345 The transparent connoisseur 4: a Berenson scorecard

A magnificent new catalogue has been published on the Bernard and Mary Berenson collection at I Tatti. Schwartz uses it to test the sustainability of the Berensons’ attributions of paintings for which they put down cash on the barrelhead. The results are disenchanting. Only one of eighty-seven relevant entries is an original Berenson attribution that is still accepted.

For a man whose name was synonymous with connoisseurship itself for most of the twentieth century, Bernard Berenson did not have a very good idea who painted the early Italian paintings in his own collection. This is the conclusion I arrived at after analyzing the relevant information in the wonderful new catalogue, The Bernard and Mary Berenson collection of European art at I Tatti by Carl Brandon Strehlke and Machtelt Brüggen Israëls. (The superior captions below are from the catalogue.)

As comprehensive as it is, devoting more than 800 pages to a not very large collection, there was nonetheless one thing I missed in the catalogue. At the end of a review on the book that I wrote on amazon.com, I made this observation: “The basis for Berenson’s ‘authority and influence’ [Mary Berenson’s phrase] was his connoisseurship, the bestowal of names on paintings whose authorship is not apparent. The catalogue is sprinkled with remarks about Berenson’s attributions of his own paintings, which were often inaccurate, to the point that he bought a number of outright forgeries – catalogued separately and illuminatingly. I would have liked to have seen these observations collected and analyzed, as material for testing Berenson’s judgments.”

Out of compelling curiosity and the apparent need to kill some time, I took it upon myself to collate and analyze the Berensons’ attributions of the old Italian paintings still in the collection, comparing them to the attributions under which they were bought and those of the present-day cataloguers. (I say Berensons in the plural because Mary was a full if unacknowledged partner in what the two of them called “connoshing.”) The listing on which I am reporting does not include nearly a hundred other paintings that were once owned by but later sold by the Berensons; they are catalogued succinctly by Strehlke and Israëls in entries that necessarily lack the precious wealth of information they provide on the paintings still in I Tatti.

The sample is limited to, but comprehensive for, paintings concerning which Berenson published an attribution. In itself, it deserves comment that Berenson published, in his prestigious “lists” and articles, eighty-seven of the ninety-eight early Italian paintings or ensembles (some entries deal with more than a single painting) in his collection. This lent the paintings and their attributions credibility not all of them would otherwise have attained. The conflict of interest this brings about between the disinterested critic and the financially involved owner may have disturbed some sticklers, but it did not faze Berenson or his publishers. See below.

345 Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo

Gianfranceso da Tolmezzo (ca. 1450/1460-1511), Predella panel: Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1480 (?)
Oil (?) and gold on poplar (?) panel with horizontal grain, 17.0 x 36.4 x approx. 1.5 cm; approx. 15.4 x 35.2 cm (painted surface)
I Tatti, Bernard and Mary Berenson Collection, cat. nr. 42

To duck to the bottom line, there turns out to be only one painting in the collection that bears an indisputably original attribution by Berenson that is accepted in Strehlke and Israëls. That is a modest predella panel of the Adoration of the Magi by the Friulian painter Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo. Even that attribution is handled with kid gloves by the author of the entry on it, Antonio Mazzotta. He expresses the reservation that Gianfrancesco’s secure works are all frescoes, so that attributing a panel painting in oil to him carries a measure of doubt.

True, there are forty-five other paintings in the collection that are catalogued under the same attribution as Berenson’s. However, thirty-eight of them were acquired under the name later recognized by BB and the cataloguers. There was no serious doubt about these attributions before or after they entered the Berenson collection. Another four are near misses: two that were regarded by BB as works by a master, which Strehlke and Israëls now give to the studio of the same; and two which BB defined correctly but generically and for which a name has now been found.

That leaves three corresponding attributions. Two of these, to Domenico Veneziano and Liberale da Verona, were revised opinions arrived at after BB had first published the paintings under different names. It is to his credit that he was willing, however seldom, to change his mind. But…, big but. He justified these two revisions not as changes of mind but as returns to ideas that were his all along.  My own feeling is that he reversed himself in print only after others doubted his first publication. He found himself forced to agree with them, though not to the point that he would credit their judgments over his own. This removes them from the category of original Berenson attributions. (Concerning the painting now published as by Liberale da Verona, Berenson attributed it in 1968 to “Girolamo da Cremona, Liberale or Francesco di Giorgio” – not really the same thing as Keith Christiansen’s more decided attribution to Liberale.) After these eliminations, the Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo stands alone.

