A joyous, light-filled new addition to Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano opened last year. It's four stories and clad in copper, with the bottom level enclosed in glass.
The 70,000-square-foot, $118 million building sits next to Gardner's 1903 replica of a Venetian palace and in many ways complements her original vision of a museum as an elegant home. Both buildings convey a sense of intimacy and prove that the modern and the faux historic can harmonize.
The two are connected by a glass-enclosed walkway and are on the Fenway, the park system designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, just a few blocks from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The addition is just one more reason to visit one of the most visionary American museums.
Piano has designed other museum additions in the United States, including the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago and the expansion of the High Museum in Atlanta. He originally came to international notice as one of the architects of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
The lines of the Gardner addition are elegant, with a broad open stairway in the center. The added space boasts fine facilities, including the 300-seat Calderwood Hall performance space, a library where museum visitors can comfortably peruse art books, an education room, greenhouse space and a gift shop.
A new gallery was designed with a mechanical ceiling, which can be lowered depending on the size of the works displayed. On view until Sept. 2 is "Composite Landscapes: Photo Montage and Landscape Architecture."
The ground-floor Cafe G fills up fast, so make a reservation when you arrive at the museum. Its menu changes every month and includes recipes taken from Gardner's own cookbooks as well as salads, entrees like polenta Milanese or roasted Idaho trout, and a daily selection of grilled flatbread. Enjoy a view of both buildings in the glass-lined room.
Isabella Stewart Gardner created her museum as a place for the people, a Venetian palace but with the exquisite walls on the inside, facing a landscaped, flower-filled courtyard with a glass canopy. Cloisters, walkways and windows overlook the luscious gardens that were orchid-filled when I visited. The art is arrayed in rooms decorated with period furniture and accents.
The Gardner Museum has a complex history, including, unfortunately, the largest art heist ever. During the night of March 18, 1990, two thieves entered the museum dressed as Boston police officers, claiming they were there to investigate a disturbance. The stolen artwork included three Rembrandts (one a self-portrait) and Vermeer's The Concert. The haul of 13 works has been valued at $500 million, though now that art prices are astronomical — Cezanne's The Card Players sold for more than $250 million in 2012 — one suspects the estimate on the Gardner works is low for what is called the largest theft of private property in U.S. history.
The FBI announced in March that they had leads. Last year, according to the Boston Globe, they tried, without luck, to find the paintings by excavating a Connecticut mobster's yard, using "ground-penetrating radar, two beagles, and a ferret." The museum still offers a $5 million reward for recovery of the treasures. Empty frames have been left, awaiting their return.
The more enriching tale is of Gardner herself. At 16, she toured Europe with her parents and was particularly impressed by the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan, a palace complete with artwork left as a foundation to benefit the public. A friend recalled the teenage Isabella saying that if she inherited money she would have a house like Pizzoli's for the public to enjoy.
In 1860, just shy of 20, Isabella married Jack Gardner, a merchant and owner of sailing vessels. Their first child, John III, died before turning 2, and Isabella had a subsequent miscarriage. Her deep depression led her doctor to recommend travel, and the Gardners began world tours, often returning to Venice and London. Isabella recovered her spirits and moved in a circle of prominent writers and artists, including Henry James and John Singer Sargent, who in 1888 painted a famous portrait of her that displays some decolletage. After its first exhibition at the St. Botolph Club in Boston, her husband decreed that it not be exhibited again in his lifetime.
When Isabella's father, who owned mines and imported Irish linen, left her $1.75 million in 1891, she and her husband agreed that she would use it to collect significant art. Soon she purchased Vermeer's The Concert.
The story of the Gardner Museum reflects what rich Americans with liquid capital could acquire in the late 19th century and the rise of the art dealer-expert class. For Gardner that expert was Bernard Berenson, whom the Gardners had helped send to Europe to study literature. They reconnected when he published The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance, and Isabella and Berenson would build each other's reputations.
He advised her to purchase Botticelli's Tragedy of Lucretia, Titian's Europa (which many consider the finest example of Venetian Renaissance painting in the United States) and works by Rembrandt, Giotto, Cellini and Degas.
As their collection outgrew their home, Gardner made plans for a museum. The palace was designed by architect Willard Sears. It included an apartment for the Gardners on the top floor, though Jack died before construction began and Isabella would live there alone. The museum opened on the evening of Jan. 1, 1903, to a group of 300 of the Gardners' friends. The courtyard was lit by Japanese lanterns and players from the Boston Symphony performed. A month later the museum began to welcome up to 200 members of the public per day, the $1 tickets available at a downtown agency.
Gardner died in 1924, leaving $1 million in support for her museum with a provision that the collection not be altered in any major way. Her Sargent portrait became available for public viewing.
Though the thieves did grab real treasures, the Gardner Museum is still replete with some of the finest art in any museum in America, especially Italian Renaissance paintings, frescoes and altar pieces by artists such as Simone Martini, Fra Angelico, Gentile Bellini and Raphael. Though Gardner was not interested in the abstract or cubist art of the early 20th century, she did collect modern works by artists such as Anders Zorn (who also did a stunning portrait of her), Whistler and especially Sargent. The collection also includes works from ancient Rome, Asian and Islamic art, tapestries, furniture and sculpture.
Some of the rooms can be a bit dark, depending on the time of day, but generally Gardner's arrangement is appealing. Fair warning: The art is not labeled, and you need to use descriptive cards to identify works and artists, typically one for each wall. Unfortunately, some visitors hog more than one card.
One blessing of Isabella's palace is that photography is not permitted. No one poses by art or makes you feel that their camera or iPhone gives them entitlement to a better vantage point.
Both the new wing and the original palace are guided by real vision. Visitor feels welcomed and the museum blesses them with its treasures. In fact, Isabella Gardner's inscription "C'est mon Plaisir" ("It is my pleasure") over the central entrance portal to the courtyard is her promise fulfilled.