Boston’s Beautiful Woman in Venice

Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent

Okay, one more post about the Boston-Venice connection. While in Boston, I also visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, my favorite type of museum because it is set up to feel like a home full of art. Isabella, a Boston patron of the arts and a collector, traveled extensively, but guess which place in the world was her favorite? Yeah, you got it. She usually stayed in Palazzo Barbaro, also the home away from home of Henry James, who was a friend of hers.

Fenway Court, the inner courtyard of Isabella’s museum

A lovely window detail

So once back home, Isabella had a house built that was inspired by Palazzo Barbaro. Here’s the Barbaro so you can compare:

Palazzo Barbaro on Grand Canal (Wikimedia Commons)

Isabella was not your typical stuffy Victorian matron. She was playful and creative and enjoyed the company of many artists, including Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler. Isabella once said, “Don’t spoil a good story by telling the truth,” (a quote that I thought would suit Casanova quite well).  She was also an ardent sports fan. If you show up at the museum wearing Red Sox garb, you get in free! Museum entrance is also free if it’s your birthday or if your name is Isabella.

I would call her a Beautiful Woman in Venice (and Boston).

One of many Venice paintings hanging in Isabella’s house, followed by a close up of the gondola with its cloth felze:IMG_0666IMG_0670

Paintings are hung in the rooms of what used to be Isabella’s house and are now the museum itself. It reminds me a lot of the Museo Fortuny in Venice, where I always feel like I’m walking through Mariano Fortuny’s home. Isabella intentionally created this space to have that feel. The museum website says, “Isabella Stewart Gardner disliked the cold, mausoleum-like spaces of most American museums of the period. As a result, she designed Fenway Court around a central courtyard filled with flowers. Light enters the galleries from the courtyard and from exterior windows, creating an atmospheric setting for works of art. Love of art, not knowledge about the history of art, was her aim. Her friends noted that the entire Museum was a work of art in itself. Individual objects became part of a rich, complex and intensely personal setting.”

In this room, notice the two empty frames. They are two left as they were after a major heist of 13 art pieces, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet. In 1990, thieves disguised as police came in, tied up the night guards, and cut the paintings from their frames. The stolen works have never been found, and the reward was recently increased to $10 million. You can read more about it here:

In 1902, Isabella’s friend T. R. Sullivan said about her home: “Has the music room dissolved, this morning, in the sunshine? I felt last night as though I were in a Hans Anderson Fairy Tale, ready to go on a flying carpet at any moment.”


Laces, some from Burano

A couple paintings by Francesco Guardi, a Venetian painter and teacher to Giacomo Casanova’s brother, Francesco. Guardi’s house is in Venice’s Castello district. IMG_0688IMG_0689

Typical Venetian mirrors:


Here are a few more details about Isabella’s life and her museum, on display plaques.IMG_0698IMG_0699IMG_0700

If you’re in Boston and need a Venice fix, this is your chance! More info about Isabella’s life and her museum can be found here, at the museum website:

Addendum: By a strange coincidence, about an hour after I posted this blog entry, my Boston friend who told me about the museum then sent me this article about the art heist, which was in yesterday’s news. One investigator thinks the stolen art is in Ireland. Read more here: Gardner museum theft


About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
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