345 Castello Master Madonna

Attributed to the Master of the Castello Nativity, Virgin and child in a landscape, ca. 1445-1450
Egg tempera and tooled gold on poplar panel with vertical grain, 66.6 x 44.7 x 2.8 cm; 64.4 x 41.0 cm (painted surface)
I Tatti, Bernard and Mary Berenson Collection, cat. nr. 59

Over and against the forty-five attributions currently still credited, there are forty-two that have fallen by the wayside. Twenty-six are paintings for which Berenson adopted a received opinion that no longer carries credence. This includes nine paintings now downgraded from works by a master to workshop productions. And finally there are sixteen works to which Berenson attached new attributions of his own that have now been discarded. A borderline case is formed by a Virgin and child in a landscape that Berenson assigned to an artist whose name he invented: the Master of the Castello Nativity. It is now catalogued as “Attributed to the Master of the Castello Nativity,” but in his entry on the painting Carl Brandon Strehlke shows himself plainly skeptical about this proposition.

345 Michele da Verona Lamentation

Michele da Verona (1470-1536/1537), Lamentation, ca. 1505
Oil on fir panel with vertical grain, 59.7 x 48.2 x 0.8 cm
I Tatti, Bernard and Mary Berenson Collection, cat. nr. 70

Some of the misattributions, perhaps the half, are the kind of honest mistakes that could be made by any expert, or that were due to lack of information that was not found until later in time. Still, quotidian lapses of this kind do not fit the image of someone who swore, under oath: “When I see a picture, in most cases I recognize it at once as being or not being by the master it is ascribed to.” Others of his errors are less innocuous. In 1916 the Berensons bought as “Scuola belliniana” a Lamentation that Bernard published time and again, down to 1957, as an original creation by Giovanni Bellini, one of the greatest names in European art. He did so even after having commissioned a post-war restoration so aggressive that “at first glance, it would hardly seem that under the twentieth-century modifications is an old picture” and following the correct appraisal of Luitpold Dussler in 1949 that it was “a modest work with echoes of Bellini.” The new catalogue confirms the attribution to Michele da Verona first proposed in 1964 by Fritz Heinemann.

These findings raise a number of questions, to which I am not too embarrassed to suggest answers.

Q. How does Berenson’s poor record in attributing his own paintings compare to his overall success as a connoisseur?
A. It can only have been worse. One convincing new attribution for eighty-seven paintings would not even be acceptable for a tyro. Whether any research has been conducted on the sustainability of Berenson’s attributions in general I do not know, but it must be better than that.

345 Gentile da Fabriano Apostles

Gentile da Fabriano (ca. 1375-1427), Pilaster panels of the Sandei Altarpiece, 1408(?)
St. Peter: 23.4 x 8.7 x 6.4 cm (painted surface)
St. James the Great: 23.0 x 8.7 x 0.4 cm (painted surface)
I Tatti, Bernard and Mary Berenson Collection, cat. nr. 38

Q. When BB’s opinion differs from those of the present cataloguers, does it tend in a particular direction?
A. Indeed it does. Nearly invariably, it assigns the paintings to better and more valuable artists. The only exception is formed by two panels of St. Peter and St. James the Great that Berenson bought as and published as by Stefano da Zevio, although they had previously been given to Gentile da Fabriano, an attribution that has now been adopted and confirmed with impressive documentary and physical evidence.

Q. Was Berenson deliberately upgrading his paintings out of mendacity and contempt for whatever ethics can be said to exist for art scholarship?
A. Perhaps, but not necessarily. Berenson may well have been unaware of the unconscious and probably unavoidable psychological forces at play. It’s just that much easier to convince yourself of something if it benefits you than when it damages you.

Q. Is Berenson’s scorecard interesting as an indicative case for connoisseurship itself?
A. Yes, it is. The personal interest of a connoisseur in an object need not be limited to financial value. There are issues of reputation, solidarity with a colleague, professional rivalry, friendship with a collector, attachment to a museum – you name it – that could further self-deception and should always be taken in consideration in judging an attribution, but never are.

© Gary Schwartz 2016. Published on the Schwartzlist on 28 March 2016.

