Jonathan K. Nelson, Exhibition Curator


Long before Bernard and Mary Berenson transformed the study and appreciation of Italian Renaissance art, before they married and moved into a villa outside Florence called I Tatti, they arrived separately as students at Harvard in 1884.  Bernard Berenson (1865-1959, fig. BB.II.1) and Mary Whitall Smith (1864-1945, fig. MS.I.2) only met in 1888, after they had both left the United States, though in the draft for her biography of Bernard (cat. MS.IV.2), Mary recalled that, “he had been pointed out to me at one of the University concerts, as the most brilliant member of the then Sophomore class.”[1] A similar appraisal appears in a 1932 letter of Edith Wharton. After reading Mary’s “A Life of Bernard Berenson,” she encouraged her friend to enrich the first chapter with more details “about his Harvard days, when he was ‘stupor mundi’ to undergraduates and professors.”[2]


Part online exhibition and part electronic catalog, Berenson and Harvard: Bernard and Mary as Students provides a multifaceted view of the future art critics through photographs, documents, early writings by Bernard and Mary, and eleven essays by modern scholars.[3] Two new studies—Rachel Cohen’s “Bernard Berenson at Harvard College” (cat. BB.I.1) and Tiffany Johnston’s “Mary Whitall Smith at the Harvard Annex” (cat. MS.I.1)—and two chapters from Ernst Samuel’s celebrated biography of Bernard (cat. BB.III.2, BB.IV.2) offer portrayals not only of the two students but also of the institutions they attended. Bernard’s nineteen articles published in the Harvard Monthly, and never before reprinted, reveal his remarkable erudition and wide range of interests.[4] Among the unpublished material is the first chapter of Mary’s “A Life of Bernard Berenson” (cat. MS.IV.2), the most important source of information about the Harvard years of both students, Bernard’s detailed application for a Parker Fellowship (cat. BB.II.3), and his senior thesis on “Talmudo-Rabbinical Eschatology” (cat. BB.IV.1). The exhibition includes sections dedicated to the “Academic Record,” “Intellectual Interests,” and “Writings” of both students. Though most of their courses and readings touched only marginally on art history, the university years of Bernard and Mary had a profound impact on their later scholarship.


The two students overlapped with each other for only one year at Harvard, 1884-1885. After his freshman year at Boston University (fig. BB.I.3), Bernard transferred to Harvard College in the Fall of 1884, and graduated in the Spring of 1887. One reason that Harvard appealed to Bernard was the course offerings in Sanskrit, and the opportunity to study with Charles Rockwell Lanman (fig. CC.I.8), author of the A Sanskrit Reader. Bernard even brought the textbook to I Tatti, and stored a few pages of notes inside, together with the list of course offerings (cat. BB.III.7). Mary wrote that in 1884, "I had gone to Harvard too, deserting my Alma Mater, Smith College, to join the small band of eight girls who were the first students in what was then called the “Harvard Annex,” which has since developed into the institution known as Radcliffe College. My brother [Logan Pearsall Smith] came with me to Harvard … for he felt, as I did, that Harvard was the best college in America." (cat. MS.IV.2)


Mary left after a year because, as noted on her grade sheet (cat. MS.II.2), she got married on 5 September 1885 to Benjamin Costelloe of Balliol College, Oxford. If Mary kept up with the Harvard Monthly, she might have read Bernard’s “The Third Category”, a short story published in 1887 (cat. BB.IV.20). Here the author described the type of relationship he would develop with Mary soon after. The protagonist, Robert Christie, courted Rosalys Storer, and “knew no greater pleasure than to look with her at some drooping, poppysaturated pre-Raphaelite sketch, or at a drawing of the divine Sandro Botticelli.” In 1888, when Bernard first met Mary Costelloe née Smith in London, he “rapidly sketched the course of European painting from Giotto to Velasquez … to the last and greatest achievement of art—the paintings of [Léon] Bonnat!” (cat. MS.IV.2).


