THE PASSIONATE OBSERVER From the Diaries 1947-1956 by Bernard Berenson (Thames & Hudson: $14.95, illustrated)

One of the most eminent art critics and historians of the 20th Century, Bernard Berenson was also an early example of a media figure. Visitors came to the villa I Tatti to hear his pronouncements on art and life, which were as celebrated for their wit as their erudition. These excerpts from his late diaries capture much of the charm of his conversation.

Berenson is at his best recounting visits to favorite museums and paintings, when he can give his enthusiasm free reign. His failure to appreciate non-objective art damaged his reputation during his lifetime, and the restrictions which that failure imposed on his vision have only become more obvious in the intervening decades. But his descriptions of figurative paintings and sculpture glow with an unabashed love rarely seen in a cynical era that prizes art for its investment value.

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