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The launching of my book Jheronimus Bosch: the road to heaven and hell has been swamped in the press and media by the front-page news concerning the sold-out exhibition in the Noordbrabants Museum and the revelations of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, not to mention the competing new and – mainly – reprinted older books on the master. Still, the Dutch edition is selling well, and I am confident that the English and Czech editions will also reach the audience for which I wrote it. I have enjoyed giving lectures on Bosch at bookshops in Haarlem, Den Bosch and Utrecht, at the Bucerius Forum in Hamburg, and am looking forward to speaking on him on 8 April at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum in Münster.

Following the lecture in Münster I am going in for hip replacement surgery on 12 April. Everyone tells me this is a terrific operation that is praised to the skies by everyone who has taken it. I would say they thank God on their bended knees, but that movement is one of the many that are forbidden for a good long period after the operation. I hope that my habital slouching position at the keyboard is not among them, but I fear the worst.


For those interested in checking my analysis of the Berenson attributions of his own paintings, here is the table on which it is based.

The five columns:

1 Catalogue number

2 The name by which the painting was known when the Berensons bought it and the date of acquisition. The name upon purchase was not always recorded. In the absence of contrary information, I assume that the name under which a painting was first insured or annotated by the new owners was that under which they acquired it. These names are in square brackets.

3 The artist to whom the painting was attributed by Berenson in print, with date.

4 The attribution in the new catalogue.

5 A letter for the category into which a Berenson attribution falls.

The letters in the fifth column stand for:

A (38) = Attribution unchanged by Berenson, accepted in the present catalogue. This includes a few paintings that were reattributed by others after the Berensons bought them and whose opinions were accepted by Berenson and the present cataloguers.

B (26) = Attribution unchanged by Berenson, no longer credited.

C (3) = A new attribution proposed by Berenson, still accepted today.

C- (4) = A near miss, in which Berenson’s proposals formed a basis for but differs from current opinion.

D (16) = New attributions proposed by Berenson, no longer accepted.

