Having returned from a moving memorial service in the small chapel of Villa I Tatti exactly 20 years since Bernard Berenson's death, I sat down to read Meryle Secrest's recent biography of the art connoisseur, Being Bernard Berenson. He has always been one of the heroes whose friendship I cherished, a sage whose conversation I never ceased to enjoy. Perhaps on this account the general tone of her first chapters set my teeth on edge, but as I persevered -- and the book is compulsive reading -- I felt bound to admire a remarkable tour de force.

Meryle Secrest never knew Berenson personally, and she was handicapped, as she explains, by nonadmission to the Berenson Archive at I Tatti, which was reserved for his official biographer, Ernest Samuels. She has triumphed over this disadvantage with flying colors and produced a memorable opus. Through countless interviews with his surviving friends and not a few foew -- recalling the Italian proverb "God keep me from my friends; from my enemies I will keep myself" -- as well as through intensive research, Secrest has created a convincing portrait of the most ondoyant et divers of subtle personalties.

Towards the end of his long and laborious life (1865-1959) Berenson was prone to consider himself a failure. "I have not borne the fruit that as a plant I should have brought to full ripeness," he wrote. And "I weep within me when I am ranked with the successful of my time." Secrest has taken these latterday laments rather too seriously, for in happier moods Berenson was equallly prone to count, and even to revel in, his blessings. Those blessings were all around him, visible and tangible -- in "the library with rooms attached," the precious collection of beautiful objects in the Tuscan villa, adapted by Pinsent and Scott to his fastidious taste and convenience, above an exquisite formal garden, and in the warming companionship of Nicky Mariano and a group of good friends and disciples. Whild he regretted his involvement with the are market, this had been an essential source of livelihood, and he realized that his scholarship had influenced a whole generation of students and are collectors, that he had become a byword for connoisseurship. Far more that his original mentor Walter Pater, he had made of his life a work of are. Albeit reluctantly, Harvard, his alma mater, had accepted his generous bequest of I Tatti as a Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. For a poor Jewish emigrant from Lithuania, his career, as related by Secrest, was phenomenally successful. Few, if any, saints and sages can review their past with unadulterated satisfaction.

Berenson's repinings have served as a plausible thesis for Secrest's biography. According to her, "he was ashamed of his poverty, ashamed of being Jewish," and she lays stress on "the battle to shake off the stigma of his origin." In the course of many intimate conversations, I never detected the slightest shame of his Jewish origin. On the contrary he was proud of it and used to speak with poetic nostalgia of his native scenery and customs. In his youthful quest for a vocation, he had more important questions to consider. "The brilliant young student, with a whole world to choose from, was showing himself to be an opportunist, leaping at the first practical solution which offered itself," writes Secrest. Are not all brilliant young students opportunists?

Once this irritating bee in her bonnet is shaken off, Secrest canters bravely across the vicissitudes of Berenson's career without losing herself in the jungle of the art world. Half the story has previously been told in reverential detail by Ernest Samuels, but Secrest brings to her narrative a feminine vivacity and muted romanticism which sweep the reader along with her, from his historic association with Isabella Stewart Gardner, who helped to finance Berenson's first visit to Europe, to his painful yet profitable connection with the formidable art dealer Joseph Duveen.

On the highly specialized and controversial subject of Berenson's attributions, Secrest sinks out of her depth. As David Alan Brown pointed out in his excellent handbook to the Berenson exhibition at the National Gallery of Washington: "It is not widely realized, perhaps, that few attributions are ever final . . . Berenson transcended the limits of the knowledge of his time in numerous creative acts of perception about the authorship of works of art." In spite of heavy pressur, it was his refusal to attribute the so-called Allendale Nativity to Giorgione that caused his break with Duveen. Berenson insisted that it was by the young Titian, yet after Duveen's death he changed his mind. He continued to revise the famous "Lists" of the paintings he accepted as authentic until he died. Personally, I agree with Mason Perkins that Berenson was "not capable of giving an attribution of which he was not convinced," though Secrest sneers at this conclusion.