Notwithstanding his appreciation of painting, Berenson recognized his limited knowledge about art. He stated as much in a revealing autobiographical letter: his application for a Parker Fellowship (cat. BB.II.3). Bernard had hoped, in vain, that Harvard would support his dream of travelling around Europe. As he explained to the Fellowship Committee, “Art prevails in this programme, because it is there where I feel myself weakest … And if I am to do what I want to do, I must have at least a fair familiarity with art.” What Bernard wanted to do was prepare himself “for the position of a critic, or historian of literature.” His goal was “to address my generation, in the most direct way, that is through the novel, and the story.” In his senior year, 1887, Bernard studied with Charles Eliot Norton (fig. CC.I.11), the Dante scholar and first professor of art history at Harvard. As Bernard wrote in his Parker application, “I take this year all that Prof. Norton gives, much more because he gives the courses than because they themselves are such as I could work on.”


Mary, despite a burgeoning interest in the arts, had little opportunity for formal training in this field, not yet an established academic discipline in the United States. All but one of the dozen books Mary mentioned in her notebook as having read in December 1884- January 1885 concern philosophy or literature (cat. MS.III.3). In her essay “Mary Whitall Smith’s Harvard Annex Readings: A Selection” (cat. MS.III.7), Tiffany Johnston develops these notes into an intellectual snapshot of Mary during this pivotal moment in her development. In her biography of Bernard (cat. MS.IV.2), Mary states that she “was convinced that the only study for serious people was philosophy (with a view to proving the truth of religion).” But Mary was not always serious. Shortly before she arrive at Harvard, Mary wrote a friend about the “Idiot Club” they had created, dedicated to the "Suppression of Dignity and Wisdom." It originally consisted of Mary, her sister Alys, and three other young women. When Mary moved to England this little group, also known as the “Ideot Club,” also included her brother Logan, and a friend of her husband, the eccentric poet Eric Stenbock. They would write “Moral Tales for Ideots,” act in plays, and generally enjoy themselves.[5] Two photographs, probably taken in 1886, capture the atmosphere of their meetings: they show, from left to right, Eric, Alys, Mary, and Logan, each holding a fireplace tool. Mary's handmade frame unifies the two scenes, identified as “Twilight: The Burnt Worm Spoils the Soup!” (fig. MS.III.2), on the left, followed by “Dawn: Idiots are the Salt of the Earth” (fig. MS.III.1).[6]


In their university years, Bernard and Mary independently explored many of the same topics. Russian literature, for example, comes up often in their writings. (In an unsigned editorial in the Harvard Monthly [cat. BB.IV.26], Bernard refers to the "rush for things Russian and towards Russian literature."[7]) Three broad themes— psychology, Arabic poetry, and Aestheticism—link their early studies and readings with the work that would later make them internationally famous. Both fell under the spell of Professor William James (fig. CC.I.7), author of the highly influential The Principles of Psychology (1890). Brother of the famous novelist Henry James, William was a family friend of the Smiths and chair of the Philosophy Department at Harvard. While Bernard was taking James’s course on “Logic and Psychology,” Mary could not take courses at the College, and James did not teach in the Annex. Nevertheless, Mary visited the professor at his home and attended his lectures given at the nearby Concord School of Philosophy.[8]


Mary later wrote of herself and Bernard: “there we were, two young people extraordinarily different in origin although in both our homes, saturated with the Old Testament, both caught by chance into the ebbing tide of Transcendentalism, and both of us formed to some extent by the same outstanding personages of New England, by Emerson, by William James, by Browning” (cat. MS.IV.2). As Alison Brown demonstrates in “Bernard Berenson and ‘Tactile Values’ in Florence” (cat. BB.III.4), James’s writings had a decisive impact on the psychological approach to aesthetics later adopted by Mary and Bernard during their collaborations. In 1895, when Bernard was developing the concept of “tactile values,” Mary discussed this with the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who had married her sister Alys; Russell’s criticisms evidently led Bernard to study The Principles of Psychology. Bernard’s interest in psychology comes across already in some Harvard Monthly articles—such as a lengthy essay about Muhammed (cat. BB.IV.7)—as noted by Mario Casari in “Berenson and Islamic Culture: ‘Thought and Temperament’” (cat. BB.III.9).


In his Harvard fellowship application, Bernard informed the selection committee that, “I mean to learn to appreciate the Arabic classics so well, that my appreciation may tempt others” (cat. BB.II.3). A quarter-century later, Bernard’s fascination with non-European cultures, reflected in his focus at Harvard on the study of Arabic, Sanskrit, and Hebrew, would lead him to acquire non-Western art. He was among the first to exhibit masterpieces of Islamic and East Asian art side-byside with Italian Renaissance works and to compare them in his writings. At Harvard, however, Bernard seemed more interested in literature. Similarly, Mary wrote that she learned by heart The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám; her inscribed student copy is still at I Tatti. She read the translation by Edward Fitzgerald, who, Mary observed, tried “to give a sort of religious meaning to the old Persian’s praise of wine” (cat. MS.IV.2).


