After a decade together their ardor had cooled. It was then, in 1900, that Bernhard Berenson (he later dropped the "h" in his first name) and Mary Costelloe married, placing imprimatur on a symbiotic partnering that lasted until her death in 1945. The civil ceremony in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio united an unusual pair. He was a polylingual bon vivant; she spoke grade school Italian, which remained virtually unimproved throughout her 50+ years in Tuscany.
Art historian, critic, and, as he preferred, connoisseur, Berenson was a Lithuanian Jew who established an impressive reputation as an authority on Italian Renaissance painting. "The Drawings of the Florentine Painters" and "The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance" are among his better known works.
A widow with two children and also a writer, Mary was a Philadelphia Quaker who addressed her husband archaically. Reporting to him on their home's refurbishment, she wrote, "So thee sees the main things (except the electricity) are done." When construction went awry: "Thee wd. rage at the way the red fire-place is put up."
For Berenson, she was sometimes a catalyst, often a goad who collaborated with him on his written work, and patiently assisted in endlessly revising his lists of Italian paintings. They shared a penchant for extravagance, acquisition, and a tendency to overlook each other's infidelities.
In A Legacy Of Excellence William Weaver has rendered a graceful drawing of privileged turn-of-the-century life. His perspective is the Villa I Tatti in the vineyard strewn hills between Florence and Fiesole. Once the Berenson's home, it is now the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. Recent color pictures as well as archival photographs enhance this well documented history, while exquisite reproductions of Berenson's art collection add to its luster. When first leased by the Berensons, I Tatti was modest compared to its imposing villa neighbors. Previous tenants eschewed modern conveniences; there was only one bath, no electricity or telephone. Mary engaged 40 workmen to begin rudimentary improvements, hoping to provide Bernard with a salubrious atmosphere in which to study and collect. Apparently she succeeded. He amassed photographs and books - his Fototeca eventually held 300,000 items, his library 50,000 volumes. Works by Giotto, Sasseta, and Lorenzo Lotto were included in his art collection.
With an income derived largely from commissions on art sales, Berenson was employed by the English art dealer Lord Duveen to give his seal of approval to the Renaissance paintings Duveen sold to monied Americans, notably Frick, Kress, and Mellon.
Weaver, a thorough author as evidenced in Marino Marini, overlooks a significant aspect of Berenson's connoisseurship: the substantial sums he earned in the picture trade later brought Berenson's impartiality into question, resulting in the downgrading of many of his attributions.
Nonetheless, when the villa's 20th century owner, a wealthy English eccentric, died childless, the cash strapped Berensons obtained a loan to purchase the estate only through the intervention of an American friend.
Once they owned the villa, Mary engaged architects to plan further refurbishing, as well as the building of magnificent formal gardens. In years to come I Tatti would be visited by Edith Wharton, Walter Lippman, Yehudi Menuhin, Adlai Stevenson, Gertrude Stein, who, as Mary put it, swam in a nearby artificial lake "clothed only in her own fat," plus a host of that era's literati and glitterati.
Often separated during World War I, Mary stayed at the villa while Bernard worked and romanced in Paris, where he had become friends with Matisse, Gide and Proust.
Postwar unrest in Italy presaged the rise of fascism, which Bernard vehemently and vocally opposed. His stance caused him to be considered untrustworthy by many Italian intellectuals and some influential Americans. Expulsion from Italy seemed probable, but it did not occur.
In late summer of 1944 war again reached Florence. Bernard wrote in his diary, "Our hillside happens to lie between the principal line of German retreat along the Via Bolognese and a side road...We are at the heart of the German rearguard action, and seriously exposed." Miraculously the villa was unharmed by its German occupants.
While Mary wanted the villa and its 75 acres left to her children, Bernard was adamant that their beneficiary be his alma mater, Harvard University. Although Mary persistently derided his dream of "a lay monastery of leisurely culture" as "a wayside inn for loafing scholars," he bequeathed the villa and grounds, his library, and works of art to Harvard.
Initially, the University was somewhat daunted by his demanding bequest. Native Florentines viewed their new neighbors unenthusiastically, dismissing them as more "anglo-beceri" (becero literally meaning boor), as earlier Tuscan based English and American cliques were known. That was to change with the disastrous flooding of 1966.
Members of the national and international art communities selflessly responded when an irreplaceable portion of the world's art history was jeopardized. I Tatti became a focal point of that aid. Art experts performed herculean salvaging tasks - delicate glass negatives from the Uffizi's Gabinetto Fotografico had to be rescued from the muck. It took over a week for the 30,000 slides to be bathed then laid out to dry.
An air-lift of enormous drying-machines organized by Harvard's Renaissance art historian saved countless books and documents from the Biblioteca Nazionale. I Tatti housed as many art experts as possible; others were guests only long enough for a hot bath.
The Center's dedication to minimizing the flood's devastation altered its image in the minds of many Florentines who had previously viewed it with a shrug. Strangers became colleagues and friends. Today, fifteen students are nominated annually to study at I Tatti, while according to a stipulation in Bernard's will, the library is open free of charge "for all students of Italy and other countries." Scholars from dissimilar backgrounds walk together along impeccably raked gravel paths, where they "speak the same language; the language of the Italian Renaissance." Bernard Berenson's dream came true.