBP.


[29] See Mariano 1966, 46.


[30] See Berenson’s rich correspondence with Creswell in the Berenson Archive, spread over a wide period of time (twenty-four letters, 1922–58).


[31] Creswell 1961.


[32] Towards the end of his life, it was indeed his universalistic library that Berenson considered to be his greatest legacy. “What treasures in every field of art. Scarcely anything missing that really counts, from the whole earth, illustrated books from the most luxurious to the horrid Soviet publications on the prehistorical art of Siberia. Photos and magnificent reproductions of not only Italian or Greek and Roman art, but of every province of Antiquity, or Far-Eastern, or Indian, or pre-Columbian American. They give me the only real satisfaction that my so-long and so-varied past can still offer me”: 10 November 1957; see Berenson 1963, 503–504.


[33] See, for instance, Berenson 1948, esp. 182–183, and for a detailed study, Capecchi 1998. See also Origo 1960.  


[34] The most important travels to note for the present study are: Egypt, 1921–22; Turkey (Constantinople and Anatolia), 1928; Palestine and Syria, 1929; Tunisia and Algeria, 1931; Libya (Tripolitania and Cyrenaica), April–May 1935; and Libya (Tripoli and Leptis Magna), May 1955. To this list the following should also be added as tangential to our discussion: travels in Greece in 1923, Spain in 1929, and Yugoslavia in 1936; to Cyprus, Rhodes, and Crete in 1937; again to Rhodes and Asia Minor in 1938; and to Sicily in May 1953. “Yours of the 3d finds me here, not in the desert, but in one of the spots where, on the contrary, one feels the presence of the Classical Antique almost as poignantly as in Athens itself, and far more than in Piedmontized, Fascistized Roma. It is for the traces of that world for which I always feel so homesick, that I am exploring the shores of the Mediterranean. And I must say that I have found in Tunisia and am finding now here in Algeria far more than I expected”: Berenson to Louis Gillet, Timgad, Algeria, 7 April 1931, BMBP; see also Samuels 1987, 387. On Berenson’s Byzantine interests, see also Bernabò 2003, esp. 118–124 and 130–138.


[35] Mariano 1966; Mary Berenson 1933, 1935, and 1938.


[36] “I wish I had the capacity to recreate the enchantment of those days beginning with the sound of the rhythmic songs of the sailors washing the decks and ending with the reflection of the glorious sunsets in the river and the procession along the banks of peasant families with their animals returning to their villages after a day’s work in the fields. Sometimes a single woman would appear, wrapped in a blue cloak, her baby in her arms and her husband leading the donkey—a perfect flight into Egypt”: Mariano 1966, 48. “Yes, though the Arabs have swept like a pest over the lands so gloriously developed and built on and civilized under the Roman sway, turning the proudest edifices into shapeless heaps of stone, cutting down the fruit trees and the olive orchards, letting the aqueducts fall into decay, extinguishing the lamps of art and learning, and blighting all intelligible civilized history for 1300 years, we could not hate them then, but only love the merry sounds that the air bore to our ears from the encampment, and open our hearts to the romance wrapt up in that other magic word ‘Arab’”: Mary Berenson 1935, 6.


[37] “Norman de Garis Davies, the famous English archaeologist, went around with us more than once, and I remember his amazement over B.B.’s being fascinated by the freshness and intensity of colour on the hieroglyphs”: Mariano 1966, 50.


[38] “The year 1928 has become identified for me with the magic word ‘Constantinople.’ B.B. insisted on using the classical name and not the Turkish mispronunciation of the Greek iz tin Polis—to the town—whereby it became Istamboul”: Mariano 1966, 200. “Yes, S. Sophia is all you say. It is perhaps the most sumptuous building interior I have ever seen. But as a space-effect several mosques of Sinan & his pupils here & in Adrianople seem far more successful achievements”: Berenson to Charles Henry Coster, Istanbul, 3 October 1928; see Constable, Beatson, and Dainelli 1993, 9. “The Turkish mosques are the development and the fulfillment of Santa Sofia”: 9 June 1932; see Morra 1965, 115.


