BERENSON AND the Connoisseurship of Italian Painting," the exhibition that opens today at the National Gallery of Art, makes little reference to information about his life. This is conceded in the catalogue. Bernard Berenson is to be viewed as a fully fledged phenomenon, an esthete who appears miraculously on the scene, to become the greatest authority on Italian Renaissance painting that this country has ever known. The story of Berenson, it is implied, need only be approached as that of an intellect and a mind.

Berenson did not, however, exist in a vacuum until that magical moment when he suddenly decided he would not rest until "every Lotto is a Lotto, every Cariani a Cariani...." To understand the discipline he chose, the goals he pursued and even the centuries he chose to study, one has to place that information in the context of Berenson's life.

Berenson was born in 1865, in the Russian Pale of Settlement, into an Orthodox Jewish community whose customs, beliefs, religion and way of life had not changed appreciably since the Middle Ages. Berenson was, however, the son of an unbeliever, a man who had become a member of Haskalah, that extremely influential movement in Jewish culture which sought to emancipate the Jews from the "narrow labyrinth of ritual-theological casuistry," as the founder of that movement, Moses Mendelssohn, described it; and to introduced them to the world of Western thought.

If Haskalah (which means "The Enlightenment") was influential in the elder Berenson's decision t emigrate to the United States in 1875, that same movement had a vital role to play in showing Berenson the path he was to take. The teachings of Haskalah might be considered heretical in the village of Butrimants, where Berenson was born, but they acquired a new respectability in Boston, where he arrived at the age of 10. These teachings were reinforced by a general impulse on the part of Jewish immigrants to abandon the past and adopt the ways of the new world as fast as possible. At the age of 15, Berenson was baptized into the Episcopalian faith.

There is a further aspect of Berenson's childhood to be considered. Although he came from a distinguished family, "the first in the village," as he put it, the immigrant Berensons were so poor that his father was forced to become a peddlar to support his five children. The aristocratic structures of the Old World no longer pertained in the New. Russian Jewish immigrants were at the bottom of the pile, looked down upon even by their fellows, German Jews who had arrived a half century before.

So Berenson embarked on the road to social acceptance by entering upper-crust Harvard University.There he came to the attention of professors who taught him the social niceties, and through them he met his first benefactress, known for her weakness for young men who were handsome, charming and eager to please: Isabella Stewart Gardner. Berenson's success in wooing Mrs. Gardner with flattery and art is well known. It set the stage for subsequent conquests of rich and socially prominent ladies.

Even the role of the connoisseur, which was to bring Berenson such handsome financial rewards, had a vital function to play in assuaging feelings of social inferiority. The title gave him automatic status as influential arbiter of taste for a wealthy, international and often titled clientele.

His choice of a field of study was particularly significant. The Renaissance, for Berenson, symbolized the release from ecclesiastical authority and a new emphasis on human values. After a long night of medieval ignorance, it heralded the dawn of an era of enlightenment. The Renaissance, for Berenson, became a symbol of all that his spirit yearned toward.

The sterile art of saying "who painted what," however, had lost its charm for Berenson by the turn of the century. He was equally disenchanted by the art market and the unscrupulous tactics of the dealers with whom he was forced to do business. He had, however, by then dedicated himself to making real an esthetic dream of "life as a work of art," one which had possessed his imagination since his student days. To make his new Italian home, the villa "i Tatti," a model of that dream of beauty became the goal of a lifetime.

Even more important, Berenson was determined from 1904 onward, to give that villa to Harvard. To do so took money -- a great deal of it.This, then, was the reason why Berenson continued to be involved with the art market for the next 50 years. Although, as Kenneth Clark has observed in his autobiography, Berenson didn't like to talk about it, the evidence is clear that he detested their world. His wife, Mary, wrote from Paris in 1909 that her husband had some friends there who were consoling him "for the horror of the Dealers' World, which he says is a real inferno."

This also was the reason why Berenson switched from advising collectors to advising dealers, whom he had always considered the enemy. Berenson became chief adviser to Joseph Duveen, the most famous international art dealer of the 20th century, and, some said, the biggest rascal of them all. Berenson had no choice. After Mrs. Gardner, he was not able to find a collector with the high stakes required to play in the game.