Both Mary and Bernard were also attentive to the visual arts, and independently they visited an exhibition at the Art Club in Boston of Elihu Vedder’s illustrations to the 1884 deluxe edition of Fitzgerald’s translation. Bernard commented on a recurring drawing of two interlocking spirals (fig. BH.I.3), in his Harvard Monthly essay about a different book, Gogol’s Revisor (cat. BB.IV.4). He admired "the strong, decided swirl, converging into a heavy, whirling point of involution, and emerging from that in ever broadening evolution. The symbol has numberless applications. Let us make use of it as a formulating and descriptive symbol of every artistic work in literature. An artistic literary work should be the whirl of involution of such a swirl. It should be the point of convergence and divergence for everything that bears upon the events and characters under consideration."


In time, and with the crucial assistance of Mary, Bernard would refine his convoluted prose. (An unsigned editorial in the Harvard Monthly [cat. BB.IV.23], presumably by Bernard, notes that "[t]he writing of English is hard, and a profusion of blunders may be collected from the books of the most successful writers.") Though the meaning of Bernard's comments about Vedder is not completely clear, it stands out as an early attempt by him to draw parallels between art and literature. The Vedder exhibition was not the only cultural event that both Bernard and Mary attended before the two ever met. In “Paths Intertwined: The 1884 Lowell Lecture and ‘The Sacred Word ‘Botticelli’” (cat. MS.III.6), Sanam Nader-Esfahani explores how both of the students went to hear Edmund Gosse (fig. CC.I.6) speak about English poetry. Mary later wrote that when Gosse “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!’”(cat. MS.IV.2)


Painting and sculpture provided these students with inspiration and metaphors. In 1888, when Bernard paid his first visit to Mary, she found him a “beautiful and mysterious youth … for whom nothing in the world existed except for a few lines of poetry which he held to be perfect, and the pictures and music he held to be beautiful” (cat. MS.IV.2). Four years earlier, in June 1884, Bernard looked back on his freshman year and wrote in his “Greek and Roman History” notebook (cat. BB.III.3), "Now that it is passed I look back upon it, reflect on its events. All that was rough, unpolished, angular, is fast disappearing, and already stands before me a marble group, grand, sublime, far surpassing any mark of Phidias or Praxitelles [sic]. Not a trace is left upon its clear sculpture. Not a trace is left of the toil and suffering it has taken to mold and finish this masterpiece."


At Harvard, both Bernard and Logan read Walter Pater, who had transformed Aestheticism into a new religion. But this worship of the “ideal of Beauty,” and the mantra “art for art’s sake,” made Bernard a heretic in the eyes of Charles Eliot Norton. The leading authority on campus for questions of culture, Norton probably recognized that Bernard, who had converted to Protestantism in 1885, did not join him in celebrating the morally uplifting qualities in Christian art. Nevertheless, as Bernard wrote in Sketch for a Self-Portrait (1949), Norton held “influence not only over the young, breezy and not always high-bred barbarians who already were snobbizing Harvard, but over the marginals like myself, on the ragged edge of the social body.”[8] Bernard’s Jewish, impoverished immigrant origins also kept him on the margins of Norton’s circle and distinguished him from nearly everyone at Harvard, especially his fellow students in art history courses. An exception of sorts, as Alice Parri observes in “Two Harvard Friends: Charles Loeser and George Santayana” (cat. BB.III.10), was Charles Loeser (fig. CC.I.9), later an important art collector in Florence. He was also from a Jewish, Eastern European family but an affluent one, and it was he, not Bernard, who joined the recently created Harvard Art Club.


