Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Who would think of building a faux-Venetian palazzo in a marshy backwater of Boston? Isabella Stewart Gardner, that's who.

The Gardner Museum is so famous that it was already known to me long before I had ever set foot in what is now my hometown. It is now over a hundred years old, and looking mighty good for its age.

Is it really like a Venetian palazzo? No, nothing is. Buildings in other parts of the Veneto (for example, Vicenza) come much closer. But it is still a major achievement.

When I first visited it long ago it brought to mind the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan (my mother's town), and in fact ole Isabella got her idea for a museum house from the latter. She was a native New Yorker from a wealthy family who atoned for this original sin by moving to Boston and becoming a Red Sox fan (the museum and Fenway Park are in the same area, although the museum predates the stadium).

Very sadly, she lost her toddler son and could have no others. She thus channeled her superabundant energies into her house/art collection. And a very fine and memorable collection it is; not to be missed. Mrs. Gardner benefited from the advice of specialists such as Bernard Berenson, but the building, courtyard garden and collection are all hers and have her mark. Look for a number of works showing a mother and child motif, especially a Giovanni Bellini work in which the Madonna holds the infant in the pose of a pieta', with a sad and knowing expression, as if foreseeing the child's end.

It also has a Piero della Francesca (a gigantic Samson), a treat. Not one of his best, but still. Piero (as he is known to his friends and fans) is with Giovanni Bellini and Jan Vermeer my favorite artist. And the museum used to have a Vermeer (above), but it was stolen before I even got there (along with a Rembrandt and some other good stuff). Fortunately it was not one of my favorite Vermeers. But still. If the thieves are reading this: please bring it back.

It also enjoys a good but not inexpensive cafe' overlooking the outside garden. Fellow Bostonians: occasionally, entrance is free, often on holidays. Keep eyes peeled. Entrance is also always free to all Isabellas, in honor of its founder.