Renzo and Isabella

It’s always nice to be quoted in The New York Times and especially nice if it’s the Sunday Times, which conjures  up images of the top one percent nationwide (worldwide?) relaxing in the Sabbath glow of whichever of one’s words of wisdom (or not) the  nation’s newspaper  of record has deemed worthy.  Best of all for my sort is to be on the front page of the Book Review  (in full color, of course; happened once,  in 1997) or on the first page of the Arts section (last time there 2003) — and,  two weeks ago,  on March 15th,  there I was,  and keeping very good company indeed: Isabella Stewart Gardner.

The article  I was quoted in was focused on what I found  to be a highly problematic analysis of the Gardner Museum’s “hodgepodge of a collection”, as the writer put it.  Seeming to sympathize too much as I saw it with those who complain of the museum’s “odd mix of treasures and tchotchkes,  in galleries so dark as to offer only a dusky view”,  the writer,  I thought,  disrespected Isabella Gardner’s theories of museum design and installation, admittedly very different from those fashionable today in our era of the minimalist pure white wall.

Then again I also disagreed with the Gardner Museum director’s rejoinder that Isabella Gardner meant the experience of her museum to “solicit not an intellectual but {an} emotional, highly personal response”.  Personal, yes;  emotional, not really.  Though Gardner herself never explicitly explained her theories of museum  installation,  her own experience of such European museums as the Prado  led her to form fairly definite opinions in such matters, opinions that constantly evolved  in talk with  a close friend who was an influential museumologist of the day,  Matthew Prichard,  and soon enough yielded ideas  that I argue in my biography of Gardner inspired both her design of the Gardner Museum itself and of  its various rooms and art installations..

Gardner’s design concept is evident in her aggressive overturning of chronology, her disdain for categories of style,  school or nationality as any sort of organizing  principle — she abhorred what has come to be called the “period room” — and,  above all,  in her insistence on the importance of  “courtiers”,  as I call them,  in setting off her “gods” (again, my word) or masterpieces.  And it was a design concept as brightly intellectual as,  yes, warmly emotional;  a concept that reached its climax in her own  masterworks of museum installation  — above all, the museum’s courtyard — but also in her last installations: the Spanish Cloister, the Chinese Loggia and the Buddha  Room.

Gardner’s ideas,  furthermore,  now seem  the more impressive because today we have somewhat caught up to her genius. Her  designs really leave viewers  with no choice at all but to think for themselves,  something curators naturally abhor,  eager as they are to think  for   us,  to convince us.  The result is a supremely “interactive”  museum  experience, as stimulating  (because often subversive)  to the intellectual as it  can be both confusing and destabilizing to the seeker after art appreciation  in  the  adult   education sense , or , indeed, the curator’s  “message”.  The Gardner is like church without the sermon. It is the graduate course, and thus not for everyone.

Portrait of a Lady

My lady, as I’m entitled to call her because I have the honor to be her biographer,  is everything any man could ask for:  she was a complicated,  shrewd and passionate idealist,  dedicated to art   (that most slippery and fragile of all causes)  and as well a fierce Emersonian who not only  “insist{ed}on {her}self”,  but was a bold enough visionary  it is no wonder other such,  like William James,  wrote her admiring letters.  Indeed,  I like to think I rescued Isabella Gardner,  historically,  from those too many too conventional Bostonians who in her own time Gardner had no trouble ignoring,  but whose like are ever with us, and  who try still to trap her in their amber as a bejeweled,  party-giving  celebrity hostess who built herself a flamboyant house and then filled it with flowers,  fashion,  music and good food and drink,  all in aid of a gilded age,  robber baron social life of capitalist excess and endless gossip, never mind midnight assignations with her artist of the moment.

Bejeweled I’ll grant.  The rest is nonsense,  whatever  “Town Topics” reported  or others have repeated.  Gardner designed Fenway Court  not as her house, but as a museum — and a revolutionary museum design it turned out to be,  not uninfluential — with a top floor apartment for herself,  and in the end she  often deserted  even that  for two small rooms on the ground floor.  Isabella Gardner did not drink.  Her husband was the drinker. She ate very sparingly and was not a charming or witty hostess.  More independent than either conservative or liberal,  she was,  for instance,  a passionate pacifist.  And she did not “collect” artists;  she invested in them, really.  Sometimes money;  more often,  time.  Needfully to be sure  (it was almost as if the artist completed her in the Platonic sense),  all the evidence suggests it was the fact that Isabella Gardner believed in them that mattered most to her proteges. She did this,  indeed, sometimes, to a fault.  She strangely combined a rare sophistication with a kind of innocence.  I think she would have nodded a vigorous assent to my conviction that the Gardner robbery, the 15th anniversary of which triggered the article in the Times,  has meant that now Fenway Court is,  indeed,   “touched with evil”.