Plate Bought as BB attribution Current attribution
9 [Marco Bello] (1923>) Marco Bello (1957) Marco Bello A
10 Benvenuto di Giovanni (1909) Benvenuto di Giovanni (1931) Benvenuto di Giovanni A
11 [Bergognone] (<1914) Bergognone (1932) Bergognone A
12 [Bergognone] (1953>) Bergognone (1968) Bergognone A
14 [Giovanni Boccati] (1903) Giovanni Boccati (1909) Giovanni Boccati A
15 [Benedetto Bonfigli] (1910) Benedetto Bonfigli (1932) Benedetto Bonfigli A
16 Bonifacio de’ Pitati (1901) Bonifacio (1895) Bonifacio A
17 Paris Bordon (1911) Paris Bordon (1932) Paris Bordon A
24 Cima da Conegliano (1909) Cima da Conegliano (1932) Cima da Conegliano A
28 [Bernardo Daddi] (ca. 1895) Bernardo Daddi (1932) Bernardo Daddi A
29 Bernardo Daddi (ca. 1910) Bernardo Daddi (1913) Bernardo Daddi A
33 Vincenzo Foppa (1909) Vincenzo Foppa (1907) Vincenzo Foppa A
34 Vincenzo Foppa (1909) Vincenzo Foppa (1932) Vincenzo Foppa A
37 Bernardino Fugai (<1909) Bernardino Fugai (1909) Bernardino Fugai A
39 [Gentile da Fabriano] (<1907) Gentile da Fabriano (1909) Gentile da Fabriano A
41 Michele Giambono (1899) Giambono (1895) Giambono A
43 [Giotto] (<1912) Giotto (1932) Giotto A
44 Giotto (1911) Studio of Giotto (1932) Giotto and workshop A
46 [Girolamo di Benvenuto] (1911) Girolamo di Benvenuto (1932) Girolamo di Benvenuto A
47 [Francesco Granacci] (<1908) Francesco Granacci (1932) Francesco Granacci A
48 [Jacobello del Fiore] (<1915) Jacobello del Fiore (1932) Jacobello del Fiore A
53 Lippo Memmi (1903) Pietro Lorenzetti (1932) Pietro Lorenzetti A
54 Follower of Pietro Lorenzetti (1902) Close follower of Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1932) Attributed to Pietro Lorenzetti A
55 Lorenzo Monaco (<1912) Lorenzo Monaco (1932) Lorenzo Monaco A
56 Lorenzo Monaco (1909) Lorenzo Monaco (1909) Lorenzo Monaco A
57 Lorenzo Lotto (1953-1954) Lorenzo Lotto (1895) Lorenzo Lotto A
65 Bartolommeo Vivarini (1907) Matteo di Giovanni (1932) Matteo di Giovanni A
75 [Neri di Bicci] (1901) Neri di Bicci (1932) Neri di Bicci A
76 [Neri di Bicci] (1924) Neri di Bicci (1923) Neri di Bicci A
78 Neroccio di Landi (1911) Neroccio (1932) Neroccio A
79 Neroccio (1899) Neroccio (1909) Neroccio A
92 [School of Sano di Pietro] (<1908) Sano di Pietro (1932) Sano di Pietro A
93 [Sano di Pietro] (<1913) Sano di Pietro (1932) Sano di Pietro A
94 Sassetta (1900) Sassetta (1903) Sassetta A
96 Signorelli (ca. 1909) Signorelli (1932) Luca Signorelli A
98 [Taddeo di Bartolo] (<1908) Taddeo di Bartolo (1909) Taddeo di Bartolo with assistance A
99 [Andrea Vanni] (<1903) Andrea Vanni (1909) Taddeo di Bartolo with assistance A
102 Vecchietta (1908) Vecchietta, studio (1968) Vecchietta A
1 Francesco di Gentile (1911) Francesco di Gentile (1913) Attributed to Niccolò Alunno B
6 [Bachiacca] (<1915) Bachiacca (1932) Workshop of Bachiacca B
8 Giovanni Bellini (1909) Giovanni Bellini (1932) Workshop of Giovanni Bellini B
18 Boccatis de Camerino (1911) Boccati (1917) Francesco Botticini B
19 Andrea del Brescianino (<1909) Andrea del Brescianino (1909) Attributed to Raffaello del Brescianino B
22 [Barna] (<1910) Barna (1913) Bartolomeo Bulgarini or workshop B
23 [Leonardo Scaletti] (<1915) Leonardo Scaletti (1932) Antonio Cicognara B
25 Ercole De Roberti (1922) Ercole De Roberti (1932) Lorenzo Costa B
35 Vincenzo Foppa (<1903) Vincenzo Foppa (1907) Workshop of Vincenzo Foppa B
36 Francesco di Giorgio (1910) Francesco di Giorgio (1932) Francesco di Giorgio and workshop B
38 Stefano da Zevio (1906) Stefano da Zevio (1907) Gentile da Fabriano B
45 [Giovanni di Paolo] (<1912) Giovanni di Paolo (1932) Giovanni di Paolo and workshop B
64 Follower of Giotto (1910) Close to Giotto (1931-32) Master of the Spinola Annunciation B
66 [Guidoccio Cozzarelli] (1899) Guidoccio Cozzarelli (1909) Matteo di Giovanni and workshop B
67 [Matteo di Giovanni] (<1906) Matteo di Giovanni (1909) Matteo di Giovanni and workshop B
69 [Lippo Memmi] (1910) Lippo Memmi (1932) Attributed to Lippo and Tederigo Memmi B
71 [Francesco Bonsignori] (1912) Francesco Bonsignori (1932) Workshop of Michele da Verona B
73 Domenico Morone (<1912) Domenico Morone (1925) Workshop of Domenico Morone B
81 [Lorenzo Lotto] (<1912) Lorenzo Lotto (1932); Close to Lotto (1955) Tonino Novaero B
82 [Matteo Balducci] (<1909) Matteo Balducci (1909) Giacomo Pacchiarotti B
84 [Pietro Alemanno] (<1912) Pietro Alemanno (1932) Michele Pannonio B
85 Sebastiano del Piombo (<1908) Sebastiano del Piombo (1932) Copy after Parmigianino B
88 Giovanni da Milano (1932) Giovanni da Milano (1932) Puccio de Simone B
101 [Segna di Bonaventura] (<1910) Segna di Bonaventura (1932) Ugolino di Nerio B
104 [Sassetta] (<1903) Sassetta (1903); *Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio (1932) Jacopo Zabolino B
108 [Andrea Vanni] (ca. 1915) Andrea Vanni (1909) Sienese school B
31 Piero della Francesca (1900) Alesso Baldovinetti (1900); Domenico Veneziano (1932) Domenico Veneziano C
42 [Ferrarese]  (<1912) Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo (1957) Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo C
50 –          (<1910) Francesco di Giorgio (1932); Girolamo da Cremona, Liberale or Francesco di Giorgio (1968) Liberale da Verona C
21 –          (<1908) Close follower of Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1936) Bartolomeo Bulgarini C-
32 –          (1910) Paolo di Giovanni Fei (1932) Paolo di Giovanni Fei and workshop C-
74 [Orcagna novice] (<1907) Andrea di Orcagna and his brothers (1909); Nardo di Cione (1932) Workshop of the Cione C-
80 –          (1901) Close follower of Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti (1932) Niccolò di Segna C-
2 School of Orcagna (1911) Jacopo di Cione (1932) Andrea di Bonaiuto D
5 [Compagno di Pesellino] (<1915) Pesellino (1932) Workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni and Marco del Buono D
7 –          (<1942) Jacopo Bellini (1957) Gentile Bellini (?) D
13 –          (<1928) Andrea del Castagno (1936) Biagio d’Antonio D
20 –          (1910) Ugolino Lorenzetti (1917-1918) Bartolomeo Bulgarini D
26 [Ercole Grandi]  (<1915) Ortolano (1932) Lorenzo Costa and workshop D
27 Orcagna (<1915) Nardo di Cione (1963) Giovanni di Bartolomeo Cristiani D
40 –          (1915>) Perugino (1968) Attributed to Gerino da Pistoia D
58 Gentile da Fabriano (<1909) Gentile da Fabriano (1909); Jacobello del Fiore (1957) Marco di Paolo Veneziano D
59 –          (1910) Master of the Castello Nativity (1913) Attributed to the Master of the Castello Nativity D
61 –          (ca. 1912) Nicola Giolfino (1907) Master of the Lanckoronski Orpheus D
62 [Antonio da Viterbo] (<1915) Pastura (1932) Master of the Madonna of Orte D
68 [Area of Massa Marittima] (Grossetto) (1899) Simone Martini (1909) Associate of Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi D
70 Scuola belliniana (1916) Giovanni Bellini (1932) Michele da Verona D
91 –          (1912) Sassetta (1904); Osservanza Master (1968) Sano di Pietro D
103 –          (1909) Ercole de Roberti (1907) “Vicino da Ferrara” D

