Last Friday, I took the day off from work and squired an out-of-town friend across town so that I could show her one of my absolutely favorite places in the whole world.
It is a place that requires suitable preparations, like a temple for which you must ritually cleanse, and so we approached it with all of the solemnity the occasion demanded.
We ate grilled cheese sandwiches, drank strong coffee, and shouted for an hour over the din of a noisy cafe until our throats were sore.
Then we washed our hands, checked our coats, and stalked silently up a long, glass corridor into the preserved, inexplicable, crazyass house of a bona fide 19th century whacko.
I speak, of course, of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The Gardner is just one of those places that I’ve always known my way around, always loved. She’s like that mean old neighbor in the house on the hill. You whisper stories as you walk by in the day, run past her darkened windows at night, and call her ma’am when you see her in the store with your parents. It’s a living, breathing house of hauntings. Everything in that place sighs with the melancholy of an old society dame whose friends have all already passed away, who can’t stop telling stories of the old days, the old crowd, the things they once knew and got up to, when they were young and in charge.
It’s awesome, in other words. Just… awesome.
I’ve never understood why people say that the Gardner Museum is just a stale remnant from a bygone age, like it’s some sort of faded antimacassar on the back of a horsehair chair. To me, it is a never ending source of delight, a jumbled old mess of a place that offers, if nothing else, a steady stream of fresh insults to the established way of doing things.
She’s like the Don Rickles of art museums. Only much less concerned about what you think.
Seriously, what’s not to love about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?
Let’s start with Isabella herself. Fearless leader of society, insanely wealthy widow, shameless plunderer of Europe’s artistic treasures. I mean, that’s what insanely wealthy Americans did in the 19th century. They spent absurd amounts of time in Italy, competed with each other over first editions and Titians, and then brought them all back home to flaunt them.
Isabella, of course, took it all a step further. Perhaps that’s what I so enjoy about her. I do have a weakness for taking a thing too far. Had you noticed?
She built this crazy house out on the edge of a swampy backwater of Boston, way out near where the Red Sox were busily making a name for themselves in their new ballpark down the road. She wanted it to look like one of the Italian villas she loved so much when she was abroad. And it might have done so, too, if she’d been able to keep her sticky little fingers out of the builders’ business when they were constructing it.
Instead, she was every contractor’s worst nightmare. An amateur with deep pockets, who needed to micromanage every least detail. She once stayed up all night pulling out the ceramic floor tiles her Italian laborers had spent the whole day painstakingly setting in place. Yanked them all out, because she didn’t think they had quite captured the look she was going for. Got up on a ladder herself and mixed paints until the interior walls were just the right shade of salmon pink, just like she remembered from her own rented villa in Venice.
And of course her artistic vision for the rest of the place — clobbering together little vignettes of her bits and pieces of artwork and architecture, assemblages that still cause art historians to yank out entire tufts of hair just looking at their woeful mismatchings and unapologetic odd bedfellows — was famously quirky, to say the least.
But woe betide anyone who tried to impose their will on her domain while she was still alive. And of course she gets her way in death, too, as the terms of her will state that not a single hair can be moved within the confines of her crazy old treasure chest of a house. Everything has to remain exactly in the place where she left it, or the trustees have to sell off the contents and donate the proceeds to Harvard. (Whether or not the strikingly modern new addition violates or honors her will is a matter for some debate, but I’ll leave that alone for now. Enough ink has already been spilled, and all that.)
Basically, Isabella didn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone else thought. She knew how she wanted things to be, and that’s how she did them. She was in charge, right or wrong.
So no, there are no labels in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. No placards to tell you artist and title, what materials were used, or any of that stuffy old art historian nonsense. The lighting is atrocious. The curation is questionable. Acknowledged and breathtaking masterpieces of Western art hang shamelessly next to pasty watercolors by charismatic young artists whom she probably just had a sort of older lady crush on, and who sponged off her shamelessly in her later years.
But she was also good friends with some of the legitimately most incredible artists of her day. And she gave unforgettable, intimate concerts in her house out there on the fens, taking great pains to give her favorite struggling musicians a place to play — and the undeniable power of her patronage.
She adored anything associated with the name Isabella. She wore white as a widow. She was a huge baseball fan.
I just love her. Although I seriously doubt that she would have had the time of day for me. And the modern incarnation of her hospitality is just as spiky and uncomfortable as she was — the museum guards bark at you if you so much as think about taking a picture or texting a friend, the sunlight blinds you in some corners and is utterly absent in others, and you need a seeing eye dog to help you get through some of the twisty, dark corridors that connect the improbable series of galleries.
Spiky and hostile, generous and unpredictable, passionate and powerful. Crazy old Isabella.
Love her. So much.