It’s a sobering,  unwelcome thing to have to say.  But though I am wary,  even suspicious,  of innocence — personal or institutional or artistic — I recognize it at once,  of course,  as do many, when it is violated,  and have no qualm naming it.  I meant as well that the proper response to evil is to battle it,  not to exploit it.  Though I will say that there is good reason why Cass Canfield Jr., at Harper’s called my Gardner biography THE ART OF SCANDAL. Reading my manuscript he saw at once that far from being afraid of the scandal her life was to so many conventional people,  Isabella Gardner used that fact to promote her cause relentlessly.  She would,  as Churchill once said of the Devil,  invite him to dinner if it would serve a higher good.  And I was not surprised either to learn that one effect of the robbery was to make the necessary reforms at the Gardner more easily accomplished . I  hinted I think at that in the interview I gave Rebecca Dreyfus for her striking film,  STOLEN,  from which interview my remarks about evil were taken.  For Gardner everything served the trans-formative  power of art,  evil not excepted.  As,  indeed,  do those empty frames at the Gardner still,  a stunning example of the way the founder of that museum makes her will felt to this day  in ways  neither  she nor we could ever have imagined.  and I am convinced something very similar is happening in connection with the addition to the Gardner recently designed by Renzo Piano.


“The stunning style,  the visual panache,  the obsession with  spettacolo….the Italian aesthetic”,  as Tobias Jones so well puts it in his  THE DARK HEART OF ITALY,  is at the heart of the  Gardner,  which as I tried to explain in my own  BOSTON BOHEMIA,  the first volume of my biography of Ralph Adams Cram,  has always had both a bright and a dark side,  like its muse,  and in this after the Italian– especially the Venetian — manner,  which is to aestheticise everything,  even violence.  Even so,  Isabella Gardner,  who loved violent sport;  not just baseball,  but football and boxing.  None of us read our Byron anymore:  “Italia!  Oh, Italia”,  he wrote,  “thou hast/ the fatal gift of beauty”.  Again,  even so the Palazzo Gardner,  the rules of which were not,  are not,  I’m afraid , entirely respectable.

That Renzo Piano,  the designer of the Gardner Museum,  is Italian,  Genoa born,  would certainly have mattered as much to Isabella Gardner as the fact that he is a Pritzker Prize and American Institute of Architects Gold Medal winning architect of international stature.  Nor would it at all have hurt that he is a handsome sixty-something, and very well spoken.  One can almost hear Isabella Gardner’ s mind  working as  she, who was an   admirer of the latest  as well as  a collector of old masters,  attended to a guest,   perhaps,  at dinner,  explaining that Piano is intent on “using computer design tools to bring the same rigor and aesthetic richness to contemporary architecture that used to be provided by master craftsmen in Italy….{His} best work somehow manages to be sleek and remarkably tactile at the same time”.

I will spare the reader a long disquisition,  first convincingly put to me by a superb Boston architect now,  indeed,  based in Florence,  Peter Forbes,  of how designing on a computer rather than just using it as a substitute for a drafting room , is a trans-formative experience  in three-dimensional space,  and only add critic Jeff Stein’s remark to me lately that he suspected Piano was making “a real craft” out of the computer.  A craft Isabella Gardner would have much liked,  by the way,  for her sense of materiality was so strong she once mounted a ladder with sponges in hand to show what effect of color she wanted on her courtyard walls.  No question she and Renzo would have been seen much around town.  And though I was myself at first disappointed the job did not go to Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti,  architects   Gardner would also have responded to,  I believe,  and whose Getty Museum in Los Angeles has brought  these Boston-based architects lavish  praise form everywhere,  the choice of Piano is never a wrong choice and perhaps the best choice in this case.  For what is needed at the Gardner,  above all,  and it is medicine best administered,  perhaps,  by an out of town architect,  is  something really quite radical if understated, a    brilliant foil  to what Isabella Gardner imagined and created.