On the subject of Berenson's marriage to Mary Costelloe, who had shared his esthetic adventures and collaborated with him on his "Lists" during the previous decade, and of his subsequent attachment to Nicky Mariano, who recorded this in her Forty Years with Berenson, Secrest is on safer ground. His platonic friendships and flirtations with fair women would provide novelists with many a fanciful plot, for he remained strongly susceptible to feminine charm, and the ladies clustered round him to the last. Mary Berenson, a dynamic feminist of Quaker stock, is worthy of a separate biography. Hers was a truly companionate marriage based on intellectual sympathy and mutual tolerance despite occasional scenes which her husband "rather liked, they clear the air for him." Her passion for Geoffrey Scott inspired his delightful Portrait of Zelide but caused Berenson many a sick headache. All was not inward harmony at I Tatti till Nicky Mariano took over: she was the ideal peacemaker.

Meryle Secrest is mistaken in believing that Geoffrey Scott had "perfect Botticellian good looks"; that Topazia Markevich (nee Caetani) was Nijinshy's daughter; that Herbert Horne was "an arid burrower among books"; and that Charles Loeser was an are dealer; but these are slight errors in a scrupulously researched volume which is never boring.

In his diary, Sunset and Twilight, Berenson described Peggy Guggenheim as "silly but not stupid, a good sort despite her financial freedom to do what she likes," and this is corroborated by her Confessions of an Art Addict. It is somewhat surprising that she should have allowed so embarrasing a book to be republished in her 81st year, for it originally saw the light in 1946. Art, in her case, seems mainly to have served as a pretext for sexual intercourse. The painter Max Ernst is the best-known of her husbands and with him she made love on the rocks of Cascais ("Max had such a beautiful body") -- though the rocks "turned out to be the town's chief latrine. Fortunately we were lying on a raincoat we had borrowed . . . Max loved my unconventionalities." Alas, "Peace was the one thing that Max needed in order to paint, and love was the one thing I needed in order to live. As neither of us gave the other what he most desired, our union was doomed to failure."

Her first husband, Laurence Vail, painted bottles, litterly but not figuratively like Morandi. At the age of 23, worried about her virginity, she tells us that she had a collection of frescoes she had seen at Pompeii. "They depicted people making love in various positions, and of course I was very curious and wanted to try them all out myself . . . I think Laurence had a pretty tough time because I demanded everything I had seen depicted in the Pompeian frescoes."

No doubt, to borrow Berenson's cliche, Peggy Guggenheim can be life-enhancing: she seems to have taken full advantage of her prosperity. Towards middle age her infatuations spilled over into Surrealism and experimental are, and she founded a New York gallery called Art of this Century. Marcel Duchamp ("Marcel tried to educate me. I don't know what I would have done without him. To begin with, he taught me the difference between Abstract and Surrealist art," etc.), Yves Tanguy, Brancusi, Jean Arp and, above all, her "discovery" Jackson Pollock are among the practioners she has patronized and collected. Examples of their work are on display at her Venetian Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, whose entrance is guarded by Marino Marini's bronze statue of a horse and rider, entitled The Angel of the Citadel: The rider's arms are spread out in ecstasy, "and to emphasize this, Marini had added a phallus in full erection." The phallus was discreetly detachable, and Guggenheim proudly tells us: "In Venice a legend spread that I had several phalluses of different sizes, like spare parts, which I used on different occasions." One is reminded of the limerick anent the girls who frequent picture-palaces who set no store by psychoanalysis.

A jolly good sort, Peggy Guggenheim, when all is said and done, and one is sorry that her Confessions end on a note of disillusion: "I do not like art today. I think it has gone to hell, as a result of the financial attitude . . . Artists try too hard to be original. That is why we have all this painting that isn't painting any more . . . Today is the age of collecting, not of creation. Let us at least preserve and present to the masses all the great treasures we have," And so we return to Berenson, and to the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies.