T.S. Eliot, Dante, and the European Tradition: An International Symposium
January 19th - 25th , 2008
  Promoted by:
Romualdo Del Bianco Foundation
Palazzo Coppini Via del Giglio, 10
50123 – Florence (Italy)


Author : Mr. Carl Schmidt

T. S. Eliot, Bernard Berenson and the Theory of Impersonality in Art

Eliot, unlike Browning, rarely refers to Italian painters by name, the famous exception being Michelangelo in Prufrock. But two stanzas of ‘Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’ (1918) describe a ‘Baptism of Christ’ by an unnamed Umbrian painter. Temur Kobakhidze has convincingly identified this as Perugino’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel (it seems unlikely that Eliot had in mind Perugino’s other two treatments of this theme, in Pieve Cathedral and in the Nunciatella at Foligno). This work exhibits the poem’s key iconographic features of feet through water, nimbus, dove and God the Father. All it lacks is the ‘cracked and browned’ wilderness.

Whatile I agree that Eliot recalled Perugino’s masterpiece, he was not being specific, and may also have thought of the Baptism by Piero della Francesca in the National Gallery, London, a tempera painting on panel (Eliot’s ‘gesso ground’ suggests a panel painting not a fresco). I say this because it is Piero who occasions Bernard Berenson’s discussion of ‘impersonality in art’ in Italian Painters of the Renaissance (pp 109-10), which closely resembles in tone and phrasing Eliot’s account of artistic impersonality in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1917); both passages, from Berenson and Eliot, are on the handout. Although Berenson places Piero in the Tuscan School, the National Gallery’s own listing of his ‘Baptism’ names Piero as an Umbrian, and his birthplace San Sepolcro in Tuscany lies close to the adjacent region. I think that Eliot wanted to evoke in the reader’s mind not so much a unique identifiable work as an ‘impersonal’ way of painting that ‘is a concentration of a very great number of experiences in…a passive attending on the event’. , I suggest that one of these experiences was of Piero’s ‘Baptism; and that reading Berenson’s seminal paragraphs on this Italian master helped Eliot to formulate his influential theory of impersonality in art and the supplemental notion of the ‘objective correlative’, to be developed in his essay on Hamlet (1919).

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