Yesterday my sacking of Boston continued unabated.
It was raining in the morning, so we piled into Gail’s car and drove to Jamaica Plain, an old haunt of hers. We fooled around there for a while, bought finery in a thrift shop, watched the sun come out, had a gloriously gorgeous lunch at the Centre Street Cafe, drove by Fenway Park, and headed to the Isabella Gardner museum.
I had mixed feelings about the place. It was beautiful; that was easy. Spectacular.
There was an entire Roman floor, lifted out of a villa, pieces of ancient friezes pried out of God knows whose tomb, castle or church, and statuary from sites all over. There were suits of armor and altars and furniture and murals and columns and boxes and textiles and ceramics and drawings and photographs and paintings and mosaics and urns and everything precious you could imagine. The whole place felt like exactly what it was; a collection of plunder, hoarded by the wealthy.
Even in death, Isabella Gardner hoards; her will specifies that nothing can be changed, or given. And no photographs are allowed. I include pictures in this post; they are from the Museum’s own pages. Nothing can be moved; not even her odd placements can be adjusted. In some rooms the paintings are crowded, or hung at inexplicable distances from the ceiling or each other; this is how they must remain.
At the time that Gardner was collecting (the late 1800s and early 1900s) transport was global, tracking of artifacts was rudimentary, and everyone was digging. If you could afford a Roman floor, it could easily be pried out of a Roman excavation and delivered to your Boston address. The willing collaboration of these patron/pirates encouraged looting; there were buyers for anything beautiful that could be wrenched out of its place.
The paintings she collected felt more (for lack of a better word) legitimately acquired.
This is a gorgeous piece by Anders Zorn, one of the painters that Isabella spent time with. I think it was my favorite painting in the place. But I loved the piece “A Young Lady of Fashion“, attributed to Paolo Uccello, as well.
I don’t claim to have my feelings on museums sorted out any better than my feelings on zoos; I am not certain that the guiding principle to which the rest of humanity seems to subscribe (the idea that we may/must preserve things in captivity so that they don’t disappear forever) is one that I am willing to adopt. I do very much like things like nature preserves and publicly owned museums, but I am dodgy on the concept of panthers kept in mansions and private collections of plunder. I’m uncomfortable with the arbitrary definitions of piracy in our society; if the money from slave labour buys an artifact stolen from a dig, and then an art thief steals it from the granddaughter of the trader… I’m not sure I agree with where the lines are drawn in time, and who gets to call the police.
Ah well. The things we saw were beautiful; if I don’t think about them further than that, I am happy.
I think that Isabella Gardner was happy as well. She bought wonderful paintings, and she relied not on experts but on her own taste. There is much to be said for that. Just look at this piece by Piero del Pollaiolo.
After saturating ourselves in the beauty of the Gardner, we headed to Harvard Square, then on to Porter Square, and then home to our amazing digs near Central Square. Bri stayed the night, Gail went home to get ready for her next gig, and Doriot arrives this morning, so that we can go explore the MIT museum, have lunch with Ryan, and do whatever comes next.