[39] “We leave in ten days for Syria & Palestine.… There is scarcely an area of that historical region which is not sacred to a humanist like myself”: Berenson to Paul J. Sachs, 17 March 1929; see McComb 1964, 106. “Beautiful as are the Mount Carmel and the road from it to Jerusalem, steeped in historical and religious associations as is every parcel of the land, these are not the only things that impose themselves upon the traveller. Even those who set out to confine their attention to beauty and archaeology cannot but end by taking a fascinated interest in geology and geography, the basis and chief determinating factor of all these”; “And have I really been in Palmyra? I ask myself, sitting comfortably surrounded by books, endeavouring to hold fast the memories of our wonderful journey. Was it really old me, with my rheumatism, my luxurious habits of comfort, my devotion to the day’s ordered routine, who travelled across the Syrian desert in the blast of the sun, who lingered for days among the temples and colonnades, the fleshless ghosts of Zenobia’s stately town; who saw the thousands of camels brought to water by their wild Bedouin herdsmen? I remember it all, so I suppose I must be the same person who had this great adventure, though everything around me, save this sheet of writing paper, and everything in me, save a vital spark of memory, contradicts it”: see Mary Berenson 1933, 37 and 197. However, the visit to the Muslim site of the Dome of the Rock left a deep impression on Mary: see ibid., 53–71.


[40] “The landscape is lovelier, the hotels are better, the ‘Roman’ remains more interesting & more important, but most unexpected of all is the unspoiled Orientalism of a town like this where even in the European quarter there is scarcely a jarring note, & in the Arab town not the least touch that one would have different”: Berenson to Coster, Kairouan, 3 April 1931; see Constable, Beatson, and Dainelli 1993, 33. “In the Turkish remains there was less that interested us—one can scarcely attend to a pipe when a great orchestra is filling one’s ears”; “To the sacred city of Islam, one of the most glorious relics of the Roman rule in North Africa, the vast Coliseum, El Djem, was a great contrast. But travellers must be adaptable, and both exoticism and classicism blend harmoniously in memory, the impenetrable otherness of the Arab world; the nearness to ourselves of the Roman—but a nearness heightened by a grandeur we have lost”: Mary Berenson 1935, 22 and 156.


[41] “So I have been to Cyrene, und das kann mir niemand wegnehmen! I fear I shall never return, for there are so many other journeys I should like to take—Asia Minor, the Greek Islands, Morocco, Egypt again—only, if you get strong enough, I must bring you here, no matter what else I miss”: Bernard Berenson to Mary Berenson, 21 April 1935; see Mary Berenson 1938, 63. Mary could not join her husband and Nicky on this trip. Her travel diary is based mainly on the letters that she received from them and Coster all along the journey; see also Constable, Beatson, and Dainelli 1993, 62–79. “Leptis is, all considered, one of the most impressive fields of ruins on the shores of the Mediterranean and can stand the comparison even with Palmyra, the desert port, and with Baalbek”: Bernard Berenson, Leptis Magna, 16 May 1955; see Berenson 1960b, 137—this passage is absent in the original diary and was probably added by Berenson for the publication of the volume. “Lovely drive to the Oasis of Tagiura with its grand, austerely simple mosque.… Often I have wondered how a Roman wore his toga. Here rich and poor wear it, be it dazzling white or dirty greyish, new or in rags, and stride along utterly unaware of how Antique they look to us”: Bernard Berenson, Tripoli, 24 May 1955; see ibid., 137. Slightly different version in original diary, BMBP.


[42] On this issue see Roberts 1991, which is a catalog of the Far Eastern pieces in Berenson’s collection, and Rocke 2001.


[43] There were 3,600 items on display in over eighty rooms. The Berenson Library contains a most precious commemorative work on this exhibition, published in the following years, 1911–12, immediately acquired by Berenson himself: four volumes in folio format, of which the fourth is considered to be particularly rare and precious (Sarre 1912).


[44] Berenson to Wharton, 6 May 1910; see Rocke 2001, 375.


[45] Bernard Berenson to Mary Berenson, 27 August 1910, BMBP.


