Berenson, Mary (1864–1944)

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Berenson, Mary (1864–1944)

American art expert who married Renaissance art scholar Bernard Berenson. Name variations: (pseudonym) Mary Logan. Born Mary Smith in 1864 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died in Italy in 1944; daughter and one of three children of Hannah (Whitall) Smith (1832–1911) and Robert Smith (a preacher); sister of Alys Smith Russell (first wife of Bertrand Russell); attended Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts and Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College), Cambridge, Massachusetts; married Frank Costelloe (a London barrister) on September 3, 1885, in England (died, 1899); married Bernard Berenson, on December 29, 1900, in Italy; children: (first marriage) two daughters, Ray Costelloe Strachey (1887–1940) and Karin Costelloe (who married Adrian Stephen, brother ofVirginia Woolf ).

Mary Berenson's 50-year union with renowned art scholar Bernard Berenson was a tumultuous one, played out on the culturally refined stage of the turn-of-the-century art world. Their villa, I Tatti, northeast of Florence, was visited by some of the most celebrated personalities of the period, including Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Gabriele D'Annunzio , John Maynard Keynes, and Isabella Gardner . An invaluable partner to her husband, both in his business ventures and as the editor of almost all his writings, Mary Berenson also became an art expert in her own right.

The daughter of wealthy Quaker parents, Mary was married with two small children when she met and fell in love with the charismatic Bernard Berenson, who embodied the culture and brilliance she found lacking in her husband Frank Costelloe, a London barrister whom she had met while attending Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College). Though she had already separated from Costelloe in 1892, he would not agree to divorce and demanded custody of their daughters so he could supervise their Catholic education. Undaunted, Mary followed Bernard to Florence, ignoring the ensuing scandal and the outrage of her mother Hannah (Whitall) Smith . The early years of the affair were troubled by Berenson's conflict over her family responsibilities, especially her children, whom she loved dearly but could not tolerate having underfoot. (She would begin to take a real interest in the girls when they were in their teens.) After Costelloe's death in 1899, Mary and Bernard married, and, having spent years living in separate residences, set up housekeeping at I Tatti. The children were placed under the guardianship of Mary Berenson's mother.

By this time, Berenson had established her own reputation as an art critic with the publication of her Guide to the Italian Pictures at Hampton Court (1894) and various other magazine articles and reviews. As Costelloe had objected to her using his name, she had written under the name Mary Logan. Bernard's successful book Venetian Painters of the Renaissance had also been favorably received, leading to a renewed acquaintance with art collector Isabella Gardner, who requested Bernard's help in assembling pictures for her Boston palace, Fenway Court. The resulting 30-year partnership with Gardner, as well as with the London-based Duveen Brothers, was highly profitable and made possible the extravagant lifestyle the Berensons enjoyed.

Between their business ventures, travel, and writing, the Berensons found time to torture one another with flirtations and love affairs. Before their marriage, Mary had dallied with the sculptor and artisan Hermann Obrist, and had flirted mildly with Bertrand Russell, who was engaged to her sister Alys at the time. Beginning in 1906, Mary had an ongoing relationship with Geoffrey Scott, the handsome and somewhat neurotic nephew of C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian. Bernard, in what seemed to be a retaliatory move, fell passionately in love with Belle da Costa Greene , librarian to Pierpont Morgan, whom he had met in New York. She was but one of many women he would be involved with over the years.

With a variety of notable business associations and a steady stream of visitors to I Tatti, Mary Berenson was personally acquainted with a number of the more colorful personalities of her day, as is revealed in her letters and diary entries. In a letter to her family dated November 7, 1907, she recounts the visit of theatrical designer, producer, and director Gordon Craig (son of actress Ellen Terry ), who arrived for dinner in an inappropriate open shirt and sandals and expounded on his offbeat ideas for the theatre: "He says the only thing is to banish actors and especially actresses from the boards, and substitute cubes of various sizes, which move by machinery and are lighted in various complicated ways." Author Edith Wharton, despite a poor first impression, eventually became a close friend. Berenson wrote her family: "She is heavy-handed, but when you like her it becomes rather endearing. I think she is a very good friend to her friends."

In 1918, when Bernard became involved with Baroness Gabrielle La Caze , a French art collector and traveler, Mary lapsed into a depression (mood swings were inherited from her father's side of the family and also plagued her sister Alys and daughter Karin) and succumbed to a succession of painful illnesses that, though some have speculated were psychosomatic, were also due to persistent and debilitating cystitis.

During the 1920s, the couple experienced new conflicts over money. Mary was bitter over Bernard's arrangement to leave his fortune to Harvard University, instead of his heirs, and increasingly felt that she should receive a proportion of Bernard's earnings in return for her work for him. Bernard adamantly disapproved of the way she handled money and was especially critical of the expensive gifts she showered upon her children and grandchildren.

By 1927, Berenson found entertaining tedious and left more and more of the hostessing to Nicky (Elizabeth) Mariano , who had been hired as the couple's librarian. (Mariano would also enter into a love relationship with Bernard.) But traveling still intrigued Berenson and, buoyed by her trip with Bernard to Egypt in 1921 to study what was to them a new and fascinating art, they undertook visits to the more remote areas of Turkey, Palestine, Syria, and North Africa. Berenson took great pleasure in writing of her experiences and chronicled her travels in Palestine and Syria in her one and only book, A Modern Pilgrimage, which would be published in 1933.

By 1931, the American stock-market crash had taken its toll, and the Berensons were forced to drastically cut their lavish expenditures. During that year, Mary's health deteriorated and she underwent an operation to try to end her nagging cystitis. Following surgery, a fever nearly killed her. Never fully recovered, she became largely invalided by 1935. Her relationship with Bernard mellowed somewhat during this period, and three winters with her new great-grandson in residence provided some relief.

In the turbulent days leading up to World War II, the Berensons decided to remain in Italy. In 1940, though it became difficult for the Berensons to get news of family outside Italy, Berenson was shattered to learn from the Red Cross that her daughter Ray Strachey had died of heart failure during an unexpected operation. When Germany took over Italy in 1943, Bernard, now very much in danger as a Jew, fled the villa, accompanied by Nicky Mariano, for the home of a friend in Florence. Mary, too ill to be moved, remained at I Tatti under the care of Mariano's sister. In February 1944, suffering almost constant pain, she wrote to Mariano, giving her permission to marry Bernard after her death. She added that she was glad Bernard could not see her in such pain and weakness. "I love to think how in spite of all our failings and so-called infidelities we have always stuck together and stuck to Italy," she wrote, "and when I am able to think at all I think of him with tender affection."

Following Mary Berenson's death in the spring of 1944, she was laid to rest in a little chapel just outside I Tatti. Bernard, who lived on into his 90s, enjoyed a remarkably productive period, publishing three volumes of diaries, books on aesthetics, art history, travel, and autobiography. Nicky Mariano remained his adoring companion but declined his marriage proposal. Upon Bernard's death in 1959, the villa went to Harvard University, which expanded the property and established the Harvard University Center for Renaissance Studies and an extensive library on the site.

suggested reading:

Strachey, Barbara, and Jayne Samuels, eds. Mary Berenson: A Self-Portrait from Her Diaries and Letters. NY: W.W. Norton, 1983.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Berenson, Mary (1864–1944)

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