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Mary Berenson

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Mary Berenson (née Smith) ghost writer?, an 1885 illustration now housed in the National Portrait Gallery in London

Mary Berenson (born Mary Whitall Smith; 1864 in Pennsylvania – 1945 in Italy) was an art historian, now thought to have had a large hand in some of the writings of her second husband, Bernard Berenson.[1]


Her father was Robert Pearsall Smith, her mother Hannah Whitall Smith (born Hannah Tatum Whitall). She studied at the Harvard Annex in 1884-1885.[2] There, Mary met the Irish barrister Benjamin "Frank" Conn Costelloe, whom she married in 1885, having converted to Catholicism. This marriage was the occasion for the whole family, including her brother Logan Pearsall Smith and sister Alys Pearsall Smith, to move to England in 1888.[3] However, already by 1892 the couple had separated, though Frank would not agree to divorce.

Mary had two daughters, Ray Strachey and Karin Stephen, with Frank Costelloe. Through them, she was related by marriage to the Bloomsbury Group of English artists and literary figures: Karin married Adrian Stephen, who was Virginia Woolf's brother, and Ray married Oliver Strachey, who was Lytton Strachey’s brother.[4]

In 1888 in London, she met Bernard Berenson. She became an authority on art history and took up with Berenson in Italy.[5] Berenson developed a reputation as an art expert, and it is believed that Mary substantially helped Bernard's work .[1] Their book The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance was published in 1894 under Berenson's name; Mary's mother reportedly asked that Mary not take credit for her work.[6]

She and Berenson eventually married in 1900 after her first husband died, although they both had affairs and Mary believed this was because they liked to hurt each other.[1]

Her U.S. lecture tours were instrumental in developing an interest in Italian Renaissance art among wealthy American collectors during the first decade of the 20th century.[7]

Subsequently, Berenson brought together a social circle at Villa I Tatti, the Berenson home, and developed its gardens.[8][9]She hosted some of the most celebrated personalities of the period, including Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Gabriele D'Annunzio, John Maynard Keynes, and Isabella Stewart Gardner.

By 1927, Mary tired of entertaining and left the duty of hosting to the couple's librarian Elizabeth Mariano. Mariano was one of Bernard's lovers, and Mary would much later write to give permission for Mariano to marry Bernard. In later life she was plagued by illness and by 1935 she was largely an invalid. In 1940, her eldest daughter died of surgery complications, and she was left by her husband under Fascist regulations (as he was a Jew) in the care of Mariano's sister. Mary remained in I Tatti until she died in 1945.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Dictionary of Art Historians - Mary Berenson". arthistorians.info. Retrieved 2016-03-28.
  2. ^ Tiffany L. Johnston (2012). "Mary Whitall Smith at the Harvard Annex". Berenson and Harvard. The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Retrieved June 4, 2014.
  3. ^ The Strachey Papers at the Archives in London and the M25 Area
  4. ^ Palmer, Alan (1987). Who's Who in Bloomsbury. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 17–18.
  5. ^ "Mary Berenson | I Tatti | the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies".
  6. ^ Booton, Diane E. (2011-06-16). "Mary Costelloe Berenson". Harvard Magazine. Retrieved 2019-09-24.
  7. ^ Johnston, Tiffany (2015). "Mary Berenson and the Cultivation of American Collectors," in A Market for Merchant Princes: Collecting Italian Renaissance Paintings in America. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-271-06471-0.
  8. ^ The garden of Villa I Tatti: some historical notes in The Harvard university Center for Italian Renaissance Studies Archived 2007-09-27 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Johnston, Tiffany (2024). Villa I Tatti: Mary Berenson's "Golden Urn" Arcadia. Florence, Italy: Centro Di. ISBN 9788870385847.


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