[46] Berenson to Gardner, 29 August 1910; see Hadley 1987, 479—in this volume the transcription is “the marvellous Muslims, chiefly Persian things here,” but I corrected it after consulting a copy of the original conserved in the BMBP. This enthusiasm was shared by Mary, who up until then had been extremely diffident. Arriving separately in Munich a week later, she wrote to Bernard the same night after her visit to the exhibition: “We spent all day at the Moslem Exhibition. It is a revelation. I have never seen anything to compare to some of these carpets and stuff! And then the bronzes, and the miniatures, and the objects—it is too marvellous! I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. And I am particularly glad as it takes away the latent (very stupid) hostility I felt towards the Orient” (Mary Berenson to Bernard Berenson, 7 September 1910, BMBP; see Rocke 2001, 377).


[47] On the whole question, still partially neglected by historians of Islamic art, see the excellent volume Discovering Islamic Art, in particular its editor’s own contribution (Vernoit 2000), and the collective volume Exhibiting the Middle East (Komaroff 2000). On the role played in this period by a key figure like Friedrich Sarre in the field of Islamic art, see Kröger 2008. Sarre had a good relation with Berenson, testified by a few letters in the Berenson Archive. On meeting Sarre’s daughter in 1955, Berenson recalled him with admiration, writing: “Her father virtually started rational collecting and study of Islamitic art, and made the collection of that art in Berlin” (30 October 1955; see Berenson 1963, 405).


[48] “I can see and buy here—from buying much I am prevented first by poverty, then by Mary’s dislike for Oriental things, and finally by the fact that I have little room for it. But I am in contact with all the amateurs and dealers who go backward and forward. I can get the pick of their best, and at the lowest figures. Just now it is Persian miniatures one should go in for, because the market will soon be exhausted. The very finest are still to be had for say from two to five thousand francs apiece. In a year or two that will be impossible”: Berenson to Gardner, Oxford, 12 August 1910; see Hadley 1987, 477.


[49] The single pieces shall not be discussed here in detail; a catalog of the collection is in preparation under the auspices of Villa I Tatti. For the manuscripts and the miniatures, see below in this essay. The finest carpet of the collection, a Mamluk rug of the early sixteenth century, has been dealt with in Spallanzani 2007, 57, 68, 232, and Okumura 2007, 156–157 n. 35.


[50] Interestingly enough, the commemorative volume of Munich’s exhibition for the first time reverses the usual layout in cataloguing Islamic arts, and places the chapters on the arts of the book in first position, followed by the others on manufactures. See Vernoit 2000, 20.


[51] See Ettinghausen 1962, 5: this thin volume, published in a limited number of copies by the Edizioni Beatrice D’Este (Officine Grafiche Ricordi), is a first attempt to present some of the miniatures belonging to the collection. Other partial descriptions are in Vertova 1969, Piemontese 1984, Soucek 2001, and Bailey 2001 and 2002.  


[52] See the excellent essay by Soucek (2001). On the creation of the myth of Behzad, see Martin 1909 and the critical analysis in Roxburgh 2000. On the cultural role of the Timurid dynasty and of Prince Baysunghur, see at least Lentz and Lowry 1989.


[53] See Berenson’s correspondence with the dealer Léonce Alexander Rosenberg. On the subject of these miniatures, Berenson also exchanged news and information with various scholars on account of their debated attribution; see for instance Berenson’s correspondence with Edgar Blochet and Rudolf Meyer-Riefstahl, BMBP.


[54] Occasional or more substantial references to some of the pieces in Berenson’s collection can be found in various scholarly works. Besides the essays mentioned above in note 51, see for instance Gray 1961, 84–86; Robinson 1965, 132, tav. 12; Grube and Sims 1979, 156, 177–78, fig. 88; Grabar and Blair 1980, 90–91; Lentz 1985, catalog 16–23:328–341; Lentz and Lowry 1989, 122, 124, 368–369; Curatola 1993, 34, 364–367, 372–373; Hillenbrand 2004; and Uluç 2006, 142–149.


[55] A strict spiritual and material exchange in this field was also kept with Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose small Islamic collection can be considered as an overseas equivalent to that of Villa I Tatti. See Horioka, Rhie, and Denny 1975, esp. 97–136.


