Katherine Dunham and Bernard Berenson

It had been a kind of liberation, of both mind and desire, that Berenson had discovered in reading the works of Walter Pater and in beginning to study the paintings of the Italian Renaissance, and this still rang through to his visitors seventy years later. Lewis Mumford wrote to Berenson of a visit in 1957, “To behold your own spirit burning so purely and brightly still, gave a new meaning to Pater’s old figure: ‘a hard gem-like flame.’”


With Katherine Dunham, the African American anthropologist, choreographer,and dancer, Berenson had a sort of platonic love affair when he was just shy of ninety. He wrote that Dunham “is herself a work of art, a fanciful arabesque in all her movements and a joy to the eye in colour.” She from the first felt in him the “vitality, charm, and wisdom that are found only in truly great people” and would eventually write to him, “I left a part of myself that is deep and inner with you.”

Rachel,Cohen. Bernard Berenson (Jewish Lives)  Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Jacquie and Lee Bouvier meet Bernard Berenson in Florence in 1951

This is just something I never would have believed had happened, but it apparently did. It is discussed in a very interesting book on Berenson by Rachel Cohen, which I quote below. Lee Radziwill left her impression of the sophisticated but very much older Berenson:

“Nicky Mariano [Berenson’s amour and assistant) was sometimes jealous…of Berenson’s flirtations and affairs and of the great many women who made up what she called ‘B.B.’s Orchestra.’ “

In fact, as he aged, Berenson’s seductive power became somewhat legendary. Lee Radziwill (Lee Bouvier when she visited Berenson in 1951 with her sister, who became Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) still thought of Berenson as “one of the most fascinating men I ever knew,” sixty years later. She compared his powerful appeal to Jawaharlal Nehru’s: they were “seductive mentally, rather than physically.”


Berenson’s catalog of mistresses and of epistolary romances, like all his other collections, was exhaustive. He had first found both sexual tolerance and a large network of youthful romantic friendships with women and men in bohemian and Edwardian circles, and among the expatriates in Italy.


In the years of his maturity, he found a similar atmosphere among his mistresses and flirtations in the aristocratic milieu of the European art world. Berenson adored, and was adored by, titled women, and he was interested in beauty wherever he saw it. Attractive young women who visited I Tatti were regularly surprised by his physical attentions.

After WWII…Berenson nce again he appeared to be a magician. There were those who found his presence staged, but others felt that even to be near him was a magical experience.

The young sisters who became Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill wrote to their mother of visiting Berenson in the summer of 1951 and of how they saw him approaching through the woods at I Tatti. Berenson sat down and immediately began to speak to them of love, distinguishing between people who are “life-enhancing” and “life-diminishing.”

“He is a kind of god like creature,” they wrote. “He is such a genius, such a philosopher, such a pillar of strength and sensitivity, and such a lover of all things. He is a man whose life in beauty is unsurpassable.”

Rachel,Cohen. Bernard Berenson (Jewish Lives)  Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.


A woman’s voice…better late than never: Zora Neale Hurston

Cudjo Lewis was getting old, and Zora Neale Hurston had something to prove.


Hurston, pictured above, was the prolific African American author best known for “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” She was just starting her career in 1928 when she traveled down to Plateau, Ala., to meet with Lewis. The man was in his 80s. He was widely believed to be the last African man alive who had been kidnapped from his village, shackled in the cargo of a ship and forced into slavery in America. Hurston, competing with other anthropologists of the day, set out to document his life more thoroughly than the rest.



Art is a part of daily life in Italy

Italy was a place where art was part of daily routine. It was in the fabric and facades of the buildings and in the way towns and villages.  Aestheticism was instinctive, a common trait, as if it were one of the senses. Artfulness was ubiquitous, from the wrapping of one’s purchases in a shop to the arrangement of food on a plate.

The most common word in the language appeared to be bella, which prefixed everything from the morning espresso to the design of a dress. Great effort – and great importance – was placed on how things looked. Tuscany’s landscape was the ultimate expression of this. It was the view that travellers dreamt of, composed who knew how by diverse hands over centuries.

It even smelled wonderful, of clean air and woodsmoke, of rosemary and new leather, of frying garlic and pungent parmigiano.

Taylor, Alan F.. Appointment in Arezzo: My Life with Muriel Spark (Kindle Locations 859-865). Birlinn Ltd. Kindle Edition.