Jewish World Review August 12, 2005 / 7 Av, 5765

Paul Greenberg

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A fortress against time

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | BOSTON — It is the jewel of Boston's many fine museums, my favorite of them all, so you can imagine my reaction when I heard they were planning an addition to the unique Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum:

First fear, then resignation. There is apparently nothing the Great Improvers of our time cannot disimprove.

Of course the one-of-kind Gardner Museum would be on their hit list. It's modeled after a 15th-century Venetian palace, with parts taken from original structures in Italy. It mustn't be allowed to stand unmolested.

Mrs. Gardner's purpose was not just to house an invaluable collection of art but to preserve a world exactly as she knew it — and wanted it known.

Here at the Gardner, you can almost see your hostess floating through every room, arms extended as in one of her portraits, inviting all to admire the ever-changing garden in the central courtyard that draws the eye from all four floors.

But in these oh-so-advanced times, the Gardner's strange integrity just begs to be deconstructed. Is it going to be updated, that is, turned into another glossy museum of contemporary art?

Absolutely not, I'm assured by one staffer after another. The new addition is to be designed by Italy's Renzo Piano, winner of the 1998 Pritzker Prize for architecture. And who better to add on to a Venetian palace than an Italian virtuoso?

But the handout announcing the architect's selection included a sentence that set off alarm bells: "He will respond to the (old) building and perhaps in part react against it with a deep contemporary sensibility."

React against it? Uh oh. And what's this about a contemporary sensibility that's deep? That I've got to see.

Happily, Anne Hawkins, the museum's director, is also quoted as saying: "The historic collection as it was personally installed by Mrs. Gardner will remain unaltered."

Whew. Just as Mrs. Gardner's will decreed. It contained an explicit warning of what would happen if her wishes weren't followed to the letter:

"If at any time the Trustees . . . shall place for exhibition in the Museum . . . any pictures or works of art other than such as I or (the Museum) own . . . , or if they shall at any time change the general disposition or arrangement of any articles . . . then I give the said land, Museum, pictures (etc.) . . . , to the President and Fellows of Harvard College, in trust to sell."

And not to sell in Boston, either, or anywhere on this side of the Atlantic, but in "Paris, France." Isabella Stewart Gardner was not a lady to cross — in life or death. Was she trying to freeze art forever here in the middle of Boston? Or trying to encourage it? Or both? In any case, the result remains magnificent yet intimate.

This planned addition to the Gardner, which will pretty much fill out the city block occupied by the Venetian palace, is to be reserved for auxiliary purposes only — like offices, visiting exhibitions, classrooms and amenities for visitors. Plus the seven greenhouses that supply the ever-changing garden in the central courtyard with different flowers for different seasons. And, oh yes, a recital hall. (The Gardner has the oldest museum music program in the country.)

The first time I visited the Gardner ages ago that now seem like just yesterday, it was a cool and drizzly winter's day — Mozart's birthday. And there was an all-Mozart program of chamber music in the great hall. Everything shone, the way flowers will against a dark background. No wonder people fall in love with this place.

This time I'm taken to Mrs. Gardner's private apartment on the fourth floor, now converted to offices but bearing her personal stamp in almost every room. It's like being taken behind the scenes of an operatic production. My favorite nook is the small room she called her "speak-a-bit," where the great lady might visit briefly with guests.

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A large yet delicate lotus-leaf chandelier shelters another space where a dining table could have gone. Japanese wood screens, with their geometric patterns, each different yet similar, grace the windows looking down into the ever-central courtyard. (What a perfect subject these screens would make in black-and-white for the museum's next book of photographic art.)

There are fireplaces throughout, including one of Spanish tiles from Seville. Both the fireplaces and the waffle ceiling with the Japanese paper were brought here whole from her house on Beacon Street when she moved into the palace in 1904. And all evidence of her ever having lived on Beacon Street was obliterated, including the house itself and even its street number, which she insisted be changed. It's as if her own history were just another room of her mansion she could seal off if she liked.

Just as in Mrs. Gardner's time, when John Singer Sargent was an almost permanent guest, there is usually an artist on the premises. The current one is the 50th in the museum's artist-in-residence program. He's Danijel Zezelj, originally from Croatia and now from . . . the world of the displaced. That much is clear from the work he produced while here — a striking graphic novel (we used to call them comic books) called "Stray Dogs," which is largely set in the shadowy old museum. It's striking and absorbing — a kind of art in the ruins.

Flipping through its pages, I realize that it is indeed possible to respond to this 15th century palace and at the same time react against it. If Renzo Piano does as well at that double game when designing the addition, lovers of the Gardner will like the outcome. And so, we better hope, would Mrs. Gardner.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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