[56] Ettinghausen to Berenson, 10 January 1955, BMBP.


[57] But Berenson must have been very proud to receive from Ettinghausen in 1957 this note accompanying an article of his: “It is a study of Persian miniatures which was mainly written in ‘I Tatti’ where I also did a good deal of the research for it. This may be the first time that this has happened in your library, and it should prove how good it is even in this more unusual field” (Ettinghausen to Berenson, 19 August 1957, BMBP). Ettinghausen’s volume was warmly welcomed by Denys Sutton with an article in the Financial Times, entitled “Persian Enchantment” (26 August 1962), whose incipit was in open praise of Berenson’s merits: “Anything which touches on the personality and career of Bernard Berenson is of perpetual fascination.… Not least owing to the fact that he viewed art in a broad manner; his curiosity was considerable and he was concerned with Far Eastern Art as well as with Western.”


[58] This acquisition is mentioned in a commercial note from Anet dated 18 October 1910, BMBP. Anet kept soliciting Berenson’s interest towards the Islamic art objects, appeasing him with little gifts and even literary hooks. In a postcard from Tiflis, dated 12 September 1913, Anet offered him this poem of the Persian Omar Khayyam: “O Khayyam, si tu peux t’enivrer de vin, sois content. / Si tu es assis près d’un jeune visage, sois content. / Comme le compte de la vie se reduit à la fin énèant, / Suppose que tu n’es plus; tu vis, donc sois content” (BMBP).


[59] There are traces of an interest in Armenian miniatures around 1920, probably leading to the acquisition of the few Armenian miniatures now present in the collection. See Berenson’s correspondence with Dikran Kelekian and Calouste Sarkis Goulbekian, BMBP.


[60] It is especially from this period on that many materials came to be collected, now filling the boxes of the Fototeca, mentioned above at note 26.


[61] This is how Mary recalls that experience: “Our most overwhelming surprise was the eighth century mosaic decoration in the entrance to the Grand Mosque and along one side of its courtyard, for this, being still in the process of resurrection from its winding sheet of whitewash, had not yet become the common property of students.… All the mosaics exhibit an amazing delicacy of shading recalling the best frescoes at Pompeii, or even the matchless paintings of a garden in the Villa Livia at Rome. They carry on without a doubt the Hellenistic tradition of representation. Some of the finest trees, with their shadows in mauve and light pink, curiously anticipate, as do those at the Villa Livia at Rome, the paintings of Cézanne!… it must have been one of the most gorgeous sights on the face of the earth” (Mary Berenson 1933, 161–162).


[62] See Berenson’s correspondence with Creswell, particularly his letters of 1958, BMBP.


[63] “One thing, in fact two things, were missing in the Roman Empire: the conquest of Germany and the conquest of Arabia. If the conquest, and thereby the permeation of Hellenism, had occurred in these regions too there would never have been either the barbarian invasions or the triumphs of the armies of Islam. The world of today would be the same as then, united under the standard of Rome”: 1 June 1934; see Morra 1965, 188. See also ibid., 267. Such a historical preoccupation a posteriori endures up until the question of the Crusades: “I was reading recently how Andrea Dandolo turned the Fourth Crusade aside from its idealistic purpose of liberating the Holy Land from the Moslem yoke. Instead, he induced it to conquer, impoverish, and ruin the only Christian power that might act for Europe as a shield and buckler against the invading Turk, Seljuk, or Ottoman” (19 December 1943; see Berenson 1952, 202).


[64] Berenson 1948, 244. Also his interest in Islamic architecture, which had flourished during the period of his travels in Egypt, gradually became less pronounced. This is reflected in a note sent by Rudolf Meyer-Riefstahl after Berenson’s stay in Turkey in 1928: “Your visit here has certainly started something.… I begin to learn something; at the same time I proceed to some re-valuation of values which is not altogether in favor of the Turkish. I begin now to be able to see with the help of van Millingen the original status of a remodeled Byz. building, and I see how right you were emphasizing the almost perfect proportion that is in almost all of them. There is a wisdom of playing with harmonies of space which is rare in the Turkish monuments” (Meyer-Riefstahl to Berenson, 22 March 1929, BMBP).


