Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum is a century-old replica of a fifteenth century nobleman's Venetian palazzo. As unusual as this is in itself, it's what's inside the palace that makes it truly unique: a truly distinctive art museum, created from the private collection of one person.

The Museum, named after its creator, founder and collector. It's an odd museum, in which many of the exhibits are deliberately left unlabelled at Mrs. Gardner's wish "to encourage visitors to respond to the works themselves," and in which art objects are frequently not grouped by chronology or geographical origin. She's long gone, but her imprint firmly remains. She specified in her will that her collection and museum were to remain unchanged, and except for one major exception, so they've stayed.

Mrs. Gardner was a member of Boston's wealthy elite during the post- Civil War decades. The tragic death of her two year old child led to the first of a series of extended trips to Europe, during which Gardner became an avid collector of artworks. So avid, in fact, that she appears to have swept across the continental land mass like the second coming of the Mongol horde although she did her plundering with checkbook, not sword. The museum is both her monument and her trophy case.

Enter the museum and you'll be visually stunned immediately by its most impressive architectural feature: the museum is designed around a central courtyard filled with flowers and lit by natural light from high overhead. Each floor of the museum is arranged around and looking out onto this vivid central space. Concerts, which are periodically held in the Tapestry Room on the second floor, waft music throughout the building thanks to this arrangement, and when there's no music, the sound of the courtyard fountains lends itself well to the serene contemplation of the works assembled here.

Because of the eclectic nature of the collection, a visitor should be prepared to wander and wonder, to ponder exquisite works in unusual settings and mixed genres. The first floor contains works as varied as a Roman sarcophagus from the early third century AD adorned with Bacchanalian carvings of dancers and satyrs to a painting of his mother by the Impressionist Edouard Manet.

A marble staircase leads up to the second floor. The aforementioned Tapestry Room is here, lined with many of the museum's elaborate wall hangings.

Mention of Rembrandt brings to mind the one exception to Mrs. Gardner's wishes that her collection of artwork remain unchanged: In March 1990, two thieves made their way into the museum by posing as police officers and successfully made away with 13 pieces of art including three Rembrandts as well as works by Degas, Manet and Vermeer. None have ever been recovered, and this is considered to have been the largest art theft, in total value, to ever occur in this country. Still, many other great works, like Raphael's "La Pieta," were left behind for us to enjoy.

Besides paintings, statues and tapestries, Mrs. Gardner brought back massive and ornate pieces of furniture: old cabinets, tables and chairs, pieces of church interiors like carved wooden choir chair stalls and prayer benches and illuminated manuscripts. There's an entire chapel on the third floor with incredibly rich stained glass windows. And artifacts like a Veronese sedan chair, an enclosed cabin in which nobility would ride, carried by servants, dot the rooms. Antique hooded fireplaces add to the atmosphere, and these are real-you can hear the draft of the chimney echoing down the flue. There's even a tambour, a late medieval "inner porch," dismantled and brought here intact.

Other treasures are in every corner. The third floor contains Titian's "Abduction of Europa" almost back-to-back to Botticelli's "Madonna of the Eucharist." Lesser-known, but of utmost interest to visitors, should be one particular oil painting tucked into the far corner of the Gothic Room: John Singer Sargent's 1888 oil portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner at age 47, confronting the viewer while seemingly haloed by the pattern behind her. This unique woman single-handedly put together what is now more than a collection. It's a world-renowned institution, an intriguing place to glimpse beauty and antiquity that might never otherwise be seen.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, "Fenway Court," is located on the Fens just a short walk from Huntington Avenue, not far from the Museum of Fine Arts. Use the MFA's garage if you drive. Passes available from local libraries are a good way to shave the admission price. Please note that no photography is allowed within the museum, and you are requested not to take notes in ink-the guards will supply you with a pencil if necessary. For more information, phone the museum at 617-566-1401, or visit its website at www.gardnermuseum.org.

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