In any assessment of Berenson's attributions it is vital to distinguish between those made from pure scholarship alone, and those made as adviser to dealers. As a "pure" scholar, Berenson can seldom be faulted. As a wheeler and dealer in the art world, he needs to be scrutinized with a very cool eye indeed. The exhibition fails to make this distinction. It is perhaps relevant that the vast majority of Italian Renaissance paintings now in the National Gallery of Art were bought on Berenson's advice while he was working for dealers: first for Lord Duveen and later for Georges Wildenstein.

As Cyril Connolly so aptly noted, there were three Berensons: the scholar-esthete, the Renaissance prince and public figure -- "and from the age of 35 till the last war, the successful Jewish businessman. It is this last who made possible the prolonged existence of the other two and who proves the greatest stumbling block to his biographers." (Sunday Times of London, March 20, 1960).

That Berenson might, however, have been a shrewd businessman is not given particular weight by the National Gallery's exhibition. David Brown, curator of the show and author of the catalogue, places his emphasis on the notion that Berenson was an amateur, despite the fact that Berenson was a professional attributor and perched, as Kenneth Clark observed in "Another Part of the Wood," "on the pinnacle of a mountain of corruption." No mention is made of Berenson's own comment, to S.N. Berman, that, "Duveen was at the center of a vast, circular nexus of corruption that reached from the lowliest employe of the British Museum right up to the King. ("People in a Diary.")

Berenson's slide from his early days as a stern exclusivist to a connoisseur increasingly ready to see the master's hand everywhere, is seen as pure generosity of heart. The essay quotes from the preface of Berenson's 1932 lists, lists written at the height of his art-market activity, when Berenson was forgivingly ready to see evidence of genuis in some unlikely places.

The same essay omits to tell us what Berenson, in later years, and no longer a leading player in the art market, came to believe. He wrote in 1954: "By loving too much the name of a great painter and bestowing it on mediocre and even vulgar works of art we dim his fame, diminish his value and reduce him to the rank of an equal practitioner who had... moments of inspiration, but was often too disappointing...."

Brown's essay then raises the knottier issue: Did Berenson ever allow his business interests to influence his artistic judgments?

By way of an answer, Brown quotes the Duveen-Berenson correspondence, to which he was given access at "i Tatti." Much is rumored about that mysterious file, including that it has been extensively edited. However, little has ever been established, since the present owner of the "i Tatti" archieve, Dr. Cecil Anrep, refuses requests to study it (he refused mine) and the last owner of the Duveen copy of the exchange, the late Edward Fowles, has put that file under embargo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until the year 2003.

This exhibition has brought the viewer into an area of Italian Renaissance art that is well-known to the specialist but about which the general public is completely ignorant: the problems posed by condition. Italian Renaissance paintings, with the exception of those in great European collections, have been battered by time. They have been neglected, defaced and remade. In the 19th century, for instance, clothing nudes was commonplace, as was the decree that all Madonnas must wear blue robes; paintings were "restored" to suit the taste of the times.

That same cavalier approach to art persisted in the early part of this century. Duveen notoriously over-restored his paintings. As New York art historian Richard Offner wrote, the rich buyers of the '20s and '30s wanted a painting to "shine like a pair of new boots." They did not want to know how extensively a work had been repainted, as long as an expert had "authenticated" it.

Paintings that bore only a faint resemblance to the original works were subsequently bought from Duveen and put on exhibition. Subsequent generations of curators and restorers, faced with problems of embarrassing magnitude, have preferred to bury the evidence, at the expense of enlightening the public they purport to serve.

Restoration, therefore, is untimately bound up with connoisseurship and with the state of the paintings that have found their way into this collection under Berenson's aegis. A discussion of the issues involved would have been most enlightening, but this show is completely silent in the subject.

How many such poor investments may have been bought with Berenson's advice is an interesting question about which this show has nothing to say. CAPTION:

Picture 1 through 3, Berenson in 1887 (left) and at the Borghese Gallery in Rome in 1955 before a Durer painting: "Those who watched him before a picture, a glass in hand, thought him some sort of a magician." At right is detail of Castagno's "Portrait of a Man." National Gallery of Art; Picture 4, Detail of Giorgione's "The Adoration of the Shepherds." Photos from National Gallery of Art; Picture 5, Bernard Berenson at his villa "i Tatti."