[65] See the attendant correspondence in the BMBP.


[66] “The subject you are dealing with is much more attractive for me than oriental painting; oriental art, in every domain, is a secondary manifestation of the human spirit; and one may say the same of oriental literature, except the Bible in the Near East—which is a unique book—and a few Chinese works.” “Thank you very much for being so kind in sending me your excellent article on Florentine painting; these works are so different from the miniatures in Islamic books—Persian and Arabic—in front of which people without any artistic culture bow in admiration out of snobbery.” Blochet to Berenson, postcards, 15 July 1931 and 1 May 1932, BMBP.


[67] This extract follows a more general consideration on what Berenson classified as the exotic arts: “The question of the exotic arts is more complicated.… Compared with our art of the last sixty centuries with its endless variety of subject matter, of material, of kind and quality, every other art, Chinese included, is limited. I had the good fortune to be one of the first to feel the beauty of the various exotic arts and to encourage collectors and dealers and amateurs to give them attention.… Even Chinese, by far the most valuable of all the arts from beyond our pale, can offer students of visual representation its landscape only, as an achievement that our painters have not equalled or surpassed.… The exotic arts soon weary” (Berenson 1948, 238–241). The question also slips from the level of the visual arts to literature, where Berenson begins to make a subtle distinction between Arabs and Persians that skims across even one of his most loved texts, the Thousand and One Nights: “The Arabs have no power of fantasy in their literature; the whole ‘bewitched’ part of The Arabian Nights is not indigenous but is of Persiano-Indian origin. They have qualities of descriptive realism and qualities of poetic transfiguration, the qualities which one finds in English literature and which are the true artistic qualities in the long run—one cannot be abstracted from the other; together they form the essence of any work of art. But in the Arab lyrics (and descriptions) as in every other exotic art—Chinese, for example—a restricted world is being dealt with—sounds from only a few strings—and compared to the field of English art they add up to a paltry, extremely limited manifestation” (11 August 1937; see Morra 1965, 243–244).


[68] Still, attending Renan’s lectures was among Berenson’s purposes in his application for the Parker Travelling Fellowship: “In Paris I would be listening to Renan and going to the theatre” (Sprigge 1960, 60). In Berenson’s personal library (in the House section), we can find still today almost all of the principal works by Renan and de Gobineau. On Berenson’s complex attitude towards his own Jewish identity, see Mariano 1966, 205, referring to the 1922 “Pilgrimage”—“B.B. was not a Zionist in those days. He had to go through the Hitler years before he could feel real sympathy with the heroic effort of the Israelite state builders. Only the danger of orthodox Jewry having the upper hand in Israel filled him with horror and became a sort of obsession with him during his last years”—but above all the “Epistle to the Americanized Hebrews,” written by Berenson in 1944 and never published (preserved in various copies in BMBP). The latter is a document to which specific attention should be given, and which constitutes also, to some extent, an attempt to distinguish the identity of the diasporic and assimilated Jews from that of other Semitic peoples, like the Arabs.


[69] The note is dated 3 February 1942. Berenson 1952, 78.


