Last week I joined two friends from Kansas on a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It’s a stunning building, and houses an astonishing collection of Western art. The collection ranges from a slew of Italian Renaissance paintings (including a Piero della Francesca ‘Hercules’ in which Hercules holds a wooden club in front of him; in that foreshortened stick of wood you see the static compositions of Medieval art cracked open to reveal a new and exciting way of seeing and depicting reality) to lots of European ecclesiastical paintings, vestments, furniture, and decorative pieces; to a nifty collection of nineteenth-century drawings and lithographs by Degas, Matisse, Zorn, and others; to Dutch and Flemish paintings from the 15th century onward, and on and on. As Mianne said about Mrs. Gardner, after seeing several of the galleries, “She was a shopper.”
The collections are housed in the most fantastic neo-Venetian palazzo. By stipulation of Mrs. Gardner’s will, they are exhibited in the order and configuration she decreed, and they must remain as they are. Should alterations, additions, or subtractions be made, the entire collection would have to be sold, and the proceeds would go to Harvard University. Now that’s some control.
In 1990, several paintings and some drawings were stolen. The paintings were cut out of their frames; the frames themselves still hang in the galleries, and discreet notes record that the paintings they held have yet to be recovered.
Anyway, back to the building and the art. I have loved this building since I first saw it on a college field trip. Mrs. Gardner, a traveller, loved Venice and antiquities; she collected ancient architectural fragments from all over the place, and hired a group of Italian masons and builders to erect this pink (on the inside) Italian palace on Boston’s Fenway. The four-story building is a hollowed-out rectangle in plan, with a full-depth atrium at its center. Windows look out into the atrium from all the galleries, and a cloister wraps around three sides of the garden courtyard at its bottom.
The column of space enclosed by the atrium is one of the most wonderful things about this building. Visitors are prohibited from entering the courtyard; light falls into it from the galleries and from the glass roof above — so the air in it is still, pure, and light-filled. With its low carpet of ground cover, crushed stone paths and central mosaic pad surrounded by flowering plants and foliage, and the trickles of water falling from stone fish into a deep stone pool at one end, the quiet, quiet courtyard soothes a city-frazzled visitor like few other places in Boston.
(The other Boston institution comparable to the Gardner Museum is Fenway Park, which lies about a mile away and is also a still space enclosed by building form, set in the dense, dense matrix of the city blocks.)
On this visit, the courtyard drew me to it over and over again, as usual; its quietness seems to absorb the jangle of the city and replace it with deep calm.
The art, though, seemed tired and dusty — something I’d not noticed before. I don’t know if the museum is holding off on conservation until its expansion is done, or if they don’t have funds, but I had the sense that the place needed a good wash, the art needed to be dusted and cleaned, and the furniture could use some oil and wax. (I’m not a compulsive housekeeper, either, so for me to notice this stuff means it’s got to be really evident.)
It may be, of course, that because we started through the galleries in the dwindling light of afternoon that things looked especially dingy; windows seem to provide most of the museum’s gallery light. One of these days, though, perhaps the Gardner will begin to clean its paintings and spruce up the furniture; I’m sure what we’ll see underneath the old dust and grime will astonish even more than it now does.
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