Paths Intertwined: The 1884 Lowell Lecture and “The Sacred Word ‘Botticelli’”




Sanam Nader-Esfahani


In 1884, Bernard began his studies at Harvard College after transferring from Boston University. That same year, Mary enrolled at the Harvard Annex (now Radcliffe) and her brother Logan at the College. Bernard and the Smiths never formally met until 1888 when, through a letter of introduction from a friend, Bernard was invited to the Smith country house in England. Unbeknownst to both Bernard and Mary, however, the points of intersection during their time at Harvard were many: they took classes with and knew the same professors, and they attended some of the same events. One such occasion was the 1884 Lowell Lecture delivered by Sir Edmund Gosse. (For an image and short biography, see fig. CC.I.6)

     “Life is an ironic thing,” writes Logan Pearsall Smith (fig. CC.I.13) in Unforgotten Years, recalling his conversation with Sir Edmund Gosse about his utterance of Botticelli’s name years after he had pronounced it at his lecture in Boston. What, for the Englishman, had been rooted in a joke around the family cat and a caricature in Punch Magazine marked a mesmerizing and memorable moment for at least three members of his audience. The lecture itself was on the transformation of English poetry from the Romantic School to the Classical School in the mid-seventeenth century, though what seems to have resonated most strongly with Logan, Mary, and Bernard was not to be found in England, but rather, in Renaissance Italy. In fact, Logan divulges,


Of these lectures I have forgotten everything except one pregnant sentence, in which the name of Botticelli first echoed in our ears. […] “Botticelli, that name which is an open sesame to the most select, the most exclusive circles of Europe.” The effect of these words upon us was magical. What longings it aroused in us, what delicious provincial aspirations for a world fairer than the world we lived in—for exquisite, remote, European things! [1]


While Logan’s quote slightly deviates from what is printed in Gosse’s talk, “[…] Cyril Tourneur became a kind of watchword of higher culture, like Botticelli,” [2] both contexts highlight the significance and power of this name as cultural currency, a power that Logan’s reaction, as well as that of Bernard and Mary, immediately confirm. Indeed, Logan goes on to share that “among that audience, although my sister and I did not know him at the time, was the future art critic, Bernard Berenson, who, has told us since, went at once and bought himself a reproduction of Botticelli’s ‘Primavera.’”[3] This moment also left a vivid impression in Mary’s mind, for reflecting on her days at Harvard in the opening chapter of her unpublished “Life of Bernard Berenson,” (cat. MS.IV.2) she writes: “On one memorable occasion we devoutly listened to one of the Lowell lectures given by Edmund Gosse. When he mentioned the sacred word ‘Botticelli,’ I remember looking at my brother with eyes brimming with emotion and excitement and saying, ‘Oh, Logan, we are at the very centre of things!’ We became Pre-Raphaelites and hung photographs of Rossetti’s pictures in our rooms.” The effect described by Mary, however, went beyond the “Botticelli craze” that swept Boston in the 1880s. [4] Indeed, she would explicitly recall and evoke the sensations she experienced at this very lecture when she met Bernard for the first time six years later at her family home in Fernhurst:


Fascinated, I listened to his talk about Provençal poetry, about the Greek anthology, about Russian novels and the operas of Wagner. His enthusiasm made everything he touched vivid and fascinating. Even my dear Quaker Mother listened to his strange doctrines in admiring silence, and we all ordered large photographs of the pictures of Giorgione and Botticelli. At last I felt I was really at the centre of things, not sitting on a bench in Boston listening to a lecture, but partaking, in imagination at least, of the real feast. (cat. MS.IV.2)


In his articles for the Harvard Monthly, Bernard mentioned both Botticelli and Gosse, but not the Lowell lecture. In his review of a volume by Clinton Scollard (cat. BB.IV.13), Bernard observed, “Mr. Gosse’s earlier verses have a tangibility, a sanguine glow, an exquisite plasticity, that we find no trace of in Mr. Scollard’s With Reed and Lyre, although the title of this book evidently was suggested by Mr. Gosse’s On Viol and Flute.” And in another early piece, “The Third Category” (cat. BB.IV.20), Bernard wrote that the protagonist, Robert Christies, “knew no greater pleasure than to look with her [Miss Rosalys Storer] at some drooping, poppy-saturated pre-Raphaelite sketch, or at a drawing of the divine Sandro Botticelli.” In the same story, we find an intimate tie between art and religion that recalls Mary’s linkage between Botticelli and the sacred. Ernest Samuels noted that, “Robert Christie’s attitude toward Christianity well describes Berenson’s own motive in becoming a convert in 1885 … In all his long life Berenson, though he soon left the church and rejected its theology, never surrendered this aesthetic attitude toward Christianity.” (cat. BB.IV.2) Bernard’s fascination with the parallels between the beautiful and the divine is expressed elsewhere in his own writings. In a short, unpublished essay, drafted in 1893 and entitled “The Religion of Landscape,” he affirms that, “On the whole, dogmatic religion is merely the uncultivated person’s striving for the beautiful, for the harmonizing principle, for reconciliation with all the rest of existence.” [5] The weaving together of aesthetics and spirituality that permeate Berenson’s mature writings was not a new relationship, but one deeply rooted in his earlier thoughts and experiences, which includes Gosse’s memorable presentation. If the 1884 Lowell lecture marked a point of intersection between Bernard and Mary, it also signaled the beginning of a motion, a magnetic pull, that drew them in from the periphery that was the lecture hall to a feast that would be anchored, not in the imagination, but in reality; a gravitation that would see their paths intertwine on other occasions before they finally interlocked at the center of things.


Berenson, Bernard. “The Religion of Landscape.” Bernard and Mary Berenson Papers, Biblioteca Berenson, Villa I Tatti—The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies [1893].


Gosse, Edmund. Six Lectures Written to be Delivered Before the Lowell Institute in December, 1884. London, 1884.


Miller, Lillian B. “Celebrating Botticelli: The Taste for the Italian Renaissance in the United States.” The Italian Presence in American Art 1860–1920. New York, 1992.


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


Smith, Logan Pearsall. Unforgotten Years. Boston, 1939.


Thwaite, Ann. “Gosse, Sir Edmund William (1849–1928)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, 2004; online edn, May 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/33481, accessed 25 July 2011]


___. “Introduction”. Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape. Stroud, 2007.




[1] Smith 1939, 121–122.


[2] Gosse 1884, 22.


[3] Ibid. 123.


[4] Miller 1992, 11.


[5] Berenson [1893].


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