[70] Of the many passages that could be quoted: “B.B. also in the midst of his breakfast seemed very gloomy. ‘Have you had a bad night?’ ‘Oh no, but it disgusts me to come across such carelessness.’ And saying this he pointed to the milk jug. The handle was broken off” ” (Mariano 1966, 209; the episode took place in Sbeitla, Tunisia, 1931). “In Mecca there congregate every species, type, and color of human being. What unites and identifies them all as of the true faith is their genuflections, prostrations, and ejaculations—not words and prayers and sentences that can easily be learned, whereas the first are difficult to acquire after early and unconscious childhood”: 17 December 1941; see Berenson 1952, 47. “Eastern, and semi-Eastern, and Near Eastern people seem to find difficulties in distinguishing between a government that cares not how much harm it does to attain its ends, and one that tries to reduce to a minimum the odious but necessary evils that accompany politics and administration”: 25 June 1942; see ibid., 98. “The same in Egypt. There the Turkish and Turkicized Arab landowners exploit the peasantry, treating them as no better than cattle. Their hygienic conditions were revolting. Their standard of life was scarcely neolithic. The English tried hard to improve their lot. In vain, and when Zagloulites in the course of their campaign against the English started markets outside the towns, the fellahin flocked to them”: 28 March 1944, see ibid., 278. “The Vandal does not seem to have been a Vandal at all, but the Arab was one to the extent at least that he wrenched capitals & columns from their places & carted them hither by the many hundreds to construct this town & its great mosque. In that mosque there is not a capital that is not interesting, & few are not late Antique”: Berenson to Coster, Kairouan, 3 April 1931; see Constable, Beatson, and Dainelli 1993, 33–34. Even more caustic was Mary Berenson’s aesthetic judgment of the Muslim faith from in front of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem: “As to the cult there practised, I could take it peacefully. The religion of Islam is not mine; I never come across anything but the picturesque side; no one that I know argues that the Mahometan Faith is the True Faith; the people I care about do not prostrate themselves in that absurd and revolting attitude with their foreheads on the floor and the less honoured part of their persons sticking up; I am not forced to concern myself about all that, and am far enough away to be calm about the Arab conquest and about the defects of the votaries of the Mahometan religion. So the vision of the Dome of the Rock was not alloyed with any sense of personal responsibility” (Mary Berenson 1933, 56). Her consideration of Kairouan’s inhabitants in 1931 was not very different: “So long unchanged, the natives seem to wear their garments as animals wear their skin, or birds their feathers, and it suits them as it suits their brothers of the animal world, although their coverings are far less clean than the fur and feathers of beasts and birds. Their hooded and draped figures stream along, night and day, in tatters and rags, the wearers as unconscious of their picturesqueness as of their filthiness” (Mary Berenson 1935, 37).


[71] Meyer-Riefstahl to Berenson, end of July 1928, BMBP.


[72] Meyer-Riefstahl to Berenson, 28 August 1929, BMBP.


[73] “We still are stewing here. Tripoli in return for the predatory behaviour of Italy is returning us a most fierce scirocco”: Berenson to Henry Walters, 8 October 1911, BMBP. “There is nothing new. This unspeakable war in Tripoli is keeping our Italian acquaintances away from us. They are too well aware what they would think of any one else who committed murder & robbery in this fashion upon peaceable householders—I am not referring to the so-called massacre which I believe to be a foul calumny, but to the ethics of falling upon Tripoli as the Italians have done. The economic effect upon Italy will be disastrous but nothing comparable to the moral debasement. A people like the Italian which so recently became a nation not by its own strength but thro’ the sympathy, pity & powerful aid of stronger nations, has no right to become the cowardly oppressor of weaker races”: Berenson to Walters, 11 December 1911, BMBP. On the relationship between Berenson and Henry Walters, see Mazaroff 2010.


[74] The first impact was quite folkloristic, as Mary Berenson recalls it in her vicarious memory: “Their dinner with Balbo confirmed their impression of him: exuberant, talkative, discursive, with endless pet theories of his own about history and art and politics—‘a self-ejecting, self-diffusing, even self-universalizing entity’” (Mary Berenson 1938, 12). But see the correspondence with Balbo in BMBP, where the “Maresciallo dell’Aria” remembers Berenson’s visit with sympathy and thanks him for his article on Libya in the “National Institute News Bulletin of New York” (Balbo to Berenson, 5 April 1936). Thanks to Ilaria Della Monica’s careful investigation, it has been discovered that this was more precisely the National Institute of Arts and Letters, where the fellows used to publish a yearly note on their work and research. In the 1936 issue, Berenson wrote: “In the spring I spent two months in Tripolitania and Cirenaica. I strongly advise all to go there before it gets tourist ridden. Cyrene, Leptis and Ghadames should be visited by all who love Greece, Rome and the desert.” In a letter to Mary of 1936, Balbo thanks her for sending him her volume Across the Mediterranean. In a later diary from Tripoli, Berenson expressed a clear appreciation of the Italian contribution to Libya’s modernization: “How much human industry and perseverance and capital has been expended here during the Italian occupation. One cannot help wondering what will happen once the Allied control comes to an end. Will the Libyans want to carry on and preserve what may seem to them an intrusion from a hostile world?” (Tripoli, 11 May 1955; see Berenson 1960b, 134). In general, Berenson’s diary notes from Tripoli in 1955 are full of considerations on the Italian legacy and the present English “indirect rule” (BMBP).