The Athenaeum Calder

I feel so strongly about this not only because like every biographer I’d like  to feel I can indeed read my lady’s mind,  but because of a  quite formative experience of earlier years,  the second floor Art Department of the Boston Athenaeum,  alas now dismantled,  but one of the great Boston interiors of my youth.  As one entered this immense two story bow room,  its huge double-height windows overlooking the Old Granary Burying Ground,  the effect of the rooms superb proportions and  its elaborate molded plaster cornices and such was enhanced by four great Oriental vases,  easily six feet high in my memory,  a gorgeous enfilade,  beyond which stretched the polished mahogany expanse  of a huge oval dining room table  laden always with the latest art books , the array  centered on a magnificent pair of polished mahogany urns,  filled usually with lush greenery.

I remember so vividly how one took in all  this richness  of Italianate detail and density of historic ornament all the better,  indeed,  much more sharply, because on the room’s far side,  in the  middle of  the bow windows,  one’s eye was at once caught,  and one’s curiosity at once sparked,  by a strikingly bright multi-colored and at first glance discordant  modernist sculpture.  Like  a  fleet of schooners in full sail across the horizon disclosed by the three huge windows,  this  striking many-hued stabile animated  the whole scene and cast it into dramatic relief both to its advantage and to that of all  the more historic works of art around it.

As well it might.  A prize of the Athenaeum art collection,  the work of a giant of 20th-century American     sculpture,  Alexander Calder,  “Multicolore”,  as this work  of his of 1962 was called when first exhibited  at the Milano International Arts Show ,  was the gift to the Athenaeum in 1985 of its first woman trustee,  the collector Susan Morse Hilles, who also endowed the position there of curator of paintings and sculpture.   Its “sails”  thrusting rightward,  the uppermost one of pure white,  the others variously red,  black and orange ,  rising from a deep  blue sort of base,  I was  amazed,  I suppose,  to find it there,  and wondering why — later the idea of a palette cleansing sorbet in a rich meal came to mind.  But I remember realizing suddenly that because of  this magnificent stabile  I was seeing everything else  in the room all over again;  not for the first time, but in quite a new light.

How this  modernist sculpture lit up,  so to speak,  the whole historic scene for me has left a vivid image in my mind.  A formative experience,  it continues to fascinate:  how  the Calders’ energy brought a kind of new vitality to the  old portraits around the room;  how its stark,   shapely “sails”  seemed  to  foil the rooms elaborate plasterwork;  how the stabiles bright,  sharp colors brought out the more muted colors of the historic decor,  which itself set off the modernist stabile,  adding   weight to its striking form.  And as the years have passed I have come to realize,  factoring other and similar experiences into the equation,  that what happened then — what so often happens  in such cases — is that arresting combinations like that   can have the effect,  if they are skillfully done,  of waking up what I have come to call “the lazy eye”.  Under the  spell of the Calder, all the art in the room seemed almost to be dancing.  What an  awesome environment in which  to  study and learn about art!

And what a  similar effect Renzo Piano’s always elegant,  always minimalist, aesthetic will have when contrasted     with the Gardner Museum’s much more densely figured  one.  Henry James used to speak of the figure in the carpet.  Hard sometimes  to find in his literary efforts, I suspect Renzo Piano will pick out the figure in Gardner’s  more visual creation and,  in fact,  teach us something new about its  profiles.

Banned in Boston

Like the Athenaeum Calder,  like Isabella Gardner,  Renzo Piano has not found generally a very warm welcome in Boston.  He cannot have been pleased when his Trans National skyscraper in the Financial District fell afoul of the developer’s need for more space,  leading to disagreements over creative control and, when Piano finally withdrew,  leaving  a project dubbed the “Renzo Piano-ish  Tower”.  Nor was there much rejoicing anywhere when it turned out building his design involved destroying the landmark Blue Cross Building nearby,  the work of an earlier master,  Paul Rudolph — not his best, to be sure;  but interesting nonetheless — work clearly worth some serious study as to whether or not it warrants preservation.

