To my surprise, the staid university city of Boston offers a variety of cultural delights and turns out to be as vibrant and colorful as any metropolis anywhere.
First of all, there is the Museum of Fine Arts, or MFA, as it is popularly known. It is enormous, and contains a vast range of paintings, sculptures, and archaeological artifacts from every period and from all over the world. Several pictures by Rembrandt brush shoulders with a huge collection of Hanoverian silver, colorfully painted Egyptian mummies lie alongside glass cabinets chic-bloc full of graceful Grecian urns, and art of all kinds is bursting from the seams of this encyclopedic museum.
The museum also boasts a fine dining area beneath a huge, open space and overlooked by a tree-like Chihuli glass sculpture that almost reaches the ceiling (it’s held in place by metal struts at the top), giving the area a unique ambience. There is so much to see in this museum that we had to go back for a second day of touring its impressive galleries.
We also spent a day (not enough, of course) at a museum named for its founder, donor, curator and begetter, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. This lady, who was born into money and also married into it, spent her entire life traveling around Europe and other countries, and collecting beautiful and precious things. Then she had a special museum built to house them all. The building reproduces the architecture of a Venetian palazzo, with an amazing entry courtyard based on the kind of courtyard and surrounding gallery that was found in medieval monasteries. The riot of flowers, trees and plants that meet the eye as one enters is quite breathtaking, and the glass roof above it allows for all kinds of exotic flowers to flourish there, including some amazing orchids.
After walking around the courtyard one begins the tour of the various galleries, or rooms. Each one contains what seems at first sight to be a hotch-potch of items — paintings, objects d’art, period furniture — all jumbled together and, disappointingly, no labels! In each room printed guides are provided, explaining what the various items are. This requires a bit of getting used to, but as one proceeds from one room to another one gets the idea and also begins to grasp the underlying logic and the connections between the individual objects.
In essence, the museum reflects the character of a very wealthy woman, one who had a good aesthetic sense, a bevy of artistic advisors, and who was an obsessive collector. Tapestries, fabrics, letters, sketches, and cabinets containing pieces of hand-made lace crowd the walls of the rooms, alongside old masters, medieval religious paintings, Renaissance furniture and all manner of curios. An early self-portrait by Rembrandt gazes out at us with innocent eyes in one room, and in another we come across a full-length portrait of Isabella Gardnerr herself in a black velvet evening gown painted by John Singer Sargent, one of her many artist friends. Coming out of the museum into the light of day, the visitor feels dazed by the wild profusion of works of art in their lavish settings.
Perhaps that was the effect Isabella Stewart Gardiner wanted to achieve, as she left strict instructions in her will that nothing of the disposition of the objects on the three floors of the museum was to be changed, but should be left just as she had determined almost a hundred years ago.