[75] See Massignon to Berenson, 9 November 1956, BMBP. A long diary entry on 10 January 1956, translated into Italian, would become an article on the theme of colonization for the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera (Berenson 1956). It presents a diachronic perspective that reflects on the formation of colonies as a natural phenomenon and fruit of human history, yet destined to fail when implanted in terrains already ruled by organized civilizations.


[76] See Berenson’s correspondence with these individuals in the BMBP. See also Constable, Beatson, and Dainelli 1993 and Davenport-Hines 2006; particularly remarkable are Trevor-Roper’s reports on Iran in 1957. On the complex political views of Trevor-Roper, see Gaddo 2007.


[77] An interesting integration of this picture can be found in the text “Cos’è e dov’è l’Europa,” which Berenson prepared for publication, again in the Corriere della Sera, in 1955 (published 1 February); see also Berenson 1959, 231–239.


[78] Berenson’s diary, 10 April 1947, see also Berenson 1963, 12.


[79] On Berenson’s attitude towards Jewish identity, besides the works already mentioned in note 68, see Fixler 1963.


[80] Note dated 3 February 1942; see Berenson 1952, 78. See also Berenson 1963, 125 (note from Berenson’s diary, 12 April 1949).


[81] See again the quotations in note 70. A late and skeptical observation of Ramadan and its consequences was offered during Berenson’s travels in Tripoli in 1955: “Heard later that it had not been easy to secure porters because of Ramadan being in full progress, the great Muslim fast when no food or drink may be touched from sunrise to sunset. Who can blame the porters for shirking their work under such circumstances?” (Berenson 1960b, 130; see also ibid., 138). These quotations, however, seem to have been cut compared with the original diaries.


[82] Diary entry, 1 July 1954; see Berenson 1963, 351–352. He continues as follows: “As a townsman [the Arab] has scarcely put foot on the lowest rung of civilization. Yet such is still the force of anti-Jewishness, that the majority of the Christian world is outraged by the Jew who returns to the Land of Israel, where he regards the Arab as intruder and usurper, in which, the survivor of torture and massacre, he wants to ensure for himself a city of refuge. Cramped, confined, always on the qui vive against the Arab marauder supported by all the Oil Interests, yet the Israeli Jew not only makes the desert smile like the rose, but pursues every kind of intellectual work, including good history, on as high an average as is being written anywhere in the European world. But pious anti-Jew pity for the Arab will have none of this.”


[83] 21 January 1942; see Berenson 1960a, 13. A few months later Berenson received an unexpected but still warmly welcomed scholarly confirmation of his personal diffidence: “Wölfflin’s three short essays on Jacob Burckhardt, interesting information and right in feeling. Burckhardt was one of the greatest humanists of all time and the last effective German one. Reading his ‘Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen,’ I was amazed in discovering how much he anticipated me in my conclusions regarding the past. How well informed he is and of what sound judgment. Everything he says about Islam, for instance, is masterly and should put to shame the admirers of its civilizations and culture and the believers in its equivalence or even superiority to ours” (4 July 1942; see ibid., 87–88).


[84] Berenson’s diary, 15 December 1957, BMBP: “As a matter of fact, except for the alphabet, the Arabs gave nothing to Persia. Even Mohammedanism is a very different religion there from what it is in the Semitic world. Their verse owes nothing or mere expletives to the Arabs, and as for Persian art of any kind, it was absurd to speak of Arab influence, even if there were Arab art. Persian art owes a great deal to Central Asia, to the Turks, to reminiscences of Hellenistic achievement in the wide-flung Achemenide Empire. Of course I talk as one who has never been there, but I have seen endless reproductions, and ever so many original.”


