My old college chum Rebecca Cathcart-Monet sworn an oath in the Temple of Apollo in Rochester New Hampshire that in 2010 she'd take me to see the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
"Forty seven is none too late to sample the ineffable Italian sunshine on the Fenway" she chided by email.
And so on Saturday she took off in her orange reconditioned SPAD VII biplane and executed a perfect three point landing on Atlantic Avenue across from South Station. Swiftly we chained the vintage aircraft to a local bicycle rack certain that it would be taken for a mountain bike if push came to shove, we piled into my Buick Sailmaster and rode the harbor trades all the way to Huntington Avenue.
Rebecca duly announced on the way that we needed to "limber up" with Japanese No Robes, Chinese tea cups and sundry Asian tapestries and that meant a storming assault on the Museum of Fine Arts before the Gardner opened.
I demurred not one whit and only added a fond desire to meditate briefly over the Roman antiquities, I am after all, a parochial school survivor and therefore an inconstant slave of the classics.
Y' know I love the MFA, their film series is the last refuge for the footloose cineaste', the collections are huge and impressive...But some of the presentation decisions are plainly inexplicable.
By that I mean the Albrecht Durer exhibition was carefully executed to place the prints at eye level and with good lighting so that the artists eye for detail was readily apparent even to the unschooled observer The smirk on the punim of the Angel of Death fairly leaps out at the viewer.
On the other hand a whole gallery entitled "European Art" (like something out of a Tim Burton movie) is naught but a collection of Renaissance masters stacked up three high on the stone walls like the overdone Foyer of Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering's "Karinhall" palace.
One can just about appreciate the fleshy buttocks of Rubens' Aphrodite and that is about it, the rest of it goes up and up and fairly disappears into the cloud cover.
Ah but the Roman antiquities section still beguiles, the stylized busts of the Emperor Augustus bespeaks two thousand years of robust political toadyism in the West.
A firm little hand on my elbow and I am dragged across the street to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a venue I didn't know from Adam.
Italian sunshine indeed, Rebecca, did not lie, for at the center of the ISG is her own personal renaissance refuge a courtyard warmed to perpetual spring by cunning sky lights and sublimely decorated with statuary and verdant plants by the late Mrs. Gardner.
This is literally the first time in my life I saw a person just commune
with a particular space the way Rebecca did. She just raised her sweet face up to the warming sunshine that fell on us like very gaze of God Almighty and smiled
like the Mona Lisa.
She sighed, like she had come home at last.
The scale of it all impressed me greatly, nothing out of place, proportions nigh perfect.
There is a line between the excessive and the exquisite, the line is drawn by sheer taste.
Taste can be cultivated, it can evolve, grown and touch all sorts of remote parts of our lives, when you have it, something as beautiful as the Courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the result, when you don't have it, you end up with say, San Simeon that living monument to gigantism built by William Randolph Heart in California.
"Mrs. Gardner built this for Rebecca" I thought "And all the Rebeccas yet to come".
The collection is varied and fairly crammed into the old Gardner Family mansion, almost none of it is tagged or explained in any way. I felt myself fortunate to identify a Canaletto on the basis of the style alone. There is something so quintessentially Brahmin
about building a museum that assumes the patron can already draw on a excellent knowledge of art from the git-go.
Failing that just go with Rebecca, she knows her this stuff like a coyote knows cheap nosh.
Nonetheless for all its eccentricities, the ISG is a place to cherish, it is possibly the only museum on the Eastern Seaboard whose idea of sheer kitsch is one of regimental Standards of Napoleon I's dreaded Imperial Guard.
However when the Madonnas with Child grew to a dozen between two museums, the pangs of hunger finally intervened and thus we tacked over the bridge for burgers in the shadow of MIT.
We came, we saw we imbibed.
Soon enough, she cried "contact" and took off with her matching orange scarf snapping crisply in the wash, I waved as her SPAD VII dwindled into the blue skies and thought "How in Hell's name am I ever gonna top a day like this???"
Labels: Rebecca Cathcart-Monet - Isabella Stewart Gardner - Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering - William Randolph Hearst - Canaletto -