2 thoughts on “345 The transparent connoisseur 4: a Berenson scorecard”

  1. Gary, you are ohne of the few who can be sharp and gentle at the same time. Good luck on April 12!

  2. Gary:
    Thank you for a very thoughtful review of the Berenson exhibition and catalogue.
    To get to a specific and important qualification of your judgment in assessing the Berenson collection. Namely:
    ” 2. The name by which the painting was known when the Berensons bought it and the date of acquisition. The name upon purchase was not always recorded. In the absence of contrary information, I assume that the name under which a painting was first insured or annotated by the new owners was that under which they acquired it. These names are in square brackets.”……
    I strongly doubt your assumption that the Berensons purchased previously identified works. BB was the connoisseur to whom the dealers and collectors turned to for identification of these extremely difficult to judge, and usually esoteric, 15th-16th century Italian paintings. Most often, I feel certain, many paintings were unidentified or misidentified and purchased in the “art market” for a song–as has happened in my personal experience finding, purchasing, researching, attributing or authenticating “lost art” over some forty years; a somewhat quixotic pursuit of an outlier in the eyes of many, yet, ultimately, resulting in many successful museum placements. Even if previously attributed, it took BB’s pursuit of connoisseurship to find the evidence to authenticate the work and give it scholarly stature. My general reckoning of BB’s success in attribution and authentication is something like 70% correct, 30% possibly needing revision, and not a fake in the bunch. It takes independent art historian-connoisseurs, like BB, to give the profession the healthy gene-pool it must have to survive in an otherwise inbred and orthodox congregation of those who minimize the importance and practice of connoisseurship.
    The methodology and the pursuit of connoisseurship has not, in the end, been a quick study for me as a generalist. Intuition and the educated eye may suggest the answer, but much work lies ahead if one is to be rigorously certain. Original attributions by a connoisseur like BB—in essence, a standing authentication until evidence proves otherwise—and especially those attributions which are to be published, required lengthy and repeated study of signature comparative details, compared and contrasted with the many stylistically related, vaguely attributed, works of the shadowy period BB investigated. I would think BB surely did not rush to publish, quite the contrary. Once he did publish, however, he delighted the reader with fine and succinct writing, which is not done in a hurry either.

    Fred R. Kline, M.A.
    Independent Art Historian, Santa Fe, NM
    (Note: Kline’s new memoir, “Leonardo’s Holy Child—The Discovery of a Leonardo da Vinci Masterpiece: A Connoisseur’s Search for Lost Art in America”, will be published May 2016 by Pegasus Books, NY)

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