Mimicking the architecture of a Venetian Palazzo, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum exudes an air of opulence. Masked by an unassuming modern outer structure, the original foundation lies beyond the concrete and glass barrier. The transparent concourse linking the modern architecture with the retrofitted early 20th century original acts as a conduit, transporting the museum-goer not only into the extravagance of 20th century Boston, but also farther back into the golden age of Venice.
The museum itself is a conglomeration of ancient pastimes and modern marvels. It features a collection of over 3,000 books, Flemish master paintings, Venetian seminal works, religious memorabilia, American watercolors, intricately woven tapestries and gilded Chinese panels. The breadth of the collection is astounding. Often overlooked in comparison to its monumental neighbor, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA), the Gardner houses a smaller — yet significant — collection.
However, the works hung within the Gardner’s walls are not the sole spectacle. The marble structures redirect translucent beams of light. Light bounds up the four stories, illuminating the works within the individual rooms while simultaneously infusing the interior courtyard with a sense of kinetic activity.
The architectural elements that comprise the interior courtyard are transplants from Venice, segments of authentic Venetian Palazzo. Moreover, the lustrous marble — also an import from Venice — encompasses a variety of hues; in synchronization with the level of exterior light it alternates between subtle pinks, warm yellows and muted browns. United by a common origin, the borrowed architectural elements combine to generate the illusion of 16th century Venice. Furthering this image of beautiful extravagance, orange blossoms cascade from the third story balconies. As stipulated in Isabella Gardner’s will, the courtyard is adorned with arrangements of seasonal flowers. The synthesis of budding new growth and maturing art works is beguiling, prompting one to see the past and present on a continuum, rather than as in isolation.
Offering a unique viewing experience, the Gardner intimately connects each work with the viewer. As the museum was not initially conceived as a public attraction, the works are accessibly hung for the benefit of casual viewing. The works are arranged in the style of Gardner’s time, hung in close proximity against sumptuous wall coverings. Initially, the gallery appears cluttered, the pieces overwhelmed by their magnificent surroundings. However, order gradually emerges from disorder upon continued viewing.
This lavish room design can best be seen in the Titian Room. Situated on the third story, the Titian Room offers an ideal vantage point to observe the gleaming colonnaded central courtyard. Bathed in natural light, the crimson walls appear to pulsate. Hanging on the far right wall, “Europa”(1560-2), Titian’s masterpiece, is characterized by the absorption and transmission of light. In its rendering, the grotesque and the abhorrent are seemingly made beautiful. The canvas envelops the viewer, thrusting the onlooker into the tumultuous waves of the euphoric scene. “Europa” harnesses the kinetic activity trapped within the room and, through presenting a scene of disorder, it imposes order.
Differing from a typical museum format, the Gardner eliminates the extraneous space that separates a viewer from works of art. Soaring walls and artificial lighting are exchanged for a household setting with natural lighting. The rooms are historically accurate, retaining the original furniture from Gardner’s time while the walls are free of clunky explanatory placards. There is a familiarity in experience; one is visiting a home, rather than a manufactured institution. Housed museums, such as the Gardner, evidence the passion behind collecting. They also speak to the subjectivity of collecting through emphasizing that “beauty” and “art” personal constructs. More so than an institutionalized museum, these intimate spaces forge a relationship between the viewer and the collection. Art portrayed in this manner seems attainable as well as relatable.