[85] Berenson’s diary, 6 May 1949, BMBP: “Ever since my youth my nomadic mind has been fascinated by the nomadic peoples of all times and places . . . most of all by the rush westwards of people, streaming, eddying, whirling westwards from the heart of Asia, pushing everything before them. Then the various Turkish infiltrations, invasions and conquests of Iran, of India, and for me above all of Asia Minor and the rest of Mediterranean Asia and Africa. The Seljuks fascinate me, not because I know or care for their military and political history, but that their art delights me. Its sources and even its executants may have been Persian, but they have a delicacy and refinement, color and pattern, that to my taste are beyond all other Islamic art,” see also Berenson 1962, 281. This love was reaffirmed in a nostalgic prefatory letter for the photographic book by his friend Derek Hill (Hill 1964): “What a miracle is this Seljuk architecture! It has an elegance, a distinction of design and a subtle delicacy of ornament surpassing any other known to me since French Gothic at its best.” Berenson’s letter is dated 1958; I thank Carl Strehlke for highlighting this text to me.


[86] “Mohammad, if we may take what is supposed to be his table talk, the Hadith, to witness, must also have been a most stirringly eloquent talker, and what a poet he was we see in the finer suras of the Koran”: Berenson 1949, 36. There were also moments when the influence of certain guests forced Berenson to distinguish the hard weight of current affairs from the light legacy of his early intellectual passions: “At Casa al Dono Addie Kahn, now seventy, challenged him with her frank sympathy for the Soviets and the Arabs, and the two old friends agreed to disagree . . . The much-traveled Arabist Freya Stark, who was now a twice-a-year habitué, put in an appearance, and with her Berenson shared his appreciation of older Arab culture” (Samuels 1987, 511; the episode refers to 1946).


[87] “I feel about as lazy and slack as the observers of the Ramadan fast and not up to any exertion. Walking about in the garden, sitting by the pond with the water-lilies, reading or being read to, chatting, dreaming, watching the sunset from the roof terrace satisfies me completely . . . Non è questa la vita che la nostra immaginazione nutrita di racconti arabi e persiani attribuisce a un vecchio orientale? No; mi manca qualcosa: le vesti appropriate, l’esercizio di una particolare pazienza, certi gesti d’origine rituale, una vera e propria rinunzia a forme attive d’indagine e di studio”: note dated 7 May 1955, from Tripoli; I composed it matching two correspondent passages in Berenson 1960b, 132, and Berenson 1959, 81 (Italian version by Arturo Loria). Strangely enough, the original diary in the Berenson Archive does not include this note, which must have been the fruit of various editings.


[88] In Rome, after having seen the great exhibition on miniatures, which included pieces from Arabic manuscripts as well as Persian and Syriac, Berenson wrote disconsolately: “I have paid twenty visits to the illuminated manuscript exhibition at Palazzo Venezia and what have I carried away? Only a vague feeling of how much there is to study. To master them artistically and philologically would take a lifetime” (30 November 1953; see Berenson 1960b, 34). For a complete list of the miniatures, see Mostra storica nazionale della miniatura (exhibition catalog, Rome, Palazzo di Venezia, 1953. Florence, 1953).


[89] The conditions for the emergence of “Orientalism” in the nineteenth century were outlined by Edward Said in his celebrated study (Said 1978), which is mainly devoted to the relationship between Europe and the Islamic world. Said’s ideas about the role of Eurocentric prejudice in the formation of conceptions of the East set a fashion that still persists, although his main arguments have been intensely debated. See Tibawi 1979, Mahdi 1990, Irwin 2006, and Varisco 2008.


[90] Among the various reviews that his Sketch for a Self-Portrait received in 1949, Samuels says that Berenson had a predilection for the quite pungent but all in all appreciating assessment written for the New York Times by Ferris Greenslet: “The ‘homunculus’ that emerges is a fascinating creature at once sensitive and shrewd, affectionate and cynical, a realist and a mystic” (Samuels 1987, 508).


[91] Berenson 1887a; this was the same issue in which Berenson published his article on Muhammad (see note 10).


[92] Berenson’s diary, 10 July 1954; see Berenson 1963, 353.