Norton did not write Bernard a letter of recommendation for the Parker Fellowship, and modern-day scholars often assume that this omission proved decisive. The selection committee, however, did not see the applicant as a future scholar of art history, and may not have expected to hear from Norton. James was another prominent professor mentioned in the application who did not serve as referee. More problematic, perhaps, was Bernard’s proposal to use his grant money for long periods devoted to art appreciation, even though he wanted to become “a critic, or historian of literature.” The three professors who did submit letters (cat. BB.II.4) seem to have anticipated difficulties. David Lyon (fig. CC.I.10), professor of Hebrew, wrote that Bernard is “still very young, which perhaps accounts for an apparent change in the direction of his studies, from philological to literary … I regard him as a man of unusual ability and of brilliant promise.” For Adams Sherman Hill, professor of rhetoric, “Mr. Berenson is still immature, but he promises to attain distinction as a man of letters.” Crawford Howell Toy (fig. CC.I.15), professor of Arabic, referred to the “general, somewhat undefined character of his proposed work,” but “[m]y knowledge of Mr. Berenson leads me to believe that he would do something brilliant.”


Some low grades (cat. BB.II.2) did not help Bernard, who observed that in two required courses, physics and chemistry, “I gained no more glory than I meant to gain.” For a student of letters, the grades of 73 and 48 (out of 100) in those subjects may have been excusable, but a 67.5 in Latin was a more serious matter. These grades did not prevent Bernard from obtaining a diploma “cum laude” in June 1887 (cat. BB.II.5), but for undisclosed reasons, he was not offered a Parker Fellowship. In the end, Bernard obtained crucial financial assistance from another avid reader of Pater, Isabella Stewart Gardner (fig. CC.I.5), and from other well-heeled Bostonians, including Edward Warren (fig. CC.I.16). Bernard’s growing interest in the visual arts may have cost him a Harvard grant, but later led him to fame and riches.


The views expressed in Bernard’s Parker Fellowship application and early writings reveal the influence of the Aesthetic movement. This also imbues the 1898 essay Bernard co-authored with Mary and Logan about a utopian community called Altamura. In “Palaces Eternal and Serene: The Vision of Altamura and Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Fenway Court” (cat. BB.III.5), Robert Colby examines how the concept of Altamura took shape in the intellectual ferment of Boston. The philosophical ideas that inspired Altamura also had a profound and lasting impact on the donation that Bernard later made to Harvard. In his 1956 statement “On the Future of I Tatti,” Berenson expressed the desire that his estate be transformed into an “institute to promote aesthetical and humanistic rather than philological and antiquarian interests.” [10] Another passage perfectly expresses the spirit of Altamura, itself so indebted to Pater, “Our present western world is harassed, hustled and driven. It excludes leisure, tranquility, permits no unexciting pursuits, no contemplation, no slow maturing of ideas, no perfections of individual style. Therefore my first and foremost wish is to establish fellowships that will provide leisure and tranquility.”


Such sentiments were hardly new to Berenson. Already in a will dated 12 September 1928, Bernard specified that I Tatti should be “Headquarters for mature students intending to be scholars in Art who are eager and able to devote four or five years abroad in studying the artistic achievements of past epochs of Civilization, especially in Italy.” Berenson wanted them to “acquire a more complete understanding and appreciation of the human spirit and of the aesthetic genius as manifested in artistic creation and achievement.”[11] Bernard and Mary discussed these plans for decades, and references to the Harvard Center appear in letters they both wrote from at least the second decade of the twentieth century. In the preface to her 1933 book, A Modern Pilgrimage, Mary gave the first published expression of their goal. The celebrated library of I Tatti would be “for future students, who, as we hope, will benefit from the ‘Institute for Humanistic Studies’ which we mean to found under the auspices of our common university, Harvard.”[12]


A few years later, the Fiftieth Anniversary Report of the Harvard College Class of 1887 reported Bernard’s intentions for I Tatti, “I have built up an art library which 7 students declare to be one of the best known to them. This library, the villa just outside Florence, Italy, that houses it, and the rest of my estate I am leaving to Harvard University to serve as an institute for the study of the art of the Mediterranean world in all its phases.”[13]


The 50th anniversary of Bernard’s Harvard class may well have inspired him to create a curious postcard that combines two profile portraits, identified by the captions: “B.B. at 21/ Harvard 1887” and “B.B. at 71/ Settignano 1937” (fig. BB.I.2). At his home in Settignano, on the outskirts of Florence, Bernard celebrated his ties to Harvard with words and images. In 1961, two years after his death, and sixteen years after Mary’s, the first I Tatti Fellows arrived at “The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies.” In its 50th year of activity, the Center commemorates both Bernard and Mary with an online exhibition.


This essay is dedicated to the memory of Shona Kelly Wray, a Fellow at I Tatti during the Academic Year 2011–12.


Bibliograpy and Notes