But in Boston,  home of so many American utopia’s,  preservationists do not study — they declaim!  Good and evil in this aspect is only the topmost layer of the problem;  most vexing is the way the perfect,  as one or the other side sees it,  is insisted upon by idealogues  to the point where it is indeed the enemy of the good,  at least as most would judge it.  Preservationists in my experience are nearly always zealots.  And when at the Gardner too Piano’s design required the removal of an old building,  though in this case the loss was not worth much study  — the carriage house in question is hardly known to be there by most visitors —  that made no difference to yet another band of preservationists,  who,  when they discovered  I  did not share their interpretation of my work,  turned their guns on me,  only too aware of  my supposed weakness because of my problematic relationship these days with the Gardner.  To explain this old news I defer to,  which reports it still under a delicious title no author could resist:  “Banned in Boston” –“Just a week after Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam wrote about ‘an exquisite little tiff’ involving historian/writer Douglass Shand-Tucci and the St.Botolph Club,  Shand-Tucci is at the center of yet another literary controversary. It seems that his 1997 book, The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner, has been banned from the in-house store at the Gardner Museum”.

Today  the one repercussion of all this worth dwelling on is that the Gardner Museum to avoid selling my biography insists on selling a gushy,  50-year old work hobbled by  the sexist,  anti-Semitic and homophobic values of the 1950’s,  depicting Gardner herself as,  yes,  always “arty”,  but also as alternately insufferable or hysterical,  knowing nothing,  for instance,  of what  my research uncovered in the 199os about Gardner building through the Cowley Fathers the first church in Boston for black Episcopalians.  Nor does that old biography know anything of the reasons,  his own reasons,  Bernard Berenson  (we now know)  had for being virtually the co-founder of Gardner’s collection,  he being,  afterall,  a Jew, though never called that,  such being no fit partner  (as opposed to dealer)  for a Brahmin lady by the standards of the ’50s.  Nor does that biography know anything of Sargent’s likely homosexuality,  because Trevor Fairbrother’s seminal work on the  painter  had yet to be written. All this,  however,   greatly impacts  our impression of Isabella Gardner.  Similarly,  her close relationship with the Asian curator of the Art Museum,  the most important trace of which at the Gardner,  her Buddha  Temple Room,  as splendid as her Anglican chapel, was long ago dismantled through a loophole in her will.  How open minded and liberal she was in her judgements of people is very significant.

Indeed,  just now,  this fact is wonderfully underlined by a charming exhibition  at the Gardner re-creating   the Temple Room,  yet further evidence that the present regime  there,   other than in the matter of the bookstore,  has been exemplary.  The present director,  Anne Hawley,  has not only contrived to introduce climate control without disrupting the  museum’s delicate fabric,  but her artist in residence program brilliantly captures the vitality of Fenway Court in Gardner’s own lifetime.  No surprise,  I gave an interview to Geoff Edgers of the Boston Globe in 2004 warmly supporting the proposed Piano addition.

What the preservationists had forgotten was that I’d been through all this before in Cambridge,  when yet another group of same  a few years ago killed off a much needed and very beautiful design for a Harvard Museum of Contemporary Art by Piano,  a searing experience for me,  and for which I can only hope Piano’s new unified Harvard Art Museum, on which he is now at work, will be some consolation.

None of this,  of course,  is quite so sexy as endless thrillers about the Gardner robbery.  But without the new Piano addition it is unlikely the Gardner Museum can survive the stress of this era’s much greater numbers,  drawn still I am glad to say,  to  Isabella Stewart Gardner’s  museum,  now , one hopes,   to gain yet another courtier from the hand of Renzo Piano.  Extraordinary vision of an extraordinary lady,   that vision must survive us all,  for what great good  our hearts know very well  no evil can destroy.


Dreyfus, Rebecca, STOLEN (Persistence of Vision Films), 2005

Goodnough, Abby, “AWounded Museum Feels a Jolt of Progress”. The New York Times (March 15, 2009)

Hawthorne, Christopher, “Renzo Piano” , Slate  (posted Dec.15, 2004)

Shand-Tucci, Douglass, THE ART OF SCANDAL (Harper Collins, 1997)

Shand-Tucci, Douglass BOSTON BOHEMIA (University of Massachusetts Press, 1994)

Tobias, Jones, THE DARK HEART OF ITALY, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)

Turan, Kenneth, “Stolen” , Los Angeles Times (Nov.3, 2006)


The Calder “Multicolore”, stabile,1962, painted metal, 37.5 x 24 x 4.5 cm. is illustrated at– as exhibited at the Milano International Arts Show.

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