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From the archives: Florence, celebrated as the cradle of the Renaissance in a show at the Palazzo Strozzi, has been lauded over the centuries by historians from Vasari to Berenson. The latter's partisan influence was noted by Alexander Watt in January 1950.

Earlier this year, Alasdair Palmer wrote enthusiastically in the Spectator about the recently restored 15th-century frescoes in the Rocca di Vignola, a castle equidistant between Modena and Bologna. According to the author, the frescoes provide evidence that at the time of their creation there were artists working elsewhere in Italy as good as those in Tuscany. To art historians such a pronouncement will hardly come as a revelation, although they might balk at Palmer's proposal that Cosme Tura and Ercole de' Roberti were 'the equals of Tuscan contemporaries such as Paolo Uccello, Filippo Lippi and Sandro Botticelli.' Palmer, both in February's Spectator and in other publications, has proposed that the person responsible for our failure to appreciate the merit of non-Florentine Renaissance art is Giorgio Vasari. His 1550 publication Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects unquestionably displays a bias in favour of Florence, but one ought not to credit him with too much authority. Consulting Vasari on art history would be like turning to Baldassare Castiglione for advice on good manners or to Niccolo Machiavelli for tips on statesmanship. Nevertheless, I assume Palmer will not be rushing to see an exhibition which opened last month at the Palazzo Strozzi ('The Springtime of the Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence 1400-1460'; until 18 August). The show features material not dissimilar to that found in an exhibition held in 1949 at the same museum to mark the quincentenary of the birth of Lorenzo de' Medici. This was the subject of a review by Alexander Watt in the January 1950 issue of Apollo. Curiously, in the course of his piece Watt does not mention Vasari but on a number of occasions he references someone who, pace Alasdair Palmer, could be said more than anybody else to have influenced our present idolisation of Tuscan Renaissance art: Bernard Berenson.

Today Berenson, the once celebrated 'sage of I Tatti', is not held in the same esteem he enjoyed during his long lifetime. Nor is he much read: writing in the New Criterion in March 1987, Michael M. Thomas wittily described Berenson's prose as being 'a combination of Pater and Patience'. Since his death in 1959 there have been successive revelations concerning Berenson's social climbing, his determination to conceal his Jewish origins and, above all, his mercantile association with that grubbiest but most successful of art dealers, Joseph Duveen. Yet these frailties should not blind us to Berenson's substantial and enduring achievements, not least of which was the lauding of Florentine painters above all others. Just as Ruskin inspired generations to revere the stones of Venice, so Berenson helped to spur a cult of painting in Florence, especially that of the 15th century.

In the eyes of his detractors, Berenson's greatest fault was misattribution which, it is assumed, invariably arose from a need to satisfy the demands of his financial backer Duveen. Unquestionably there were instances where this occurred, but fewer than is often claimed. And even while he was still alive and venerated, some of his attributions had been overturned without the art world shuddering to a halt. In his 1950 review, Watt notes that Antonio del Pollaiuolo's Portrait of a Young Man in the collection of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum had been catalogued by Berenson just 14 years earlier as a work of Francesco Botticini, while previously Wilhelm yon Bode had attributed the same picture to Filippino Lippi. Both judgements were overturned and today it is listed as a Pollaiuolo self-portrait. Similarly Watt observes that another picture in the same show, Piero di Cosimo's portrait of Giuliano da Sangallo from the Mauritshuis (on loan to the Riksmuseum since 1948), had in the past been assigned to Van Leyden, Holbein and Durer.

As recently as January 2012, Sotheby's New York sold a drawing of a young man previously attributed to Marco Zoppo, one of the Ferrarese artists Alasdair Palmer so admires. Before the auction, however, the work was reattributed to Antonio del Pollaiuolo's brother Piero--a Florentine --with the result that the Getty Museum paid $1.4m for it, considerably more than the estimate of $300,000-$400,000. It is perfectly possible the drawing may yet be attributed to someone else.

In the absence of sufficient documentation, attribution will always rely on experience and instinct, both of which Berenson possessed in abundance. If by no means infallible in his judgements, he was tireless in his advocacy of 15th-century Florentine art's pre-eminence. To his enduring influence, more than to that of Vasari, can be ascribed both today's Palazzo Strozzi exhibition and the one seen by Alexander Watt more than 60 years ago.
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Author:O'Byrne, Robert
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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